Posts Tagged ‘Phil Ochs’


If there’s any hope for America, it lies in a revolution. And if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.  Phil Ochs

A short while ago, we ventured over to the Sunshine Coast to see my friend Chris and his partners, Robin and Scott. Stayed  with an old friend of Meg’s, who helped us host a little impromptu party for our hodgepodge of anarchists and fairies and anarchist-fairies. And as we sat up on the couch, a little bit tired and a lot less than sober, someone picked up a guitar and started to strum away at a familiar tune.

“There But for Fortune”. Phil Ochs.

Funny. Cause the first time I heard Phil Ochs I was with Chris, too. It was one summer vacation during high school, and – feeling silly – we decided to drop in at the home of our economics and socials teacher, Larry. Larry was a hoot – devout social-democrat, who never stopped hailing the virtues of Sweden while cracking jokes about rough Soviet toilet paper and Cuba’s choice of Che as leading economist after the Revolution. We teased him back, quite mercilessly, and I am convinced that Larry’s happiest days at the school were the ones trading shots with us over ping pong. I certainly know they were my best school days.

Anyway, there we were that summer’s day, strolling up a west side manicured lawn to ring the doorbell of a teacher trying to enjoy his summer vacation. Larry opened the door, grinned widely, and invited us in.  He struggled with an electric popcorn-maker (“my wife usually does this!”), led us to sit on the sofa in the living room, and announced he had something to share with us two mad pinkos.

The voice broke out after a brief, jingle-like intro.

Look outside the window there’s a woman being grabbed

They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being 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

We sat for a couple of hours, running through Phil Ochs CDs, as Larry recounted the basics of his story.

From that moment, I was hooked. I sought out everything he’d recorded. I learned to play them all. I sang Phil Ochs in every spare moment, and tracked down the few biographies I could find. And now, here in Gibsons, some twenty years later, those slightly-off-tune chords had me flushed with same excitement all over again.

Phil Ochs was a central figure of the 1960s folk/ protest music scene, his early years spent singing, drinking, writing and struggling alongside Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Eric Anderson and so many others. Hugely prolific, Ochs wrote in a wide range of styles, but is best-known for straight-ahead protest music in the tradition of Woody Guthrie. “Draft-Dodger Rag” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” are still heard at anti-war rallies across the continent. “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” made a bit of a resurgence some years ago when Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon updated and re-recorded the tune. And “There But For Fortune” remains one of the best-known songs of the 60’s folk-revival – though more for covers done by Peter, Paul and Mary and Joan Baez than by Ochs himself.

Yeah, he was something, that Phil Ochs.  A protest singer who wanted to be so much more, he was one of the few who didn’t abandon Bob Dylan when the latter plugged in and went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in ’64. Howls of betrayal met Dylan for years afterwards, as he was accused of selling out to rock’n’roll and diluting the politics in his music. Ochs, however, saw these years as some of Dylan’s best, musically, artistically, and culturally. He was savvy to the cultural milieu and the need of radicals to speak to and with popular culture, to the point of – quite explicitly – working to invent himself as a hybrid of Elvis Presley and Che Guevara complete with gold lame suit.

His relationship with Dylan was a particularly interesting one. In the early 60s, Dylan said of Phil Ochs, “I can’t keep up with him. And he just keeps getting better and better.” But by the middle of the decade, the two had a falling-out, apparently over Ochs’ lack of enthusiasm for one or two of his friend’s songs (“Please Crawl Out Your Window”, in particular) – criticism which prompted Dylan to thrown Ochs out of his car, saying derisively, “You’re not a folksinger, you’re a journalist.”

So, Dylan went on to become the rock star Phil Ochs always hoped to be. Phil went on organizing political rallies, writing radical tunes, and hooked up with the Yippies. He joined Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in the resistance struggles around the Democratic National Convention in 1968, running a pig for president and getting himself arrested. He met and played with the great Chilean folksinger – murdered in Pinochet’s 1973 coup – Victor Jara. He played the first ever Greenpeace benefit in 1970. He was invited by John Lennon to play at the ex-Beatle’s first-ever concert after leaving that band. And he inspired some 450 pages of FBI files on his music and activism, being dogged and harassed by the agency for years. Yeah. That’s my kind of singer.

In 1973 he travelled to Africa, wandering, checking out the scene, and recording in Kenya. During that trip, he was attacked and strangled, doing serious damage to his vocal chords. Ochs returned to the States, convinced the FBI had been behind the attack on him, and hence began his sharp decline. The Chilean coup which overthrew Salvador Allende and saw his and Victor Jara’s murders devestated Phil Ochs. He organized a benefit concert, which brought Dylan back to the stage with him and a reconciliation of the old friends. But with the end of the great cycle of global resistance, the counter-attack by the right across the world, and the collapse of the US protest movement, Ochs’ career, his activist politics and his personal life all began to fall apart.

By 1976, a haggard-looking man was stopping by all Phil’s old haunts, antagonizing Phil’s old friends and causing fights. Calling himself John Butler Train, Phil’s alter-ego spent much of his time shouting about how much he hated Phil Ochs. He drank himself stupid, slept as often on the street as not, and spiralled into a haze of mental illness and substance abuse. On April 9. 1976, Phil Ochs hanged himself at his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, New York.

Yesterday after work I picked up my guitar for the first time in weeks. And all I played was Phil Ochs. Haven’t sung some of those songs for years. But damn, there’s not much better in my book, and I can think of no way I’d rather get back to music. Cause though they’re just little songs about old struggles, every last one of them has that grain that makes it uniquely and perfectly Phil Ochs. That grain that says, as he did:

Even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make that attempt. That’s morality. That’s religion. That’s art. That’s life.


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