Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune—Kenneth Bowser’s Powerful Biopic Is at the Jacob Burns Center Tonight

(This week, I decided to “lend” my Poptional Reading blog to my Westchester Magazine colleague, Carol Caffin, a music aficionado and former music publicist, who is a huge fan of 1960s folk and folk-rock, including the music of the late Phil Ochs. –ML).

On a bitter, steely cold day in January, I dragged my husband and my son (actually, they came willingly—even, seemingly, happily—but I sensed that it was one of those things they were doing to show me how much they love me) into Manhattan to the IFC (Independent Film Center). The long-awaited (to me, at least) documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, directed by Kenneth Bowser and named for one of Phil’s most poignant songs, was opening there, in the heart of the West Village, just blocks away from where Phil had lived and performed in coffeehouses nearly a half-century ago. I’d hoped for an opening closer to home—like around the corner, at the Jacob Burns Film Center (where it is playing tonight at 7:15 followed by a discussion with New York Times film critic and Westchester resident Janet Maslin), but the film was in limited release and, at the time, that was the only New York screening.

“Mom, you think we’re gonna be the only ones there?” my son asked, with a tad of trepidation, as we neared the theater. “I’m sure we won’t,” I told him. “But don’t worry—I guarantee none of your friends will be there.” We were all a bit surprised, though, to see that the line of people—mostly Baby Boomers—waiting to get in, with temperatures struggling to reach the mid ‘20s, was nearly a block long—an hour before show time.

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My son, who is open-minded about music of all genres, has grown to know—and even like—many of Phil’s songs. He really hasn’t had much of a choice, since Phil (that’s what I call him; no surname necessary) has been a fixture in my listening repertoire for years now. But Phil’s music is not something that generally crops up in casual conversation with other moms, with my colleagues at the magazine, or with the old friends I grew up with. The sad fact is that, despite his irrefutable genius and his relatively small but often brilliant and, in some cases, timeless body of work, Phil Ochs remains, 35 years after his suicide, largely unknown and inexplicably unheralded.

I was lucky to find him. And I did so by accident. Except for chats with some of my music-aficionado friends, Phil’s music has been a secret pleasure of mine since I first fell in love with his voice, his lyrics, his intellect, his humor —and his palpable vulnerability—some time in the late ‘80s, when I first heard “There But for Fortune,” nearly 25 years after its release, on a folk compilation.

There. I said it. The dreaded “F word.” Folk is a word that even some of the most ardent music fans avoid like the plague. It’s a word that conjures images of crew-cut, black-frame-bespectacled, early-60s Ivy Leaguers sitting around dorm lobbies strumming acoustic guitars and singing “Kumbaya”; of the New Christy Minstrels singing their corny but catchy classic, “Green, Green”; of neat-as-a-pin vocal groups like the Serendipity Singers, the Rooftop Singers, and others considered “square” by the hip kids of the early and mid ‘60s, who were, by then, caught in the grip of Beatlemania and the British Invasion, or gravitating toward the pop sounds of girl groups, surfer music, and Motown.

But Phil Ochs, despite his lack of sartorial finesse (those who knew him might say that he wore clothes only to keep from roaming the streets naked—and then, wore them until they were threadbare; in fact, his late contemporary, Dave Van Ronk, remembered him wearing the same suit to the point that it became shiny enough to see his reflection in), was no collegiate strummer, no wannabe freight-train-hoppin’ folkie.

Phil Ochs was an artist. When he emerged on the Greenwich Village folk scene in the early 1960s, some didn’t know what to make of him. Music critics have referred to Phil as a “protest singer” (he did sing songs of protest, but his real genius was in the writing of them); others, more accurately, have called him a “topical songwriter” (unlike some coffeehouse folkies who often sang traditional songs with new arrangements, or new songs meant to sound old, or songs about universal sentiments and situations). Phil referred to himself as a “musical journalist,” which is what he really was—an artist acutely aware (ultimately, too acutely for his own good) of the zeitgeist in which he was immersed and the tumultuous world around him. His music made people think. It made them laugh and cry. Sometimes it made them angry. And it almost always made them question. As journalist Jean Rayburn Gleason mentioned at a famous Bob Dylan press conference in 1965, Phil “twisted people’s wigs.”

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Mostly, though, Phil was a rebel—musically, politically, and personally. He performed at anti-war protests and civil-rights rallies, organized labor events, and even made it to Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately for him, he was eclipsed by a force that no one could contend with, a force that burst onto the scene at around the same time: Dylan. Though the two became close friends and, sometimes, friendly rivals—Phil revered Dylan as an artist, loved him as a friend, but, unlike many of the crowd, stopped short of kissing his ass—Phil was so sensitive, insecure, and mentally and emotionally fragile, that even the slightest criticism of his work by the man he most respected would pierce him like a sword.

More slings and arrows came Phil’s way as Dylan grew and changed and “went electric” (Phil refused to do so at the time), as the Greenwich Village folk scene gave way to the hippie scene in the latter part of the decade, and as topical music was left in the dust. Phil, a “left social democrat,” was devastated when protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago culminated in a police riot; some say he was never the same. On a subsequent trip to Africa, he was attacked and nearly strangled, which changed his singing voice permanently.

The downward spiral began. Phil’s alcoholism began taking a huge toll, and he started to take on the look of a bloated, aging ragamuffin. He descended into despair and, many believed, into madness. At one point, he proclaimed, “Phil Ochs is dead,” and began using the pseudonym “John Train.” In April, 1976, Phil Ochs, despondent, hanged himself at his sister’s house in Far Rockaway. He was 35 years old.

Though Phil has been honored and lauded by fans and peers in the years since his death, and though songs like “There But for Fortune,” “Cops of the World,” and “Ringing of Revolution” are now timelier and more relivant than ever, it’s doubtful that Phil Ochs will ever receive the widespread acclaim he so longed for—and so richly deserves.

But Kenneth Bowser’s riveting, masterful, warts-and-all biopic, directed by Phil’s brother, Michael Ochs, is a veritable Phil Ochs museum—and a great starting point. This is the truest, fullest portrayal of the troubadour that’s ever been undertaken, and, with lots of performance footage, candid snippets, and interviews—and no drippy nostalgia—it is at once a time capsule of the turbulent ‘60s and a biography of one of the most brilliant and perceptive artists of his time—or any time. Don’t miss it.

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