Phil Ochs: ‘There But for Fortune’

The re-issue of Michael Schumacher's biography There But For Fortune is the tale of an insatiable obsessive stumbling down a legendary path but not coming out okay at the other end.

There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs
Michael Schumacher
University of Minnesota Press
May 2018

The folk singer Phil Ochs only had one setting: all the way in. This manifested itself from the very beginning. Today, his legacy is one of political protest and confrontation, but as a child, he just simply loved movies. He covered his walls with posters of John Wayne, he incessantly talked about his trips to the cinema, and this love followed him into his adult life, where he was known to out stay a double-feature and hide in the theater for an extra movie or two.

This obsession is benign and innocent, of course, as cinema will never hurt you, but when you zoom out on Ochs’ life, this obsessive nature is what finally destroyed him. After movies, it became music and then politics and then alcohol and then, finally, the worst obsession one can ever have: self-loathing. The re-issue of Michael Schumacher’s Biography There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs, is the tale of an insatiable obsessive stumbling down a legendary path but not coming out okay at the other end.

Even in his youth, Ochs was obsessively searching for meaning and purpose. He could never truly find a happy place during his school years, always wanting to fit in at the same time as wanting to stand out. Movies just happened to be his first love. Later, he picked up the clarinet and quickly mastered it. He practiced so often that he was able to become the principal soloist in a college orchestra at just 16-years-old. Some kids will live on success like that that for a few years, but this did not satisfy the endlessly quirky Ochs, and he soon asked his mother if he could move away to attend a military academy. It’s an unexpected move for someone now known for so much political protest but as he said, “I had no idea what I was going to be. I was an American nebbish, being formed by societal forces, completely captivated by movies, the whole James Dean, Marlon Brando trip.”

Ochs continued to bounce around without much direction for a while in college as well. Finally, he began to write for college publications, and he became politically conscious at the time. He met a new friend, Jim Glover, a guitar playing political junkie. They soon began a duo called the Singing Socialists, and one could easily call this the beginning of the real Phil Ochs, as he also started getting articles rejected by his college’s newspaper for being ‘too controversial’. It was Ochs’ awakening.

The story shifts heavily here. Ochs crashes the New York Folk scene. He gets covered by Joan Baez, he becomes in constant internal competition with his friend Bob Dylan, and he sells out a show at Carnegie Hall. It’s all a whirlwind of ego and success for few a years, as Schumacher unearths anybody and everybody who knew Ochs at the time, letting them speak honestly about who the man was in his prime.

There But for Fortune has a climax, to be sure. Everything changes after the Chicago-hosted Democratic National Convention of 1968 and the ensuing violence. Ochs was an obsessive, and the movement was his obsession at this time and had been for years. The event seemed to mark something for Ochs, a symbol of his aspirations. When it all turned to mush and confusion over that legendary week, Ochs seemed to never fully recover. It’s as if the foundation had been destroyed.

From here on out the personal accounts come off increasingly regretful and austere. Ochs continued on with music for a few years, even making some very good music, but he eventually dropped out all together, letting his self-loathing manifest into a self-destructive and wandering character named John Train. It all ended on a strange day in 1976.

Schumacher, as a writer, is a documentarian. There But for Fortune is a history, plain and simple, and that’s worthy of Ochs’ character: honest to a fault. The story is packed with anxiety, passion, awkwardness, joy, and deep sadness, just like Ochs himself. The interviews Schumacher collected show us something we all seem to know but always seem to forget: life is endlessly difficult for some, no matter how much money, fame, or notoriety they may have achieved.

“There But for Fortune” was a song before it was the book. Its verses detail different lives of turmoil. There are four verses. One details being jailed, one an alcoholic, one a homeless man, and one a war-torn country. This song was written at the beginning of Och’s career. By the end of his life he had experienced three of those events. So, as we read of Och’s struggles, we must realize that his story could be ours, were it not for fortune.

RATING 9 / 10