I never met Phil Ochs. Seeing as how I was only 11 when he hung himself in 1976, the prospects of such a meeting were decidedly slim. The disturbing thing, however, is that most Americans, even those politically conscious when this singer/ songwriter/ activist was singing about his hopes for our nation, have little or no recollection of him.
For the uninitiated, here’s a primer: Ochs cut his first record for Elektra in 1964 as a sort of tuneful version of “The Huntley-Brinkley Report,” fashioning songs from the headlines of the day. In all, he recorded eight albums in almost as many years before losing his muse. In the meantime, he lent his support to striking Kentucky coal miners, the strengthening of labor unions, and countless protest rallies against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Hence, the FBI labeled Ochs dangerous throughout most of his adult life — even a month after his suicide. Alas, the resulting publicity never translated into a hit record.
On the surface, then, Ochs may seem no more than a relic of a bygone era. After all, this was a man who once wrote a song chastising liberals for being too far to the right. Indeed, the defining moment of his life was the tear gas attacks he and his fellow protesters suffered at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The music Ochs created out of that experience, as evidenced by his 1969 A&M disc, Rehearsals for Retirement (currently available on CD from Collector’s Choice Music), contains valuable insight for everyone who believes loving one’s country isn’t always synonymous with supporting its actions.
Phil saw the events of said convention as the death of the American dream. In the ponderously titled “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park But Escapes Unscathed,” he envisions America as “a fair young maiden” who, in the end, “lies in stone.” Meanwhile, Joe Citizen, as portrayed in the satirical slap “Pretty Smart on My Part,” is increasingly paranoid, wary of everyone from strangers on the roadside to disease-ridden Communist invaders. Replace “Communist” with “Islamic” and the song is instantly applicable to the Dubya era.
Ochs’ America was coming unglued, and the central question of the album revolves around whether or not the nation was beyond saving. Ochs struggles with this idea throughout the disc. In “Scorpion Departs, But Never Returns,” a doomed submarine is a metaphor for a nation drowned in its own excess, as he sings, “No one gives an answer/ Not even one goodbye/ The silence of their sinking/ Is all that they reply.” Ochs never stopped loving his country, but like many of us today, he had more and more difficulty believing in it.
As the ’60s were dying, Ochs glimpsed the future in “Another Age.” His take on the ’68 election (“If that was an election/ I’m a Viet Cong”) echoes the sentiments of many voters in 2000. He offers a warning against complacency: “And they’ll quote you in the classroom/ That it cannot happen here/ But it has happened here,” that eerily foreshadows terrorist attacks. Our current president might do well to heed the warning, “We were born in a revolution/ And we died in a wasted war/ It’s gone that way before.” The song ends with a brilliant missive statement for all who might dissent: “So I pledge allegiance against the flag/ And the fall for which it stands/ I’ll raise it if I can.”
In the end, he couldn’t. The album’s title track conveyed a de facto message of “I don’t know what to write about anymore.” The cover of the LP, a photograph of a tombstone with the inscription “Phil Ochs — American — Born: El Paso, Texas, 1940. Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968,” showed just how fragile Phil’s psyche had become.
“No More Sings,” the closing track from his subsequent album — a collection of new material self-mockingly titled Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits — revealed an admission of his inability to write about anything anymore. From there, the spiritual abyss that had become Ochs’ soul, fueled by alcoholism, depression, and government surveillance, widened until it finally engulfed him. He spent his last months wandering the streets of New York City under the self-imposed alias John Butler Train, a brutish alter ego antithetical to everything that he once had been. It is difficult not to see Ochs’ suicide, just prior to the nation’s bicentennial, as his farewell gesture to a country that he felt betrayed him.
It may be a weathered cliché that those who ignore the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them, but the lessons that Phil Ochs learned more than a quarter century ago are perhaps even more significant today. In a time when “democracy” too often translates into “majority tyranny,” the words of this forgotten genius still echo in search of ears willing to hear.
Bob Mehr’s comments: Well-written, evincing a healthy passion for the subject and a solid grasp of Ochs’ protest-driven music in a modern context. Shows plenty of promise.
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