Connect with us
June 2024
Vol. 23, No. 9

Yesterday And Today

Iconoclasts: The Ballad of Phil Ochs

by Ted BurkeMay 2019

Phil Ochs in his first publicity shot (1963, New York City).
“Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune”, a film by Kenneth Bowser. A First Run Features release.

Ochs in his infamous gold lamé suit.

The Revelle Campus Cafeteria at UCSD, 1970, was the first time I became entirely aware of folksinger/anti-war activist and counter culture hero Phil Ochs. He was performing to a full house of hippies, New Left agitators, Marxist professors with a collective lapse of enthusiasm for talk of revolution, rattled undergraduates, and unsmiling advocates for black power and feminism at an anti-war fundraiser, organized by one of the many ad hoc coalitions that attempted to join the far-flung nether regions of the counterculture in common cause. Ochs made a name for himself as the genius pamphleteer among his generation of left-leaning folkies that he was a part of. Considered by the critical mafia to be the heir to Bob Dylan’s protest throne, an easy assumption might be that Dylan ceased writing topical protest in favor of more personal and sort of surreal existentialism in his lyrics. Ochs was a hero of mine, the poet and the wise guy who stirred up audiences with a critical rhyme, a sly smile, a riveting argument you couldn’t ignore.

Born in 1940 in El Paso, Texas, a young Ochs—and as a teenager—showed exceptional musical promise as a clarinetist and becoming the principal chair on that instrument with the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Ohio. His ears, to be sure, picked up the pop and rock music of the day, ranging from Elvis Presley to Johnny Cash and became fascinated with the movie rebel icons Marlon Brando and James Dean. After a two-year stint at a military academy, he became obsessed with current events, deciding that he wanted to be a writer, a journalist, specifically. His interest in politics motivated him to take up music again in the form of an acoustic guitar and to become heavily involved in the pervasive folk boom of the time, learning a rich catalogue of old folk songs in myriad traditions and to start writing the most poetic, powerful, and passionate protest and topical songs this side of Dylan himself. Ochs performed everywhere he could for the cause of justice, whether it was in clubs, concert halls, anti-war rallies, or civil rights marches of all sorts. He was a romantic, a visionary, a starry-eyed optimist who believed that the oppressed people of America would throw off the chains that bound them and would one day walk into the horizon as free brothers and sisters. The optimism, seemingly resilient and unbreakable at first, yet frayed the longer the Vietnam War dragged on and the persistence of racism remained. Depression became a more pronounced part of his personality—alcohol became a more constant companion, and his songwriting became darker, more fatalistic, hinting at several instances of his own coming demise. He was delusional and paranoid. Making his depression more severe was an assault on him by robbers when he was Tanzania, which resulted in his vocal chords being damaged. His voice never recovered, and his inability to sing brought him deeper despair.

At the zenith of his popularity, Ochs was a facile protest singer-songwriter during the Sixties, having written perhaps his most famous song, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” He was an able rabble rouser at peace rallies and civil rights marches who could fire up dormant liberal sympathies into anger and shame. The advent of the Seventies meant a total turnaround of musical styles and political attitudes. Still, the white knight of worthy causes was considered passé, and his music became an object of instant obsolescence. Not content to be a professional has-been, Ochs attempted on his final album trilogy (Pleasures of Tile Harbor, Tape from California, Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits, and Rehearsals for Retirement) to follow the new musical trends, using rock musicians, Sgt. Pepper-styled electronic effects, and massive orchestration cast in the mold of Charles Ives. The net result was a confused jumble of affectations, with plenty of good material nearly smothered under an avalanche of desperate gimmickry. Ochs and his producer absorbed precisely the worst elements of what the Beatles were doing with their in-studio experiments—a convoluted eclecticism that nearly choked the life out of many of their best songs and made the slighter fare they filled their later albums with becoming not just slight, but ineffectively elitist.

His later songs, at their best and most penetrating, were haunting encapsulations, sketching the displaced anomie of his generation that found itself in a new set of cultural conditions where people would rather dance than organize, and eerily foreshadowing Ochs’ own sense of self-apocalypse. “Tape From California,” the song, is a rocking sojourn through an activist’s shattered psyche—someone woken from a long sleep and finding a terrain not by a community of authentic people working to change the society for the better but rather by hippies, drug freaks, record company PR men, hip magazine writers, scene makers, blow job artists, flunkies, junkies, alcoholic poets without notebooks, and self-declared painters of all sorts who never touched a canvas, everyone one of them feigning art and culture by looking, in truth all of them, for a cheap thrill to last until the garbage trucks arrived.

“The Crucifixion,” Ochs’ masterwork, is a complex, extended allegory about the way a culture treats its heroes (Christ and JFK), according to the best virtues they’d like to see in themselves, and then watching them with necrophiliac glee as they are systematically destroyed, a process that begins when the heroes encroach too close to where the change must be made. The version here is, blessedly, live and free of the special effects clutter that spoiled the studio original. Ochs’ voice is plaintive and unadorned, with an implicit, devastating sorrow to phrasing. “The War Is Over,” first seeming like one of the brilliant anti-war tomes Ochs was capable of writing, but rather turns out to be a solipsist daydream. Ochs had been a veteran of countless free benefits and was dismayed that he could sing and declare the same worn out polemics time after time and effect nothing, except perhaps eliciting a momentary surge of self-righteous, smug radicalism in his audiences. The war, meanwhile, trudged on, a fact that caused Ochs to throw his hands in the air and declare the war was over, at least as far as he was concerned.

The last song on the compilation, “No More Songs,” concludes the album on a thoroughly depressing note. Voice and melody drenched in a defeated, archly lyric melancholia, he recalls the people he’s known, the things he’s believed in, the lovers he’s had, and moans that all was in vain. With the past being meaningless, he complains that there are “… no more songs,” and then recedes into a numbing orchestral backwash. The first record, comprised strictly from his protest material, is the least interesting of the set. The topicality is dated and irrelevant to anyone’s current state of mind, and the enthusiasm of Ochs’ idealism comes off as youthfully smug and embarrassing.

This song is so beautifully tragic and precise in its sense of despair and crushed idealism that I begin to tear up every time I hear it. It was the last song on his final album, the ironically titled Greatest Hits. Released on the heels of the presciently named Rehearsals for Retirement in 1969, the songs on Greatest were a combination of remembrance and morose reflection upon a world that could not match his greatest hopes for the future; it seemed a final bow, the lyrics of a man saying goodbye to all that. Ochs did, in fact, take his own life by hanging himself on April 9, 1976. He was 36 years old
Late in his career Ochs had taken to dressing up in a gold lamé suit and famously telling a booing audience in Carnegie Hall that America could only be saved by a revolution, which wouldn’t have happened until Elvis Presley became our Che Guevara. Ochs, who was a true romantic, believing that Great Men with Great Causes can change the world for the better, was also an alcoholic and a man given to depression that deepened as he got older. Much of his songwriting became a series of melancholic laments that dwelled on the smashing of the idealism that had fueled his songwriting as an anti-war and civil rights activist earlier in the Sixties and the failure of his personal relationships.

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I’ve only called to say, I’m sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a girl, she was a flower in a flame
I loved her as the sea sings sadly
Now the ashes of the dream, can be found in the magazines
And it seems that there are no more songs

Once I knew a sage, who sang upon the stage
He told about the world, his lover
A ghost without a name, stands ragged in the rain
And it seems that there are no more songs

The rebels they were here, they came beside the door
They told me that the moon was bleeding
Then all to my surprise, they took away my eyes
And it seems that there are no more songs

A star is in the sky, it’s time to say goodbye
A whale is on the beach, he’s dying
A white flag in my hand and a white bone in the sand
And it seems that there are no more songs

Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I’ve only called to say, I’m sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs
It seems that there are no more songs
It seems that there are no more songs

Strangely, bizarrely, and fantastically out of context, I saw Phil Ochs perform this song on a Cleveland dance TV show called Upbeat, hosted by a local DJ who was desperately trying to comprehend why Ochs, acoustic guitar in hand, was on a teen dance show along with a parade of bubblegum rock and pop soul bands that performed bad lip sync renditions of their regional hits songs. The DJ knew enough about Ochs to know that he was a protest singer by trade and mentioned that, with recent civil rights legislation and with the Paris Peace talks taking place in an attempt to end the Vietnam War, the otherwise gutless host said that Ochs might be out of a job unless he sang more upbeat tunes or words to that effect. Ochs just smiled and said that he hoped for the best, and then performed “No More Songs” live, on acoustic guitar. I remember this being one of the few songs that haunted me and continued to haunt me for decades.

At his best, Phil Ochs was stunningly brilliant as singer and songwriter and especially as a lyricist, a true poet. He was someone who could easily belong to the songwriter branch of the Confessional Poets like Robert Lowell and Sylvia Plath, writers of odd mental activity who were compelled to write their demons into verse in perhaps some effort to extract their awfulness from their souls. It has been suggested that writing is a species of self-medication, a means to alleviate distress without the means to grow stronger and find hope. It’s been suggested as well that this was a school of writing and a habit of thinking for which early death, either by one’s own hand or through the degenerative results of copious alcohol and drug abuse, was how a poet of this description achieved a reputation and legitimacy as a poet.

This was something that had repulsed me as I parsed 20th-century poets in college, my idea at the time being that one had to insist that art embrace life and affirm its vitality. I didn’t read confessional poets for years but came to a change in my thinking that effectively set aside my previous conceit that poetry, let alone any art, was required to advance any one’s preferences as an arbitrary standard. Each poet, painter, writer, dancer had to live up to that standard; the muse to create came from whatever source it came from, manifesting its inspiration in our personalities and our need to express our comforts and misgivings as creatures in this sphere of existence. It was under no requirement to make our lives better, let alone save ourselves from a wicked end or at least the bad habits that can make lives sordid, squalid endurance contests. Everyone is different, everyone has their own story to tell, everyone’s fate is their own and no one else’s. Most live more or less normal lives, wherever that is on the continuum of behaviors, no matter how good or bad or how many poems they write. Others are just… doomed, in some respect.

I am reminded of Harold Bloom’s assertion that literature’s only use is to help us think about ourselves in the world, the quality of being nothing more nor less than humans struggling through life with wit and grit, creating and failing and destroying with an array of emotion and words to give them personality. The job of the poet isn’t to instruct others in how to live a full life, but rather chronicle the unending problematic situations of the life were are constantly trying to negotiate a contract of conduct with, only to find, again, that life is a pure, unceasing process, churning, burning, destroying, and creating from the ash and mire. The poet records the ironies that will not stop coming, the lessons that will always be taught to the same romantics, adventurers, would-be saints, and dime store dictators. It is one of the ironies of modern existence and the expansion of all media that the subjects of protest songs, songs that are very specific to a cause or to an injustice, no longer seem to spark the desire to work toward bettering the world that the romantics among us wish would come to be. The embarrassment has more to do with our own memories than with Ochs’ politics. A posthumous collection of his songwriting, the two-disc Chord of Fame from 1976, scans the timeline from the way we were, thinking we could change the world with good sentiments if not concrete policies, to the way we are now, with ideals shattered and wearing a chic cynicism. For my part, I continually thank Ochs for being a major influence in forcing me to confront and accept social justice as a living principal and work mightily to avoid the fatal view that claimed this brilliant man’s life.

Continue Reading