Friday, September 9, 2011

Phil Ochs: An American Tragedy

Two or three hundred years from now, when historians look back on the events that set in motion America’s fall from preeminence, they are certain to take a very close look at the 1960s. You can almost split that decade right down the middle - hope and promise on one side, cynicism and disillusionment on the other.

Phil Ochs is probably the most influential folk singer/political activist most of you never heard of. His life was an expression of that pivotal decade, lovingly yet unsentimentally captured on film in the form of a 2010 documentary film by Ken Bowser, “Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune,” which has just been released as a DVD.

In 1962, Phil Ochs, fresh out of Ohio, arrived on the Greenwich Village folk music scene when it was in full flower. Kennedy had been in office for a year, and his New Frontier held out the promise of the full unlocking of human potential. Whatever wrongs there were in the world could be righted. It was a new day.

The optimism of the era was a good fit for the ethos of “American exceptionalism,” the idea that the country’s children and children’s children were special people leading the world toward a new destiny. Archetypal cinema heroes such as John Wayne and Gary Cooper apotheoized that myth, and even rebel antiheroes such as James Dean and Elvis could neatly be folded into it.

So here was Phil Ochs, young man with a guitar, brought up on the American Dream, out to change the world. Very quickly, he found his voice as a singing journalist, performing his own wry musical commentaries on the events of the day, part of a scene that included Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul, and Mary, and Bob Dylan. His first album, in 1964 for Elektra Records, was entitled, “All the News That’s Fit to Sing.”

But whereas Dylan was producing campfire music such as “Blowin’ in the Wind,” Ochs’ songs were evocative of the labor movement, the type of stuff you listened to as the police and company goons gratuitously battered your head to pulp. This from “The Ballad of Medgar Evers”:

In the state of Mississippi many years ago
A boy of 14 years got a taste of southern law
He saw his friend a hanging and his color was his crime
And the blood upon his jacket left a brand upon his mind

Dylan and Ochs initially had a friendly rivalry going. Indeed, Ochs aspired to be a Dylan, but the only way to do that would have been to pen his own “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Instead:

The killer waited by his home hidden by the night
As Evers stepped out from his car into the rifle sight
he slowly squeezed the trigger, the bullet left his side
It struck the heart of every man when Evers fell and died.

Although mass market success eluded Ochs, he was at the epicenter of a movement that deeply resonates four decades later. But that age was coming to a close. First came the assassination of Kennedy. Then Kennedy’s successor, LBJ, stepped up US military involvement in Vietnam. Suddenly, everyone was writing protest songs.

Phil and his guitar were everywhere, at music gigs, at folk festivals, at political protests. Again, change was possible, but this time it was more like pushing a rock uphill. No one seemed to be paying attention. The Vietnam War escalated. Pent-up racial frustrations erupted on the streets. King was assassinated. RFK was assassinated. Too many martyrs. Political opinion polarized and hardened. Hatred ruled. The protest movement fragmented and headed off on its course of self-destruction.

Ochs was one of the organizers of the protests of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago. Mayor Richard Daley, with obvious collaboration from the federal government, refused to issue permits for the protests. Instead, he met the protesters with brutal force, what a government commission later declared to be a “police riot.”

The convention nominated Hubert Humphrey, now seen to be LBJ’s lackey. This opened the way for the election of Richard Nixon, who cynically exploited right-wing resentment over civil rights and hippies.

The die was cast: The government in effect had issued an edict that it would listen to neither reason nor to its own people. The monied interests had always run things, but now no one was even pretending to believe otherwise.

As “There but for Fortune” makes loud and clear, Phil took all this far more personally than everyone else. The cover to Och’s 1969 album, “Rehearsals for Retirement,” says it all. We see his own tombstone, announcing his death in Chicago, 1968.

Earlier, Ochs had relocated to LA, where he signed with A&M records. The old folk scene was dead and Phil wanted to try something new. His songs grew more personal and introspective, but the over-orchestrated arrangements did him a horrible disservice. Indeed, all these years later, these recordings are excruciatingly painful to listen to.

The critics predictably panned these albums, but Phil entertained the delusion - almost to the end - that each new recording would bring him stardom. By now, his drinking was out of control and his moods were swinging wildly (his father had been hospitalized for manic-depression).

Phil was still involved with the anti-war movement, but it was as if he were walking in his sleep, with occasional bursts of coming alive. In 1971, he visited Chile, which had recently elected a Marxist government headed up by Salvatore Allende. There, he made friends with folk singer Victor Jara. Two years later, Allende was overthrown and killed in a right-wing military coup. Jara was publicly tortured and brutally murdered.

By now, Phil was a broken man, in spirit and in mind. A mugging in Tanzania left him with damaged vocal chords. He took on the identity of John Butler Train, declaring that he - John Butler Train - had murdered Phil Ochs. The last we see of Ochs on film is him on the streets, disheveled, in a psychotic trance, eye movements and body movements disconnected, rambling incoherently.

Phil Ochs did make one last return, but this time as a deeply depressed shell of a man who could not venture off the couch at his sister’s place in Long Island. He only had the energy to hang himself. He was 36.

So, back to the future. America is a second-rate power. How did it happen? What precipitated the decline and the subsequent Age of Darkness? Who knows? But cast your mind back to the sixties. Focus on one man, an historical footnote but very much someone who embodied that turbulent era. Look closely. What was his state of mind at the beginning of that decade? What was his state of mind at the end?

One bright shining moment extinguished. An American tragedy.


Ken Bowser's documentary film on the life and times of Phil Ochs is now available on DVD and can be purchased for instant download on iTunes music store. Very highly recommended.


Lizabeth said...

My family moved to the US from Canada in 1966. I was about 10 years old at the time. That first summer we got phone calls from family in Canada worried about the riots in Detroit. We were in Minneapolis but evidently the news media had the whole country falling apart. It didn't, but electing Nixon instead of Humphrey showed it was a bit insane--and not of the creative variety.

As I grew up partly in a 'second rate' power country, I can tell you its not that bad a thing to be. Your country can work on its own stuff and not try to police the whole world. Canada now has nationwide gay marriage, national healthcare(yes its not perfect, especially with that large brain sink just to the south)welfare that mostly actually provides support for those who need it (I have a cousin with BP1 that can't work)is actively working to help immigrants(from the current and former British Commonwealth) and pays attention to its native population---again,not perfect but trying. It has made a lot of progress from the oligarcal, union busting mess we had to leave so my Dad could have a job.
Maybe If we are a second rate power we can bring our troops home, stop spending trillions on a war that noone is quite sure how we are financing and get our own head on straight. Lets be what we set out to be, we were a second rate power then too. It is a disgrace that FEMA does not have money enough to help with all the weather disaster results but big buisness still wants tax cuts. Maybe we need a 'time out' to think. Surely we can protect ourselves without always getting into others insane religious wars.Or(please God no) is it the oil we are really after.

John McManamy said...

Hey, Lizabeth. There is considerable merit in your argument. I also lived in three so-called second-rate countries: Canada (for a year), New Zealand (for 11 years), and Australia (for 5 years). In all three cases, these nations managed their affairs far more sensibly, with a far better sense of perspective, and were far more in touch with its citizens. And this probably has a lot to do with the point you brought up about feeling that we have to police (very badly) the whole rest of the world.

Let China worry about the Mideast or whether Pakistan is going to drop a nuclear bomb on India. You're right, maybe we'll start getting our priorities right once we're officially a second-rate power.

It is definitely going to happen. We are well into it, already. I experienced a realization when I made a family visit to New Zealand about 3 years ago - namely that the whole rest of the world was passing the US by.

Last point - some idiot always tries to defend the US by saying where would the rest of the world be if we didn't bail them out in WW II. NZ, Australia, and Canada had troops fighting and dying for more than a year in distant lands while the US tried as hard as it could to sit out the conflict.

I'm with you all the way, Lizabeth. Something good, after all, may come out of being a second-rate nation.