Set against the backdrop of the 1960s through the end of the Vietnam War, Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune traces the life and music of singer songwriter Phil Ochs, who committed suicide in 1976. Ochs was a driven artist and activist whose sense of social justice was at times in conflict with his desire for recognition, a tragic American hero with a history of bipolar disorder whose life and work was deeply enmeshed with the cultural and political tapestry of his time.
After Ochs’ death, it was revealed that the FBI had compiled hundreds of pages of intelligence about him, though the bureau had at time misspelled his name as Oakes and even after his death continued to consider him “potentially dangerous”.
Director Ken Bowser, producer Michael Ochs (Phil’s brother, and one-time manager) and Phil’s daughter Meegan join us tonight to discuss Ochs’ life, music, contributions, and his love of movies.
Ochs began his career singing what he called his “topical songs” in coffee houses and folk music cafes in Greenwich Village and graduated to hootenannies at Carnegie Hall and the Newport Jazz Festival. Ochs, who considered himself a singing journalist, was a prolific songwriter. He focused his music on civil rights, war, labor issues, government malfeasance and other current events. He performed at a wide range of venues, including civil rights rallies, anti-war demonstrations, and concert halls.
Though he supported Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Ochs was actively involved in the creation of the more radical Youth International Party (Yippies) and witnessed the Chicago police riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention, an event that—in combination with the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy and the election of Richard Nixon—left him disillusioned. He testified at the trial of the Chicago Seven, reciting the lyrics to “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”
While Ochs was a witty and prolific songwriter, he never managed to crack the Top 100 on the Billboard charts, though Joan Baez’s cover of “There but for Fortune” became a Top Ten hit in the UK and reached #50 on Billboard. Baez, along with Tom Hayden and Sean Penn, offer up their takes on Ochs, who in 1970 decided his person was part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara, performing in a gold lame suit and covering classic 1950s rock and country hits as well as his own tunes. Audiences were a bit stunned. Sadly, Ochs was imitating Elvis in another way: he was taking a lot of prescription drugs.
On his 1971 trip to Chile to support the democratically elected president, Marxist Salvador Allende, Ochs met Chilean folksinger Victor Jara and the two became good friends. Ochs then proceeded to Uruguay with American friend David Ifshin for a performance at a political rally. The two were detained then put on a British run Banff Airlines flight to Bolivia, where, concerned about their safety, the airline captain allowed them to stay on board as he barred the Bolivian authorities from entering. The flight then took off for Peru, and, spooked, Ochs and Ifshin quickly left for the States.
Though suffering from writer’s block, Ochs continued to perform, especially at benefits including a concert on behalf of activist poet John Sinclair that featured Stevie Wonder and others. He organized An Evening with Salvador Allende”, included films of Allende as well as singers Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark. But by mid-1972 things began spiraling out of control for the singer: he was robbed and strangled in Dar-es-Salaam and believed the FBI and/or CIA were behind the attack. Allende’s 1973 assassination and imprisonment, torture and murder of his friend Victor Jara further increased his depression and fear.
While Ochs’ paranoia, drinking and pill use escalated, they did not prevent him from staging the 1975 War is Over rally in Central Park to celebrate the end of the Vietnam War. The bill featured Ochs, Joan Baez, Odetta, Bella Abzug and Harry Belafonte among others and was attended by an estimated 100,000 people.
Ochs’ drinking spiraled out of control and at one point he took on another persona, that of John Butler Train whom he claimed had killed Phil Ochs. Family and friends urged him to seek help to no avail, and though the Train character faded, Ochs carried a weapon at all times and railed against the FBI, at times living on the streets. Finally, in January 1976, he moved in with his sister and her sons, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and prescribed medication, which he claimed he was taking. He hanged himself on April 29, 1976. Congresswoman Abzug had his death entered into the Congressional Record.