Wednesday, May 18, 2011

"Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune"

I saw Kenneth Bowser's powerful documentary "Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune," a couple of weeks ago at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival. It's an amazing film, and I would recommend it to anyone who's interested in Ochs or the folk scene of the 1960's. It presents a portrait of a talented and gifted man who sadly died way too young.

Bowser was able to interview just about anyone still living who had a significant connection to Phil Ochs. (Not surprisingly, he wasn't able to interview Bob Dylan.) Ochs started out as a folk/protest singer, writing his own material about the various troubles of the day, very much like Dylan. Eventually, inspired by Dylan and the Beatles, Ochs started writing more personal material, although he still wrote the occasional straightforward protest song. Ochs had little commercial success during his lifetime, and remained more of a cult figure. Apparently, Ochs always thought that he was just about to break out commercially, and he proudly predicted that his 1967 album "Pleasures of the Harbor" would go to number one. It's highest chart position was 168. Dogged by poor reviews at the time, it's now considered Ochs's masterpiece. Ochs's material was very uncompromising, and it's hard to imagine that he didn't see why he wasn't more successful. Maybe his enthusiasm was just his way of covering up his insecurities. Phil Ochs did not write simple love songs that would have been surefire hit singles. The closest Ochs came to having a hit single was his song, "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," from the "Pleasures of the Harbor" album. It's a great, funny, witty song, given a jaunty arrangement courtesy of Lincoln Mayorga's piano playing. But here's the first verse of the song:

Oh, look outside the window
There's a woman bein' grabbed
They've dragged her to the bushes
And now she's bein' stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops
And try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun
I'd hate to blow the game
And I'm sure it wouldn't interest anybody
Outside of a small circle of friends

It's a brilliant satire of apathy, specifically referencing the then-current case of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed and killed in New York City. Neighbors who overheard the attack did nothing because they "didn't want to get involved." It's a great song, but when the first verse of your song features a stabbing, it's probably not going to get a lot of Top 40 airplay. It's a great example of how Ochs created powerful songs that were totally uncommercial. People don't always want to be reminded of bad things when they listen to music, sometimes they just want to escape. But Ochs was not about to compromise his vision of his music.

As the 1960's came to an end, Ochs had lost his optimism about America. The war in Vietnam was still raging on, MLK and RFK were dead, Nixon had won the 1968 election, and Chicago police had savagely beaten protesters at the 1968 Democratic convention. Ochs started drinking more and more heavily, and he started to exhibit signs of bipolar disorder. And for whatever reason, he became unable to write new material. Even trips abroad did not spark his creativity. After his 1970 album, facetiously titled "Greatest Hits," another bit of irony that seemed to go over people's heads, Ochs released just 5 more songs during his lifetime. I wonder if Ochs might have had an easier time today, at a time when people get irony. I sensed from the movie, and from reading parts of biographies of Ochs, that sometime his audience didn't understand him. Few people seemed to understand at the time that Ochs dressing up in a gold suit like Elvis to promote his "Greatest Hits" album was at least a little bit ironic. Or maybe a lot ironic. They just booed him because he was performing 1950's rock songs and not the protest folk they wanted to hear. They were angry at him for confounding their expectations. Nowadays it would at least be easier for Phil to explain exactly what he was trying to do, and the meaning behind it.

The film features all kinds of amazing film footage of Ochs, which is reason enough to go see it. I got more of a sense of who this remarkable man was. There's even some heartbreakingly sad footage of Ochs in his final manic state, when he insisted that everyone call him "John Butler Train." Unlike Ochs, Train was mean and belligerent, and ruined some of Ochs's friendships. When Train left in early 1976, never to reappear, he left behind a shattered Phil Ochs, who thought that he could never repair the relationships he had broken. What Ochs didn't know, or didn't allow himself to acknowledge, was that people would have forgiven him, life could have gone on. There were still people hungry for his music, who would wonder, what would Phil Ochs have written about this? Phil Ochs chose to end his own life on April 9, 1976, at the age of 35. Phil may be gone, but his music lives on, and it's still touching people's lives today. I was born 5 years after Phil died, but his music and his spirit means so much to me. He's truly one of my heroes, and I wish he were still alive today.

1 comment:

Holly A Hughes said...

Check out the website for WFUV-FM -- they archive recent radio shows, and Marshall Crenshaw recently featured several Phil Ochs songs and spoke movingly of having seen this film. Look for it under The Bottomless Pit, which is the name Marshall gives his show, Saturday nights at 10pm Eastern. Totally worth a listen -- I'm addicted to this show! (Plus it's a pleasure to find really good thoughtful radio shows...)