The Pre-Revolutionary Clown
By Will Wlizlo
Five thousand people streamed through the streets of Manhattan. The crowd marched against the stream of traffic: It made it harder for the NYPD to follow them. Some carried briefcases and umbrellas, having been caught up in the throng on their way home from work or during an afternoon stroll. Others lifted bright placards above their heads. “God Bless You Lyndon For Ending The War,” read one. A smallish man in wire-rimmed glasses and a black military duster led the pack, singing, “I declare the war is over” in an off-pitch, nasal croon.
The man’s name was Phil Ochs, and the Vietnam War wouldn’t actually end for another seven and a half years.
Phil Ochs is an American enigma. He grew up Jewish in El Paso, Texas, with his father, a veteran with crippling post-traumatic stress disorder, and mother, a nouveau riche Scottish immigrant. With only an acoustic guitar, Ochs wrote trenchant protest music and gave the ’60s counterculture movement its most famous anti-war anthem. John Wayne and Elvis Presley, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, Victor Jara and Robert F. Kennedy were all among his idols. He drank too much. Alcoholism turned into depression, depression turned into lunacy, and all three drove him to suicide at the age of 35.
Ochs’ meteoric rise and fall are the subject of Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, a comprehensive documentary of the young musician’s life and passions, released last month on First Run Features. Director Kenneth Bowser charts Ochs’ inspirations through shifting political winds, revolutionary cultural trends, and the abrupt punctuation marks of history. Bowser sketches a sharp portrait of a man devoted to equality, progress, and justice until his untimely death.
Most listeners first hear of Ochs after following a footnote in a Bob Dylan biography. Along with Dylan, Tim Hardin, Dave Van Ronk, and others, Ochs joined the early ’60s “topical song” movement budding in the brownstones of Greenwich Village, an early hotbed of countercultural art and anti-war activism. Dylan became Ochs’ friend and, ultimately, his hero. “I went to NY to become the best songwriter in the country,” said Ochs, as recalled by his brother Michael, “and then I met Dylan, and I decided I’d be the second best.” But their collaborative relationship quickly developed skewed power dynamics.
In short, Dylan thought Ochs’ music was shallow rubbish, lacking emotion and poetry. (On one famous occasion, Dylan kicked Ochs out of his limousine and yelled after him, “You’re not a singer. You’re a journalist.”) In all fairness, headlines in the New York Times often inspired Ochs’ early songs: He would even go on to name his debut album All the News That’s Fit to Sing, an homage to the Times’ journalistic tagline. Buried at the back of the A-section, real world stories about civil rights abuses, inequality, war, busted economics, and crooked politics made Ochs’ blood boil. By complementing the rigid reportage of the New York Times with progressive moralizing and sardonic humor, Ochs hoped to transform the world around him.
“In every revolution there are clowns that precede the real stuff,” Ochs would say after the “War is Over” march. “And that’s what I am. I’m a pre-revolutionary clown.”
In 1967, Ochs took up with Theater of the Absurd dramatists after leaving New York for Los Angeles to record Pleasures of the Harbor, a stylistic U-turn from the journalistic folk of his earlier work. Straight talk, Ochs found, wasn’t reaching enough people or spurring much political change. “We spent years fighting against the war on a moral basis,” he said, “and the administration doesn’t listen at all. And then you become increasingly aware that you’re not having any effect.” Instead, Ochs planned a rally that was not only hopeful in a cynical age, but could capture the popular imagination.
“It was quite effective,” activist and friend Abbie Hoffman explained in an archival interview, “because in that moment they had to say ‘Well, what would it be like if the war was over?'” From the rally forward, the absurd would define Ochs’ career and personal life.
On the next three albums, Ochs parodied and epitomized stardom, without ever getting too popular. Ever tongue-in-cheek, he donned an Elvis-inspired all-gold lamé suit for the cover of his final album, Greatest Hits. (Despite what the name implies, Greatest Hits featured only original songs–Ochs didn’t have any hits.) He travelled the world, slumming through bordellos in Haiti, recording proto-afro-folk in Kenya, and witnessing first-hand the radical government of Allende’s Chile. It was a last-ditch chance to escape himself, the person he would become.
John Butler Train hung himself with a belt from a hook on his sister’s bathroom door on April 6, 1976.
Ochs chose the pseudonym John Train as he spiraled down what would be his last major depressive cycle. John Train claimed that he had murdered Phil Ochs and was now taking over his life. He feared the CIA was trying to assassinate him, so he carried a weapon at all times. His brother tried to have him committed, but Phil chose a brief life of homelessness instead. After a while, Ochs found his way to Far Rockaway, New York, to live with his sister, Sonny. He wouldn’t leave her house, even to buy cigarettes or booze; he stayed indoors, playing solitaire and the piano melody of “Jim Dean of Indiana” until she got home from teaching each day. One day when she came home, the piano was silent.
Dave Van Ronk visited Sonny’s apartment shortly after the suicide. He had had an argument with Ochs, a drunken affair that cut deep on both sides. Van Ronk felt guilt–for his own falling out with Ochs, and for the family that Phil left behind. “Mistakes are lodged like harpoons and fish hooks in an intelligent person’s soul,” Van Ronk said later. At Ochs’ memorial service, Van Ronk played his song “He Was a Friend of Mine,” and in that context, it was utterly heart-rending.
Ochs’ life was tragic. And like most tragedies, you can see them from a long way off.
Rewind to 1975. American forces lost control of Saigon. Troops were barreling out of Vietnam. A decade of protest had finally paid off–or at least been legitimized. A celebration was in order, and this time around Ochs could truthfully say that the war was over.
More than 100,000 people crowded Central Park. Many felt lost, or confused. The evil that the counterculture movement worked so hard to undo was undone. So, now what? Undoubtedly, Ochs had the same question on his mind. As his brother Michael puts it in the documentary, “that was the last dragon to be slain.” Without a dragon, who needs a knight?
“There But for Fortune,” a hauntingly sad duet performed by Ochs and Joan Baez, was one of the rally’s final performances. It was a eulogy for an era, and for its knight.
Show me the country, where the bombs had to fall
Show me the ruins of the buildings, once so tall
And I’ll show you, young land
with so many reasons why
there but for fortune go you and I, you and I.
Images courtesy of First Run Features.
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