Tuesday, February 8, 2011

"Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune": Public Commitment, Private Demons

Of all of the singer-songwriters who took part in the 1960s folk music revival centered in New York’s Greenwich Village, Phil Ochs was the most committed to progressive causes. While Bob Dylan was certainly known for his protest anthems, he resented being anointed a generational spokesman and moved toward the personal and the surreal. For the greater part of his career, as depicted in the documentary “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune,” Ochs maintained his public commitment.

In addition to writing such protest classics as “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “Ballad of Medgar Evers,” Ochs was always ready to lend his talents to the next civil rights or antiwar rally. To watch the film is to revisit the epochal events of the 1960s, from Ochs' involvement with the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention to his pain at the assassination of President Kennedy. In addition, such iconic figures as Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman, among others, discuss Ochs’ impact on music and politics.

Ochs’ inner demons rendered his life’s story ultimately tragic. His father was hospitalized for depression, and there is an implication that Ochs’ bipolar disorder was at least partly genetic. His condition was aggravated by his alcoholism, his frustration with the pace of political change, disappointments with his career, feelings of being at loose ends when the war in Vietnam finally ended, and his mugging in Tanzania, which damaged his vocal chords. He committed suicide in 1975 at 35. “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” is a fascinating documentary of social and musical history and of a haunted, brilliant troubadour committed to saving the world but unable to save himself.

“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” is playing throughout the country until May 15.


Elmo said...

I still have images of Dick Cheney dancing to "Draft Dodger Rag"

Jeff Tone said...

Elmo: Cheney is one of the chickenhawks who are ready to send others to war while avoiding it themselves. His excuse: "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service." http://www.slate.com/id/2097365/

Michael The Molar Maven said...

As so often occurs, most of us are able to move on. But some can't. Even though Phil Ochs wrote and sung of social injustice, the main focus of the protest generation centered around The Vietnam War. Once it ended most were able to either refocus or just claim victory. Phil Ochs lost his main cause and, in my opinion, drowned himself in potential irrelevancy. Basically, he couldn't handle that.

Michael The Molar Maven said...

Phil Ochs on "Eve of Destruction" written by P. F. Sloan, when Sloan was 19 years old: "Phil Ochs...said that the quality of “Eve of Destruction” was terrible, and called its philosophy 'juvenile.' He cautioned that protest songs by their very nature could never maintain a popular status, adding, 'The Top Forty revenge is one of the fastest revenges in the country. When people get turned off, that’s it: instant death. I think the protest thing will die out pretty fast.'" (Disclosure: I took that from barrymcguire.com.)

Jeff Tone said...

Michael: Yes, but I believe there was another, perhaps more crucial element: Ochs' inheriting his instability from his father.