A Friend of Mine
I go to civil rights rallies,
And I put down the old D.A.R.
I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy.
I hope every colored boy becomes a star,
But don’t talk about revolution.
That’s going a little bit too far.
—Phil Ochs, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”
“Elvis Presley changed the world culturally by singing songs, and I guess they thought perhaps we could change the world politically by singing songs.” Reflecting on the protest singers of the 1960s, Billy Bragg is at once nostalgic and skeptical, knowing now, as we all do, that such hopes for the effects of “songs’ were dashed. Still, he sets a frame for Kenneth Bowser’s documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a frame that recognizes the artist’s complexity, his brilliance and his despair.
The documentary is alternately illuminating and sketchy, using Ochs to reveal the decade. Born in El Paso in 1940, Phil Ochs found his calling, as it were, when he was a student at Ohio State. More specifically, when he roomed with Jim Glover, who remembers here that he “kind of introduced [Ochs] to the left wing music, the people’s music,” like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. Ochs and Glover formed a duo (“The Singing Socialists”), then broke up “before their first gig.” When Ochs moved to the Village in 1962, he heard poetry, drank late into the night, and helped to build a community of artists. According to his friend Andy Wickham, Ochs pursued “left wing politics” as a career. Still, “We know that what was in his heart was John Wayne and Gary Cooper,” images and ideals emerging from his youthful love for the movies as well as his complicated relationship with his father, Jack, a doctor who served in World War and who came home with what Phil’s brother Michael calls “mental problems,” leading to his institutionalization and hardships for the family.
Ochs determined he would “become the best songwriter in the country,” as he says in an archival interview. His wife Alice remembers that they “felt like they were part of something important,” and that he was especially driven to speak his mind: “He’d stay up all night with the newspapers, finding material for songs.” (He described himself as a “singing journalist.”) She adds, “So much of Phil’s work ended up being about the unfairnesses of life.” The couple hosted community gatherings in their apartment, their guests including singers Judy Henske, David Blue, Eric Andersen, and Bob Dylan.
Ochs and Dylan (who is not interviewed here) were friends, Alice says, as well as competitors. Both developed reputations as being great songwriters, but, as Sam Hood puts it, “Dylan refused to ever give him his due…. He was such a prick.” Christopher Hitchens compares them in a way that recalls the divide between the Beatles and the Stones: Ochs’ “very tough, grainy songs,” he says, “were far more political and much more tough-minded than the much more generalized, accessible ‘Blowin’ in the Wind.’” Ochs’ anger was increasingly specific, in songs like “Draft Dodger Rag,” “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” (“For underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines, / If you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find”).
Even as the film celebrates Ochs’ art and his outrage, it suggests that his own trajectory was as doomed as that of the movement. Tom Hayden provides a helpful structure when he describes the “two halves” of the ‘60s, the first optimistic, based in a belief that the American dream might be redeemed through direct action. “We actually thought that through the force of morality and persuasion, we were going to take the new frontier to a more progressive or radical conclusion.” Following John Kennedy’s assassination (“the first warning that there was something fundamentally dangerous about embarking on social change”), then Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s, as well as the ‘68 Democratic Convention (where Ochs performed, appreciating the yippies’ “sense of theater”), the movement changed shape. The second half, Hayden says, “becomes one of disillusionment, bitterness, alienation, or, someone said, just a clarification of where we really stood.”
In There But For Fortune (the title borrowed from one of his albums), Ochs comes to embody this shift—in effect and attitude. Speaking of the era’s political traumas, Lucian Truscott IV notes, “I think Phil was a big enough egomaniac to take it all personally.” Just so, he becomes increasingly depressive (suffering from the bipolar disorder that afflicted his father) and drinks heavily; “I guess everybody goes through a stage of disillusionment,” he says in an archival interview, “I don’t think justice will out, I don’t think fairness wins anymore.”
The film skips quickly through his last years (he hanged himself in 1976 at age 35), including brief notes from friends like Wickham (who recalls a jaunt to Haiti, where Ochs insisted on showing him “the street,” showing “absolutely no regard for personal safety”). For all his personal demons, There But for Fortune points out that Ochs’ hope for change and faith in art remain topical. As his daughter Meegan says, he’d appreciate that 30 years on, his songs still resonate. But, she adds, “I don’t feel that he would be pleased that the content was so similar, and that so many of the battles that felt like they were possible to win had yet to be won.”