Thoughts on Phil
One thing that’s always bugged me about the Woody Guthrie biography by Joe Klein is the way Klein, in his afterward, tries to make the argument that Guthrie’s leftist proletariat populism is best seen as an early symptom of his Chorea that ultimately left him bed-ridden and caused him to die young. It’s too easy to explain away his passionate investment in democratic socialism in such a way, and perhaps even more so with Phil Ochs, whose hereditary disease was not so much “physical” as it was “mental” in the last years of his life, and who (unlawfully, it must be remembered) committed suicide. And so the suicide too often overshadows the man and the art and brings a kind of aesthetic, artistic, closure to his music, and his message(s), and may be used to undermine or invalidate what Phil Ochs was saying, especially in a time when clinical, biochemical, psychological, reasons are overemphasized at the expense of other external, social, causes ---in almost every area of life in America. There's a strong sense in contemporary America that if you're complaining about, or trying to change the system, that it’s really your failure to take responsibility for your own life, and that, yes, you should turn inward and get your own shit in order, pollution, for instance.
This debate was certainly one of the main differences between Phil Ochs and his contemporary Bob Dylan. Many of the differences between these two men are well-documented with anecdotes (some of spurious authority) and analyses of their differences, and I won’t dwell on them here, but if one compares the songs of these two men, it’s clear that the moniker “spokesman of a generation,” which Dylan always claimed to abhor (though it certainly was useful in helping him sell records, etc.), would be more accurately applied to Ochs than Dylan, for better and worse. While Dylan’s first album was more in the mode of the pre-topical song folk tradition, Ochs’ first songs for Broadside and on ALL THE NEWS THAT’S FIT TO SING, showed him coming out swinging. He had at least as much to do with making the “topical song” a respectable form within folk-music circles in the early-mid 1960s as Dylan, and of course kept on creating his art, and yes I’d say his best art, within that form, as he self-mocking claimed on his live album, “I play Bobby Dylan. The young Bobby Dylan.”
As a political thinker, I identified with Phil Ochs’ positions and persona more than anybody else. I think it was 1982 or 1983 (sophomore year of college) when I first got turned on to him, before I got into Dylan. The Live album came first, the lyrics, the anger tempered by wit-conviction, the witty seriousness, the brilliant couplets. It was like what I loved about Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” but better. It didn’t rest on enigmatic, biblical, injunctions like “you better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone” as much as more direct statement, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.” And gosh the melodies and his voice were at times just so damn pretty. On a lyrical level, I think I found something similar to what I loved about Tom Lehrer’s That Was The Year That Was (another topical album from 1965, though certainly not folk or counter-culture as those lines were being drawn at the time), which tickled my satirical bone when I was 15 and 16, but Lehrer lacked the depth of feeling. Lehrer at his best could maybe match Ochs in satire, but when I came to songs like “There But For Fortune” or “When I’m Gone” (or the sheer joy of “That’s What I Want To Hear”), I discovered a whole other animal. Ochs was much more grounded in his insistent strumming and much more of a romantic, even though he hardly ever even uttered a line about his relationships with women. If I wanted that, I soon found, I could go to Dylan. But Ochs didn’t so much make the inward turn, didn't start “investigating himself” so much (although this started changing, for whatever reasons, around the time of PLEASURES OF THE HARBOUR). Yes, the “times” changed more with Dylan than with Ochs, the feminist message that “the personal is the political” certainly had more kinship with Dylan than with Ochs. Yet, the real tragedy of Phil Ochs is that the mass-culture of America couldn't make room for him the way it had made room for Dylan. I FIRMLY BELIEVE THAT IF IT HAD, THINGS WOULD HAVE TURNED OUT DIFFERENT, NOT ONLY FOR PHIL OCHS BUT FOR AMERICA.
OCHS’ IDENTIFICATION WITH AMERICA was profound, and I take it on face value. Particularly an identification with American malehood, and the idea of being a soldier. His most seemingly impersonal political topical songs take on an added significance if we keep it in mind that Ochs himself had actually been a soldier, had grown up in a family with a military history, and made a break. Thus, when I’ve taught “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” in composition classes, I would often begin by asking “who is the ‘I’ in this song?” The answer was, inevitably, America, but it was also Phil Ochs himself. His range of human identification with the soldier, whether satirically (as in “Cops of The World” or “I Kill Therefore I Am”) or with the yearning of “I Never Want A Man,” put him on the front line---here was a man who seemed to sing his songs to remind himself what he would be if he didn’t speak out against the macho-soldier line that was fed him. These were songs of PERSONAL NECESSITY, like ex-marine Anthony Swofford’s recent memoir JARHEAD (in which he purges himself of his OIL WAR ONE experience). The “inner demons” Ochs was wrestling with and attempting to exorcise in many of his songs about soldiers were not simply INNER, but culturally inculcated, and while Dylan may have come to the realization that “in a soldier stance’s” he’d become his enemy in the instance that he preached, it also seems that Dylan never had to wrestle with the expectations of an army life as much as OCHS did. Ochs’ sympathy for the soldier (the soldier “in all of us”) was so profound that he could see beyond many of the wedge issues that many historians claimed had much to do with ultimately dooming many of the hopes of the 1960s. From “Draft Dodger Rag,” to “soldiers disillusioned come home from the war/ sarcastic students tell them not to fight no more” (in 1967’s “Flower Lady”) Ochs’ identification with the soldier, or at least the disillusioned soldier looking for some new hope, was so profound that it is a tragedy (not simply Phil Ochs’ but America’s) that he was consigned to a largely counter-cultural “preaching to the converted” fate and not granted the media attention that would have allowed him to reach soldiers and other “masculine American” with whom he had a profound ambivalence.
Yet beyond his identification with the soldier, I saw Phil Ochs' development with America changing with the times in very interesting ways. “Love Me, I’m A Liberal,” one of his great satires (which reminded me of Lehrer when I first heard it), begins with the speaker (NOT OCHS, so the convention has it) saying “I cried when they shot Medgar Evers/ and I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy/but Malcolm X got what was coming to him.” Aside from the palpable barbed irony against Not-In-My-Backyard liberals like Humphrey in this song, there’s also this curious fact: Ochs himself had written beautiful laments about the deaths of Evers and Kennedy, but didn’t write one about Malcolm X. This shows a development in his song-writing and stance that in some ways is analogous to the “inward turn” Dylan had also made (instead of writing another song about yet another martyr I’ll write a song about the futility about writing a song about a martyr), but, again, the difference is, that the song still has a particular target, the liberal. This song appears on his last, and greatest, collection of exclusively (well, almost) topical songs, and perhaps points to a turning point for Ochs insofar as it may show a restlessness with the topical song that was his forte.
It’s painful to continue to write about Phil Ochs, as it is often painful and inspiring to listen to his music. For, as might be evident, it’s hard for me not to want to analyze WHAT WENT WRONG. Did he wash PLEASURES OF THE HARBOUR in strings and horns and harpsichords because he thought he’d finally have a hit (and almost did with “Small Circle of Friends”) if he changed? Did he attempt to abandon the topical song for the more poetical effusions for the same reason? Was he under huge peer pressure about which way to turn artistically? Certainly, it’s hard to see his A&M albums outside of the context of the fast (perhaps overwhelming) changes that were happening, not only politically but also in “the music business” of the time---and though I think PLEASURES and REHEARSALS, in particular, are among Ochs’ best albums, the hope and the dream were dying if not quite dead. Again, I find myself trying unsuccessfully to resist a comparison with Dylan. There's a common view that if Ochs had been able to find some kind of personal private ground, away from POLITICS, like Dylan did in the late 1960s with John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, that he would have had a more HEALTHY development and wouldn't have been a martyr---But, this ignores the fact that Dylan himself could not stay with that mode (and went histrionically Christian not long after Ochs committed suicide), as well as the fact that OCHS should not be held to DYLAN’s standards. Perhaps the problem was that Ochs himself started thinking he should be held to Dylan’s standards, and in so doing, turned against his forte, in increasingly desperate attempts to get his message to be heard. I’m not trying to argue that his later albums (particularly “Greatest Hits”) were attempts at “sell-outs.” Ochs always had too much INTEGRITY for that. If it truly was that, he would not have mockingly called attention to that possibility by blaring on the back cover, “50 Phil Ochs Fans Can't Be Wrong.” Nor even that it was merely a “joke that backfired” as some critics claimed. When he claimed that “if there is any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis presley to become Che Guevara,” (a line that for me always echoed Ferlinghett’s, "I am waiting for Elvis Presley and Billy Graham to exchange roles seriously"), he was being earnestly sincere. Besides, Ochs grew up listening to 1950s country and western and Elvis; they were his first musical love. And there are some great songs on GREATEST HITS. Ochs’ last gasp urge to try to publicly reinvent himself in these turbulent times was actually very astute in terms of trying to build a coalition, but the dominant military corporate media powers of America could not let it be. It's like Dylan singing “lay lady lay” (after he had already gotten fame) made him safer, but Ochs doing a Buddy Holly medley, “well, can you trust that commie! He can’t be for real.” Ochs however did reach many of us. When I first discovered Ochs in college, I was one of those first generation college kids who had a romanticized notion of college as a place where counter-culture and student protests thrived, and was still intact, despite the fact that it was the early 1980s. We thought Reagan would be an anomaly, and things would turn more liberal again (from our perspective, the 1960s seemed better in comparison, largely because there were more people vocally aware that things were worse---a strange historical “paradox” that will take years to unpack). We thought the pendulum would swing back to a liberality soon enough (20 years later, it turns out the protests, counter-culture, and social changes, of the 1960s were the anomaly), and Ochs fit right in with that romanticized notion. We thought there’d be more like him. Later, I found some of that in Punk. When punk finally hit me, it was because a friend told me it’s like Phil Ochs if he would’ve played faster and louder electric guitars (and true many Ochs songs could be done like Clash songs, and perhaps vice versa). Yet, in America at least, the Clash’s political songs weren’t their hits either. Again, Phil Ochs’ tragedy is not his alone; it’s a dramatic embodiment of an American tragedy. Ochs also had a lot to do with me choosing to drop out of college and work for two failed presidential candidates in 1983-84, where I discovered Gil Scott Heron, who also seemed to be more lyrically influenced by Ochs than by Dylan. Ochs is in many ways the paradigmatic under appreciated cult figure, but he was never really a “freak” and it’s tragic that, even in the 1960s, a time when, in comparison to the last 30 odd years (as well as the time before the 1960s), when the radio was willing to play songs critical of the government in many ways (in large part because Ochs had laid the groundwork), Ochs’ clear thinking (CALL IT LOVE OR CALL IT REASON), and his subtly constructed lyrics and melodies---were often banned from the mass media---. And I don’t think we can justifiably blame Phil Ochs for not being media savvy enough, for not being able to “cross over.” America, you destroyed one of your great ones.