Examining the life of Phils Ochs is like unearthing a tragedy in which the foibles and frailties of the main character are tempered by a talent for superb song craft. Luckily, Ochs’ sonorous voice and supple lyrics transcended the bombast of his ego.
Kenneth Browser’s film, much aided by the input of Ochs’ family, friends, and music comrades, burrows beyond the pale shade of clichés, discovering a floppy-haired boy that melded country-folk swagger, a bygone Hollywood yearning for lone heroes, and mixed-breed left-wing politics. Don’t expect rigid ideology, though. Ochs didn’t invoke simple placards, he reeked of humanitarian aims infused with pro-labor sentiments and anti-war pathos.
Browser first taps into the social consciousness of the ‘60s, inaugurated by a voice-over speech by John F Kennedy, then follows up by revealing a quick succession of lauded activists, past and present, from Students for a Democratic Society leader Tom Hayden and British socialist-leaning songster Billy Bragg to actor/director Sean Penn, whose work in Haiti has grabbed attention over the last few years. Such talking heads form a bridge between eras and issues, all focused on the personality of Ochs, a Jewish kid fighting to earn respect at agricultural schools, with his teenage gaze fixed to films starring Gary Cooper and John Wayne.
Soon thereafter, the director nimbly dissects Greenwich Village, that melting pot of good times, heady political turf battles, and earthy community brouhaha that wrapped its web around Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, and Eric Anderson, among many others. They formed a loose-knit “school of artists”, like American literary expats in Paris or Beatniks in Tangier, that delved deep into the topical fare of tumultuous times. In the early ‘60s, America still witnessed brutality at home, in the form of lynching and violently maintained Jim Crow segregation, and endured the confusion of war abroad, including sending increasing numbers of poor, minority, and working class soldiers to the thick inferno of Vietnam.
Ochs sets himself apart, though. His intense focus on process, including zealously digging through numerous newspapers in all-night binges, looking under every sentence for material worthy of song, impressed his elders. As a result, the godfather of folk, Pete Seeger, yanked both Ochs and Dylan up to the mimeograph Broadside periodical office after recognizing the uncanny prowess of each.
The duo exemplified a special breed that used fluent and resilient narratives to cut to the bone of contemporary issues. Of course, they were both difficult characters that eventually chose forked paths, growing apart, until Bob Dylan played the infamous Friends of Chile Benefit Concert that a rowdy Ochs organized in New York City in 1974.
I have met myriad musicians and teachers, writers and activists who believe in the cult of Dylan, but far fewer seem to subscribe their same sentiments to Ochs. Punk rockers, though, have viewed him as a kind of acceptable ‘60s hero, untainted by hippie flower power. Jello Biafra tackled “Love Me I’m a Liberal”. In the film, he describes the song’s contemporary vibe, its succinctness and truthfulness, especially in today’s political circus. Other bands like The Weakerthans, who are not featured in the film, found powerful meaning in Ochs’ alliterative gem “Ringing of Revolution”.
Ochs wholeheartedly marched for causes a-plenty, verified in a vintage clip of Abbie Hoffman describing the songster’s tenacity. Ochs never turned down a solid fight, whether it meant heading south to shame Mississippi’s racism or stepping into Hazard, Kentucky to forge links with mistreated miners. These impulses did not reek of opportunism, but existed as a product of a fervid feeling of empathy, as witnessed by Arthur Gorson.
He sums up Ochs’ ideology as “practical moral politics” synched with an overall old-fashioned concern with equality. Ochs didn’t burrow and cut himself off from people on the opposite side of his political stratum. He was not didactic, as friends concur, he was an intelligent seeker of conversation and community, despite differences.
Unfortunately, Ochs was not bound for glory, although his wry intuition and breathless love of performance percolated with merit. Mental instability, alcoholism, and an artistic adventure that led to albums increasingly adultish, croony, and tinkly pop, rather than agit-folk, soon dried up his luck.
Although the orchestration found on Pleasures of the Harbor led to increased album sales at A&M at first, later records found a diminishing audience ready to soak up the tunes. Just as the nation’s mood darkened under the deaths of the Kennedys and African American leaders, Ochs darkened, as well.
Then comes the side of Ochs that many people may not know as well as his early tender tirades: Ochs becoming a “Protests should turn you on” underground Yippie; becoming almost the lone performer (besides the MC5) at the Chicago Democratic Convention riots in 1968 (he was singing at an indoor theater when concertgoers started burning draft cards); and becoming a force in the Theater/Politics of the Absurd, turning him into a new kind of agitator. However, he later bemoans the Freak counter-culture because it had no organic links to the working class, so he admits in the film.
Ochs also attempted to inject himself back into pop culture through a Greatest Hits album and newfound persona, replete with ‘50s tough guy style, supposedly spoofing Elvis Presley. This move confused the hell out of fans, who literally begged him to bring Phil Ochs back when he arrived on stage at Carnegie Hall in a gold lame outfit. Ironically, Greatest Hits really is a profound, affective LP cut in just a few days, offering the lulling, wispy “James Dean of Indiana” and the country rock romp “Chords of Fame”.
The rest is history, as they say. But he did have a few surprises left, like sharing stages in Chile with Victor Jara, delving into world music in Africa, frequenting bordellos in Haiti, surviving a car crash that mashed his teeth and impaired his voice, and showing up at The War is Over Rally in Central Park, 1975, to celebrate the last helicopters fleeing Vietnam. This is the untamed Ochs, the last spurts of genius.
The film registers Ochs’ topsy-turvy life with sincerity, depth, and multiple perceptions. The clips may not present whole performances, but they allow glimpses of his stage persona, including banter keenly spun offhand in front of often enraptured audiences.
The extras include no more than a biography of the director and assorted photos, almost as if an afterthought for the DVD release. Given the rich subject and merits of the film, these extras seem pale, minimal, and conceived without much planning, focus, and attention. Bewildering.
I’m not certain that viewers get a fully candid scoop of Ochs, since TV show appearances and reminiscing don’t really catalog a person quite as much as a memoir or biography, but Ochs does come to life in anecdotes. As a folk-rebel, he feels charmed and rattled, talented and slightly twisted, in-the-grain and adrift at the same time.
That enigma he remains…