Today would have been the 81st birthday of Phil Ochs, the 1960s protest/folk singer who in many ways still stands as one of the most urgent, intelligent, and political spokesman of his generation, and who probably would have gotten a lot more adoration and respect if he hadn’t lived under the shadow of his musical cohort Bob Dylan. 2021 also marks the 45th anniversary of the tragic death of Ochs, who died by hanging himself at his sister’s house in Far Rockaway, New York in April 1976. But it is Ochs’s life that is going to get the spotlight treatment here, and with overdue good measure.
I’m sure you easily know who Bob Dylan is, even if you don’t know a single note of his music. Phil Ochs, however, is more of a musical anomaly, especially in this day and age. But if one starts to sift through the mainstream they will discover that people around the globe still know and appreciate the musician for what he stood for and what he sang for, for his refusal to sell out, for his constant inspiration, and most importantly for his fearlessness.
Ochs, who was born in El Paso, Texas on December 19th, 1940, was staunchly an American patriot AND a revolutionary, as he was as comfortable watching John Wayne movies as he was protesting for the removal of then-President Richard Nixon from office. He created music that spoke of many things; he fancied himself as a “singing journalist” when he first started in the early 1960s, fresh out of Ohio State University, and sang about timely political and social problems and issues of the time that resonated and cut through clearly and succinctly out of the speakers. Quickly finding an audience in the New York Greenwich Village folk scene at the time, Ochs stood out with his sharp wit and intelligence that he inserted in his songs and quickly gained favor for his live performances, which found passionate audiences on college campuses and intimate clubs across the nation. To hear him on stage, especially on his 1966 Phil Ochs in Concert album — a release that wasn’t really “live” as much as it was botched recordings, forced the musician to “recreate” the live sound — is to hear an urgent and master storyteller in full effect.
The songwriter told stories about issues as wide ranging as JFK’s assassination with the haunting “Crucifixion”; the complete stoppage of any support of any war in “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”; being able to speak one’s point, regardless of their age or generational gap in “I’m Gonna Say It Now”; the hypocrisy of people only helping people they know in dire crises in songs like “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” and “Small Circle of Friends”; calling for the end of the war with “The War is Over,” done a few years before John and Yoko did the same thing in 1969 with global billboards preaching the same message; the hauntingly and achingly beautiful dare-say-ballad “Changes,” not to be confused with the David Bowie or Black Sabbath songs; “Power and Glory,” which contains Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”-styled arrangements, but with the Ochs American political bite; and growing pains of men in personal turmoil with what remains perhaps Ochs’ most-known song, “There But For Fortune,” which was the closest thing to a hit he ever got, although Joan Baez had a top ten hit with a cover of the single in the UK.
In all of these songs and countless others, Ochs displays his eclectic penchant in how prolific he was, literally hundreds of songs came through his pen during the 1960s. The songwriter also dabbled in melodramatic opus-styled arrangements during his career too, both the songs and albums entitled “Pleasures of the Harbor” and “Rehearsals for Retirement” are just two examples of his knack for also being able to create baroque-stylized musings. By the dawn of a new decade, however, Ochs found himself almost obsolete. The radicalism and protests of the mid to late 1960s gave way to a “me generation” that would rather “get down” than “rise up” as most did or at least were interested in doing, by way of Ochs’ music and politics. Ochs had difficulty remaining relevant and attempted to fashion his career in a country rock/folk sound, utilizing his influences like Merle Haggard, Buddy Holly, and especially Elvis Presley. He even imitated Presley to the sincerest form of flattery by having a gold suit tailored for himself, something like Elvis himself wore, and wore it on the cover of his 1970 album entitled Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, which was not a best-of record, but actually contained all new material, which confused and alienated his fans even further, to the point of them booing him during a turbulent concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall (where Ochs had been lauded in performances prior at the venue), later released only in Canada in 1974 on an LP entitled Gunfight at Carnegie Hall.
Bizarre yet sincere intentions notwithstanding, the Greatest Hits album yielded one of the entertainer’s strongest and lyrical songs in “Chords of Fame,” an almost autobiographical song of his frustration at not being able to breakthrough in the industry; the lyrics “I Can See That You’re Making Music/Cause You Carry A Guitar/But God Help The Troubadour/Who Wants To Be A Star” just about completely sum up the man’s state at the time. The last track on the album was entitled “No More Songs,” which turned out to be sadly true, as Ochs never recorded any more albums after the Greatest Hits one in 1970, save for the aforementioned Gunfight at Carnegie Hall live album. There were some singles that unfortunately went nowhere and even an early version of World Music over a decade before Paul Simon westernized it with his Graceland album when he recorded a song entitled “Bwatue” during a trip to Africa, a trip in which he was strangled by muggers, losing some of his high register in his voice in the process, a register that was his vocal trademark and added allure to his already distinguished catalog.
To this day, some believe that situation might have occurred because of some governmental involvement, as Ochs had been surveilled by the FBI throughout his career for his radicalism in his interviews and songs, etc. He also rubbed elbows with people like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, who both were almost the physical manifestations of Ochs’s music and lyrical content. But where people like Hoffman and Rubin were able to survive into the 1970s once the 1960s idealism/radicalism/militant vigilance became obsolete, Ochs slipped further and further into mental anguish, depression, and despair. Ochs’s biographers and family and friends have spoken of his last years with much turmoil and haunted anguish, of his slipping into dark alcoholism and suffering from mental illness, adapting another persona altogether for a spell, alienating friends and family, and other horror stories that are recounted in much detail in the biographies written about him. (The hard to find Death of a Rebel by Marc Eliot is a great warts and all honest recount of Ochs’ life). All of this culminated with the aforementioned tragedy of his suicide on April 9, 1976 at the age of 35. In the program book given out during a six-hour tribute concert held at New York City’s Felt Forum a few months later in his memory and attended by many of his peers, influences, and cohorts, his sister Sonny Ochs wrote of how “Phil was simply tired of living and he just wanted to go to sleep.” It was the end of a life that for someone who seemed so under the radar to the masses, trailblazed in a lot of ways musically and politically, even if he didn’t realize how urgent he was at the time or in any time.
In the decades after his death, Phil Ochs still has his rabid and passionate fans, comprised of people like Lady Gaga (who performed “The War is Over” once and even asked the crowd if they knew who Phil Ochs was) and Neil Young, who performed a beautiful live version of Ochs’s “Changes,” prefacing that it was written by “one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.” One of the greatest living songwriters actually made that bold statement, but if one knows and has absorbed the work of Phil Ochs, they know like Neil Young, just what a special treasure they had discovered stumbling onto his music and persona. There’s always that cliche writers use when describing someone who is gone, but remains relevant today, the old adage of “we need them more than ever.” But it rings ever so true when one describes Phil Ochs in the present tense, again, of what he was, what he sang, and what he stood for. His relevance would have been even more sky high and on point more than ever in this turbulent and chaotic 21st century. Arguably the last few years of our present life have made the 1960s seem like the squeaky clean complacent gee-golly-shucks world of the 1950s by comparison and if he was here today in 2021, Phil Ochs would have had his bow-and-arrow guitar and pen razor sharpened and laser beam affixed on all relevant and deserving targets.
If you have never heard the music of Phil Ochs, now’s the time to begin to discover a one-of-a-kind artist, a troubadour who should have been a star. Attaining his discography is somewhat of a challenge, as most of his original releases are somewhat collectable and most are out of print. However, compilations do exist and auction sites like eBay and the like always have plentiful material readily on hand for purchase via Buy it Now or auction, but as always, caveat emptor. You can also find his music via streaming/mp3. A small selection of Ochs’s material is listed below: