Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Most people my age have never heard of Phil Ochs, a singer-songwriter of the 1960s who, for a brief time at least, was as prominent in the folk music world as Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Ochs's early work was mostly very topical (his first album was titled All the News That's Fit to Sing), and his later, less-topical songs never really caught on beyond Ochs's already-established audience, many of whom wanted him to return to recording songs with only an acoustic guitar for accompaniment. His later years were marred by alcoholism and mental illness, and by the time he hanged himself in 1976, at age 35, he was remembered -- if he was remembered at all -- as a relic of the previous decade.

But when I was growing up, Ochs was famous in our house. As a radio DJ in Massachusetts in the mid-60s, my father almost lost his job because of an Ochs song called "The Ballad of William Worthy". My father was no bomb-throwing radical -- he always voted for Republicans, including Nixon, and moved on from radio work to owning a gun shop. But he was fiercely anti-authoritarian, and I expect what appealed to him about protest music was what had appealed to him about early rocknroll: it annoyed and frightened people of his parents' age.

"The Ballad of William Worthy" tells the story of a reporter who defied the U.S. State Department's travel bans on China and Cuba. Worthy's case was an important early one for famed civil rights lawyer William Kunstler, and was in the headlines long enough to grab Ochs's attention. The song included this chorus:

William Worthy isn't worthy to enter our door
Went down to Cuba, he's not American anymore.
But somehow it is strange to hear the State Department say
You are living in the free world, in the free world you must stay.

It's a fun, catchy tune, and one day my father played it on the radio. A lot of listeners were upset, and expressed their distress to the station in letters and phone calls. I expect some advertisers were none too pleased, either. My father promised not to do it again.

I don't remember when my father first told me this story or first played All the News That's Fit to Sing for me, but it was when I was early in high school that I got particularly interested in the old records sitting in the bookcase in our living room, and it was the records of Tom Lehrer, Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs that most appealed to me (I borrowed a friend's parents' copy of Chords of Fame, a 2-LP overview that gave me a fuller representation of Ochs's career than my father's record collection offered). In fact, I expect I did well on the AP U.S. History test my junior year because of those records -- there was an essay question on the test about the 1960s, and I knew all about not just the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, but about Medgar EversEmmett Till, the U.S. occupation of the Dominican Republic, the MLF, Hubert Humphrey, and other people and events of the era because I memorized all the songs, read all the liner notes, and sought out more information from my parents and from history books, because it seemed like the exciting time for anybody to have ever been alive. (To my father's eternal chagrin, this all pretty solidly moved me away from conservative politics and toward lefty radicalism.)

Now, 35 years after Ochs's death, a film has been released about his life and music, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune. The DVD will be available soon, but I saw it yesterday with my mother at a local art cinema. She and my father had seen Ochs perform at the Newport Folk Festival, but, like many people, hadn't followed his career after his first few albums, at least until I gave her the (now sadly out of print) 3-disc retrospective collection Farewells & Fantasies for Christmas one year.

There But for Fortune is an entertaining and emotionally affecting documentary -- the writer-director, Kenneth Bowser, keeps it all moving quickly, and Ochs's life fits into a powerful narrative of idealism crushed and shattered by reality. One of the talking heads in the film says that Ochs wasn't so much a leftist idealist as somebody who had been deeply affected by the popular films of the late '40s and early '50s -- John Wayne movies and Rebel Without a Cause, tales of American dreams. Perhaps it's more accurate to say that within leftism Ochs found a practical expression for the American ideals he'd found so appealing as a kid escaping from what sounds like a truly awful home life by going to the movie theatre. You don't have to be a Freudian to see in Ochs a search for father figures and for heroes to worship (John Kennedy, Bob Dylan, Bobby Kennedy, etc.), as well as a desire to be both a savior and a martyr -- throughout his life, he had an overwhelming, crippling yearning for fame, which is, so often, a yearning for validation, appreciation, and love to fill an abyss that feels bottomless. One of Ochs's endearing qualities, at least in his music, is a sense of irony, one that is often dialectic. He can ache for fame and yet also write a song like "Chords of Fame", with the chorus
So play the chords of love, my friend
Play the chords of pain
But if you want to keep your song
Don't play the chords of fame
and the final verse

I been around, I’ve had my share
And I really can’t complain
But I wonder who I left behind
The other side of fame

The film uses Ochs's personal struggles to illuminate something more than personal. The energy of idealism can be a powerful force, but it is often overcome by a crash of disillusionment, and in the film Tom Hayden draws the connections between the upheavals of the '60s and the emotions of activists, the desperation and bitterness that replaced the optimism. There is a danger, too, in getting what you've been fighting for -- what do you do if you've spent a decade working against a war, and then, at long last, the war ends? How do you reconfigure your attention and energies, your passion? By the time he sang a duet of "There But For Fortune" with Joan Baez at a celebration of the end of the war in 1975, Ochs was in bad shape, and he didn't have the stamina necessary to recreate himself, or even just to go on with ordinary life.

There But for Fortune is smart about many things. It's not an innovative documentary, and its form and editing often feel, if not pro forma, at least very familiar -- person talks, cut to old photo (always with the camera panning across it; Ken Burns has had an effect), illustrate point with song, cut to video footage of Ochs or stock footage of '60s events, repeat -- but every time I began to feel the film was suffering from complacency, some extraordinary moment shattered that feeling. Sometimes, it was just a little thing -- for instance, as "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" played, illustrating Ochs's radicalism, I thought, "I wish they knew about Jello Biafra & Mojo Nixon's version," and then, seconds later, there's Jello Biafra talking about the song and how little he had to change its lyrics for the Clinton era.

More powerfully, a short section discussing Ochs's friendship with the Chilean singer Victor Jara provides a breathtaking moment as Pete Seeger describes Jara's death. I've known the story ever since a trip to Nicaragua in the late '90s, where one night I heard a Scottish expat sing Jara's songs and tell the story of his life and of what the soldiers did to him in the stadium that was later given his name. Seeger tells the story plainly and slowly, and it's devastating. It also allows us to see Jara's death as a kind of final straw for Ochs, because though he had seemingly given up on radicalism in the U.S., the Allende years in Chile provided him new hope, and Jara seemed to be what all the '60s protest singers had hoped themselves to be -- a hero and a chronicler of revolution. Ochs helped organize a concert at Madison Square Garden, "An Evening with Salvador Allende", which sought to inform the American public about what was happening in Chile and to spread the suspicion (months before the formation of the Church Committee) that the U.S. government and the CIA had been involved. The concert raised $30,000, but Ochs was too despairing and too alcoholic for the success to be one from which he re-launched himself. He had managed to boost attendance at the concert by convincing his old rival Bob Dylan to play for it, but this can only have made things worse for Ochs, who was both fiercely jealous of Dylan and painfully worshipful of him. Soon after this, Ochs would beg Dylan to let him be part of the Rolling Thunder Revue tour, and Dylan would brush him off (as Dylan often did). According to Michael Gray's entry on Ochs in the Bob Dylan Encyclopedia, Ochs and Dylan probably last saw each other on October 23, 1975 (just a few days after I was born, in fact) at a birthday party for Mike Porco, the founder of Gerde's Folk City. "Late on," Gray writes, "Ochs did a short set, which he concluded with a version of Dylan's largely ignored masterpiece 'Lay Down Your Weary Tune'. Robert Shelton reported: 'Everyone at Dylan's table stood gaping at Phil' but 'Dylan praised Phil when he finished.'"

The film struggles a bit to make Ochs's years of decline as vivid as the years when he was most prominent for the simple reason that there is much less documentation during Ochs's years out of the spotlight. Nonetheless, Bowser and his collaborators were able to include a tremendous amount of archival footage and recordings, which makes the material in the second half of the film about as vivid as it probably will ever be. A film of Ochs at the end of his life, when he had taken to calling himself "John Train" and announcing that "Phil Ochs is dead" is especially disturbing.

The use of music throughout the documentary is far more effective than in many music documentaries, and never more so than at the very end, when, after Ed Sanders describes visiting Ochs's house a day or two after the suicide, and other people describe their sadness and horror at Ochs's death, Bowser cuts to footage of Dave Van Ronk at a memorial concert for Ochs, singing "He was a Friend of Mine" with unbridled sorrow and fury. Previously in the film, someone had mentioned that in Ochs's last years, he and Van Ronk had stopped speaking, because Van Ronk finally couldn't bear Ochs's unstable behavior. Each chord Van Ronk plays stabs out at us, even now, across all these years, and nobody in the little theatre where we watched the film seemed to breathe for at least a minute as the credits rolled.

I don't know how well Ochs's songs hold up for people who didn't meld with them at an impressionable age the way I did. Were I to hear them for the first time now, I might not hear much of anything special in them, I don't know. But those first chords of "I Ain't Marching Anymore" never fail to thrill me, and I love "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends" a million times over, and "Cops of the World" remains both blistering in its bluntness and strangely catchy (I've caught myself inadvertently singing it, not always at opportune moments...), and "Pretty Smart on My Part" is a funny-scary portrait of paranoia, and I find "Here's to the State of Mississippi" heartbreaking and its rewritten cousin "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon" coruscating, and -- and I could go on.

Ochs was far from the best musician of his day, and he wasn't the best songwriter, nor the best singer. His personal failings were enormous. But so was his accomplishment. Sometimes alienating, sometimes gauche, sometimes insipid, sometimes saccharine, and plenty of times just bloody damn brilliant. A full human being, and maybe a bit more so. Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune captures many of his facets, and it gives us a glimpse of the '60s that isn't quite the same as all the others, because even someone who hates every note Ochs ever played could not deny that there wasn't quite anybody else like him around.

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