Phil Ochs Revisited   2 comments

With another Seattle tribute pending to honor Phil’s legacy, this is a two-part article I wrote prior to the release of “There But For Fortune,” the remarkable film about his life.  Part 2 is an interview with his equally remarkable sister, Sonny, who, at age 75, is still keeping the flame burning.

kanter1103

“With So Many Reasons Why…”

Recollections of a Phil Ochs Fan

Part 1

I attended my first folk music concert in the mid-sixties at Queens College in New York, where I would enroll the following year. My musical tastes at the time included a growing interest in the Beatles, a man-crush on Bob Dylan…but was still clinging to the comfortable but fading echoes of Bobby Rydell, Del Shannon, and Dion and the Belmonts.

There were four performers onstage that night. Doc Watson, Michael Cooney, Patrick Sky…and Phil Ochs. Doc Watson, now in his 80’s continues to be a mythical presence in the world of finger picking and roots Americana music. Patrick Sky and Michael Cooney remain two iconic and original figures in the world of folk music.

It was Phil Ochs, however, who changed forever how I saw, heard, and felt about music. His wit, sardonic humor, empathy, stunning images, and storytelling ability washed over me like a cultural tsunami.

I had dabbled in guitar and had pretty much mastered the same three chords I use today. I could scratch out “Blowin’ In the Wind”, “The Times They Are A Changin’”, and some of the other new instant Dylan classics. For a guy with a guitar, these tunes were obligatory…chicks dug ‘em! Oh yeah…they had a message too.

Phil also had a message…and it resonated!

The first Phil Ochs song I learned and actually sang was “Too Many Martyrs!” which tells of the murder of Mississippi civil rights leader, Medgar Evers, while referring to the earlier beating-death of 14-year-old Emmett Till. It was the first time I’d heard of either.

His name was Medgar Evers and he walked his road alone,
with Emmett Till and countless more, names we’ll never know.

“Lou Marsh” chronicled the beating-death of another young black man, not in the South but in my own city of New York. Marsh, a former Yale divinity student working as a social worker, was killed trying to head off a war between two rival street gangs in East Harlem.

Now the streets are empty, now the streets are dark
So keep an eye on shadows and never pass the park
For the city is a jungle when the law is out of sight
Death lurks in El Barrio with the orphans of the night.

These weren’t the universal anthems of the spreading civil rights/student/anti-war movement…these were headlines…about real people. These were the faces of the victims. Phil was recording moments in history…painting landscapes with stark images and colors.

Kitty Genovese was even closer to home. She was a young white woman who was attacked, raped, stabbed, and robbed outside of her home in the respectable Queens community of Kew Gardens…in the shadow of my future alma mater, Queens College. The popular version of the story is that 38 of  her neighbors witnessed the event and did nothing to help her, not even calling the police. Though that number is in dispute, what isn’t is the portrait of social apathy Phil painted in “Small Circle of Friends,” citing the Genovese incident and others…with humor. Humor!

Look outside the window, there’s a woman being grabbed.
They’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed.
Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain.
But Monopoly is so much fun, I’d hate to blow the game.
Chorus: And I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody
outside of a small circle of friends.

Phil Ochs

Phil looked into the face of American foreign policy and saw it for what it was, one self-enriching military adventure after another. From our nation’s founding to the then-present (and beyond!) it was a trail of land-grabs, blood, and genocide, inevitably hidden within the empty platitudes of moral camouflage. And he was not going to participate. “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” became an anthem of a generation who questioned this rush to battle and made the conscious decision to not participate with him. People like me.

It’s always the old to lead us to the wars
Always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with a saber and a gun
Tell me is it worth it all?

Those familiar with Phil’s story know that it was the 1968 Democratic Convention that brought on his disillusionment and subsequent journey into despair. The counter-culture with all its media events and truth-outs and pot and free love…etc. had really changed little in the country. Yes, the war had finally ended…as did Nixon’s presidency, but, in the grand scheme of things, the system that had created a Vietnam and a Nixon was still in place, largely intact.

Phil Ochs was not a martyr. Like the rest of us, no more or less, he was a human being, which meant he was flawed. He was a young man with a remarkable gift that brought him notoriety but not commercial success. He had no top 10 songs. Even after he had pretty much abandoned the in-your-face protest content for the lovely melodies, musicality, and images of “Flower Lady” and “Pleasures of the Harbor”, mainstream success was not to be. The audience for folk music was changing, opting for the folk/rock/country blends of bands such as the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, Poco, The Grateful Dead, and The Band. There was also that little quartet from Liverpool and their countless progeny.Phil Ochs

The war was over; Nixon, Agnew, and the draft were gone. Good Ol’ Jerry Ford was president. The country was exhausted from the rigors of the previous decade. It was time to kick back and party.

Phil Ochs wasn’t doing as well. He too was exhausted. Heavy drinking had exacerbated a burgeoning bipolar condition. Isolated from most of his friends, he went to stay with his sister, Sonny, in the Rockaway section of Queens.

On April 9, 1976, he hanged himself in her bathroom.

End Part One

Originally published Victory Review Magazine, 3/11 (http://www.victorymusic.us/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1119:with-so-many-reasons-why&catid=140:2011-march-review&Itemid=43)

Part Two

With So Many Reasons Why…

An Interview with Sonny Ochs

On April 9, 1976, folksinger and political activist Phil Ochs ended his long bout with bipolar disorder (manic depression) by hanging himself. At the time, he was staying at the home of his sister, Sonia “Sonny” Ochs, in the Far Rockaway section of Queens, NY. Phil was 35 years old.

In the more than three decades that have since elapsed, Sonny has worked hard to keep Phil’s legacy alive through coordinating Phil Ochs Song Nights and other events throughout the US and Canada. She is very forthcoming about her brother. She spoke with me on the phone for about an hour from her home in Middleburgh, NY.

VR:  What was Phil like as a child?

SO: He was rather shy and introverted. He had trouble making friends. Our father was a doctor, but due to his own manic depression he could not keep a job, so we moved a lot. [1]  Phil was born in El Paso. We then moved to New York and finally to Ohio where our father got a job at a TB clinic. This made it harder on Phil; as soon as he would make a friend, we would move again.

He loved movies and would spend a lot of his time escaping into action films. He idolized John Wayne and Audie Murphy.

VR: Was your family politically active?

SO: No, we were apolitical.

VR: When did he become interested in music?

SO: He took up the clarinet in junior high school. He was so good that he was actually the first chair in the high school orchestra while still in junior high.  When we again were going to move, the high school music teacher asked our parents if Phil could stay behind and live with his family.

VR: Outside of school did he have any music interests? Influences?

SO: At the time, Phil was also developing an interest in rock ‘n roll and country music. His favorites were Faron Young, Webb Pierce and Hank Williams.

VR: Did he show any interest in writing?

SO: He didn’t write songs. He wrote fiction in high school.

VR: Hard as it is to believe, Phil attended military school. Whose idea was it?

SO: It was his idea. He saw an ad for the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia on the back of a New York Times Magazine. I think he wanted to play clarinet in the band there. By the way, John Dean from Watergate fame and Barry Goldwater’s son, Michael, were also there at the time.

VR: He left after a couple of years and enrolled in Ohio State University. How did things change for him there?

SO: By an incredible coincidence, or act of fate, his college roommate was a young man named Jim Glover. Jim’s father, a Socialist, taught Phil politics. Jim introduced Phil to folk music: Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Woody Guthrie. Jim also taught Phil his first guitar chords. They formed a folk duo, The Singing Socialists, which they later changed to The Sundowners, but it didn’t last too long.

Phil was a journalism major. His left-leaning articles were too controversial for the school paper. In those days all male students were required to enroll in Reserve Officers Training Corps or ROTC (or Rot-C in many students’ lexicon of the day—author). So he started his own paper, which printed articles in favor of Fidel Castro among other things.

Jim Glover dropped out of OSU and headed for Greenwich Village to join the folk scene. There he met Jean Ray and they formed the duo, Jim & Jean. They also moved in together and were subsequently married.

It wasn’t long before Phil also dropped out of OSU and joined them. He lived in their apartment, writing endlessly. He also started gaining a reputation as a promising new talent. He hung around with folks like Bob Dylan, Eric Anderson, David Blue, and Dave Van Ronk. He also met and moved in with Alice Skinner, his future wife and mother of their daughter, Meeghan.

He was delighted when he got a regular paying gig. The owner of the Third Side Club guaranteed him a minimum of $20 per night to play there. That was pretty big money for a folksinger in those days.

VR: Which of Phil’s songs from that era were your personal favorites?

SO: “Talking Cuban (Missile) Crisis,” “Lou Marsh,” and”Power and the Glory.”

VR: Rumor has it that Phil was insulted when Dylan famously accused him of not being “a folksinger but a journalist.” True?

SO:I don’t think so. He was a journalist. He captured historical moments. Look at”Cuban Missile Crisis” and”Lou Marsh” …and “Too Many Martyrs,” which was about the murder of Medgar Evers.

VR: And your favorites among the later songs?

SO: “Pleasures of the Harbor” and “The Party.” The observations and descriptions of the “guests” were just so perfect: “The Wallflower is waiting, she hides behind composure…she’d love to dance but prays that no one asks her…”

VR: I used to do “The Party” during restaurant and bar gigs because it had so many verses and was a great time killer.

SO: (Laughter)

VR: Phil’s role as a leader and spokesperson for the activism of the ’60s is well-documented by those who were there. Yet he isn’t as well-known by the general public. Do you think the new documentary, “Phil Ochs:  There But For Fortune” will help change that?

SO: I hope so. He has largely been written out of history, though he really was the voice of the anti-war movement.

VR: The film is also very honest about his mental issues…as well as your father’s similar battle with manic depression (now called bipolar disorder).[1] What were the major events that triggered Phil’s “lows?”

SO:The death of President Kennedy hit him very hard. So did those of Bobby [Kennedy] and Martin Luther King.

VR: But from all accounts, it seems like the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago was a real turning point for him?

SO: It was the end, really. But it got worse. He was attacked and choked into unconsciousness in Africa. His vocal cords were damaged and he lost some of  his voice range.

VR: And Chile?

SO: Yes. He was a great admirer of Salvador Allende. When he visited Chile he met and became friends with Victor Jara, Chile’s hugely popular folksinger. Well, after the coup, when Phil learned that Allende had been killed and that Jara had been tortured and killed, it was awful.

He did organize a public concert, “An Evening With Salvadore Allende,” to raise funds for the Chilean people and awareness as to the CIA’s role in fomenting the coup. It wasn’t selling many tickets until Dylan agreed to attend and it sold out immediately. It was the first public statement that linked the U.S. to the coup.

VR: He was drinking pretty heavily by then. Apparently even the end of Nixon’s presidency and the war were not enough to bring him out of it.

SO: He was sleeping on the street. People didn’t recognize him.

VR: Didn’t recognize him?

SO: He had gained a lot of weight. He was sloppy, disheveled. He finally called me and asked if he could stay with me and the kids at my house in Rockaway. So, he moved in.

VR: Was he drinking?

SO: Not when he was with me. I don’t drink and he never went out.

VR: Who among his friends, if any, were there for him?

SO: Jerry Rubin was the kindest and most concerned. He knew of a doctor in California and offered to personally take Phil out to see him. But Phil refused. Then it was over.

VR: What do you think of the resurgence of interest in your brother? Do you feel he’s at long last getting the recognition he deserved…and seemed to want so much?

SO: Yes, I am glad people are discovering him and appreciating his work.

VR: What is your advice to young folksingers who are discovering Phil and would like to emulate his work?

SO: Read the newspaper!

End Part 2

Final Note

I had the privilege of being part of a group of performers who were invited to share some of Phil’s songs following the first evening’s showing of “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle. The movie brought back a lot of the emotion, disappointment and heartbreak of the era. Phil’s life (and death!) was a microcosm of the time. The two songs I selected were “Lou Marsh” and “The Party,” two of the songs Sonny had cited as being among her favorites of her brother’s early works.

I emailed her the following day to share the experience and the emotion of the evening. I mentioned that as a native New Yorker, I was familiar with many of the  locations that were depicted in the film. One in particular was Rockaway Beach, where the family lived when they were young and where Sonny was living at the time of Phil’s suicide. I told her that my family used to go to that beach when we were young and scarf down delicacies from a boardwalk eatery called “Jerry’s Knishes.” She immediately wrote back that she too remembered Jerry’s Knishes and the recollection had made her smile. That made me smile, too.  (GK)

[1] Joseph Ochs was drafted into the US Army toward the end of WWII where he treated soldiers wounded in the bloody Battle of the Bulge. Shortly after his discharge, he was institutionalized.

Originally posted in Victory Review Magazine 4/12 (http://www.victorymusic.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1145:with-so-many-reasons-why-part-2&catid=141&Itemid=43)


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Posted September 14, 2012 by garykanter in Uncategorized

2 responses to “Phil Ochs Revisited

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  1. I first became aware of Phil Ochs early in 1962 while doing a current event report as a senior in high school. The topic I happen to choose was about a government scandal by a Congressman who got a bill passed to hire a trucking firm in his state of Texas to haul fertilizer to ships to carry the loads to foreign nations. Eventually it was learned that the trucking firm that was awarded hundreds of thousands of dollars was owned by the Congressman himself, Billie Sol Estes. The night I was writing the report I heard a song on the radio about the scandal called “Billie Sol”. I wrote down the words and included them on my report. I got an “A”, but more important I I became enthralled with a person who could write fascinating songs about topical events. I would meet this fellow six years later. He is still one of the most inspirational and influential individuals I have known.

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