Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune


Phil Ochs was proof that it is possible to care too much. All of my generation were stunned and depressed by the murders of John, Martin, and Bobby, by the police riot at the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention, by the CIA-sponsored coup and resulting mass murders in Chile. Phil was shattered by these events. He was bipolar and schizophrenic, and it grew worse and worse until he couldn’t stand it anymore, and he hung himself at the age of 35.

You could think of him as a poor man’s Bob Dylan. In fact, he himself said that he went to New York to become the world’s greatest song writer, then he met Dylan, and decided to try to be second-best. But unlike Dylan, he was accessible, willing to play for any protest or demonstration that came along, no matter how minor. People liked him, unlike Dylan. He referred to himself as a protest singer. Dylan wrote a few protest songs early in his career, but was never really a supporter of anything except himself. He treated Ochs horribly, toying with his emotions when he knew that would fuck up his head. (You may guess, I’m not a big admirer of Bob. One of the greatest, if not the greatest songwriter of my generation, for sure, and not much of a human being.)

Phil’s songs always had a point, and even though he was not much of a musician, he kept at it long after songs of protest had become rare as the zeitgeist of folk and rock was commercialized and degraded to its present sorry state. Near the end of his life, though, he wrote and sang some amazingly sweet songs with musical backup, songs that should have been bigger hits than they were. His biggest flaw was probably that he hungered for success and fame, and never managed to get beyond third billing on the concert poster of life. Some of his songs are a bit dated now, the cause having moved on, but many of them are still as relevant and biting as they were when he wrote them. I have always admired him, ever since I heard “Small Circle of Friends,” dripping with irony and scorn for people who would not get involved. Or try “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” sometime if you think you believe in something. Do you, really? Enough so you’re willing to go to Chicago and get your head bashed in by Daley’s storm troopers? Not many of us measure up to that. I sure don’t, anymore. I probably never did.