Home > Uncategorized > Movie Review: “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” – posted 2/15/2014

Movie Review: “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” – posted 2/15/2014

I knew this documentary came out a couple years ago but I never had a chance to see it until recently. Made lovingly by Phil’s brother Michael Ochs and by Kenneth Bowker, “Phil Ochs” There But for Fortune” brought back many memories. As a Phil Ochs fan, I really enjoyed hearing the old music I have not heard for a long time.

Phil was a gifted songwriter. I will name some of my favorites: “Is There Anybody Here”, “I’m Gonna Say it Now”, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, “Ringing of Revolution”, “Small Circle of Friends”, “There But for Fortune”, and “When I’m Gone”. I struggled with this list because I am leaving out some other songs I love too.

It is hard to define what Phil meant to my generation. He certainly never had the widespread popularity of a Dylan or Neil Young. Still, he spoke to many of us and his songs connected. He was an authentic 60’s voice. On old tape, Abbie Hoffman reminisces about how you could always count on Phil to perform for any benefit or demonstration. That was true.

In the movie, it was mentioned that “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” was the anthem of the anti-Vietnam war movement. I think that was also true. I remember I owned the album (see album cover above) with that song on the cover. Phil wrote the best anti-war songs of anybody. They were lively, had great lyrics and the message could not have been clearer. They still sound good.

There is nobody around like Phil now and we are far worse for that. Phil was a conscience and his songs were strong. He had an ability to write topically about headline news. Maybe I am not as tuned in to music now (okay I am not as tuned in now) but I do not see any young singer/songwriter out there like him with an equivalent Movement-type connection. Maybe there is a rapper somewhere. I just don’t know the artist. Music now seems so insular.

Getting back to the movie, it is chronological in tracing Phil’s life. He grew up in an incredibly screwed up family. His father, a physician, suffered from manic depression. It sounded like he was in mental hospitals a lot and he was not there for Phil, his brother Michael or his sister Sonny. Phil’s mother also sounded miserably unhappy and mean to her children. She had expected Phil’s father to be financially successful which he was not. The family moved around frequently as Phil’s dad could not establish a successful medical practice. Phil did have a loving brother and sister though.

Phil’s family was apolitical. His friend, Jim Glover, was a big early influence. Phil met Jim when they were students together at Ohio State. Glover’s father was left wing. Glover and his father introduced Phil to folk music including Pete Seeger and the Weavers. That music had a big impact.

After 3 years, Phil dropped out of Ohio State and moved to Greenwich Village. It was the early 60’s. His goal was to become a songwriter and not just any songwriter. He wanted to be the best. The movie shows how Phil was part of a group of artists who all descended on the Village at the same time. These artists included Judy Henske, Eric Anderson, David Blue, Dave Von Ronk, Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan. They used to hang out together at each other’s apartments and listen to each other perform.

Quite a few of Phil’s old friends talk about him in the movie. According to Ed Sanders, Phil was a very friendly guy and he attracted a wide circle of friends. Lucien Truscott IV described Phil as “liberal but not didactic”. He said he never was cool and he was not afraid to expose his feelings.

Phil had a difficult relationship with Bob Dylan. He always sought Dylan’s approval but Dylan apparently never gave it. It sounded competitive between them. According to the movie, Dylan criticized Phil’s political songs as not being about his deepest emotions. It is hard to evaluate the whole thing now. Phil’s desire for Dylan’s approval sounded almost pathological. (I wonder what he would think of Dylan selling Chryslers.) They had times when they were friends though.

Phil embodied the contradictions of the era. He could write “Love, love me, love me, I’m a liberal” but he admired JFK and he had a very hard time coping after JFK’s assassination. I always liked his song “That was the President”. Phil had a hard time with the wishywashiness of liberals.

As the Vietnam war dragged on and the Movement frayed, things headed in darker directions. The Village artists moved on and out. There was immense rage and bitterness about the failure of the political system to address both Vietnam and civil rights. Profound alienation welled up especially in the wake of all the assassinations and the never ending war. Ed Sanders said that the bullet that shot RFK went through a whole generation and I know what he meant.

From the movie, it looked like Phil was confused. By nature, he was not a compromiser. He really wanted to be famous. He made an album “Pleasures of the Harbor” which went in some new directions. The album was badly reviewed although the movie said it did sell some. Phil started drinking more heavily. He tried to do a makeover, dressing in gold lame, following Elvis who was one of his heroes. He joked he was trying to get Elvis to become Che Guevara. I think it is fair to say that this whole makeover was not well received by Phil’s fans who liked the folky Phil fine.

The decline of the Movement coincided with Phil’s decline. He had his own issues with manic depression and with alcoholism. The drinking especially became extreme.

Phil wanted to see the world and he did do some travelling in the early 70’s. He went to Chile during the Allende period and was very inspired by what he saw. He met the famous Chilean folksinger Victor Jara who knew about him and they became fast friends. Phil was later distraught after the military coup which among other things resulted in the brutal assault and murder of Victor Jara at the National Stadium. Phil organized a benefit for Chilean refugees after the coup and he got Dylan to come and perform. Even though he personally was in very bad shape, the event was a big success.

One thing I never knew before seeing the movie, Phil travelled to Africa. While in Dar Es Salaam, he was attacked and strangled. He was left for dead on a beach. He suffered permanent vocal cord damage. He complained he could not sing well after that. He also complained he was losing his creativity.

Phil spiralled down in 1975 before he took his own life by hanging himself. He felt defeated and he said stuff like Phil Ochs is useless and should be killed. The movie shows him acting psychotic. It was like he was a different person at the end. The movie does a good job in honestly conveying all of Phil, including his extremely depressing last days.

While it sounded like Phil had many regrets about his marriage as well as regrets for not being a good father, his daughter Meegan and his wife Alice both said sweet things about him. Phil bought Meegan a cat they named Rimbaud. He also bought her an encyclopedia. Meegan felt Phil wanted to introduce her to poetry. He did genuinely adore her although it sounded like he was an absent father.

Besides the tragedy of his out of control alcoholism and his mental illness, Phil’s life does show the difficulty for committed activists living through periods when social change is not on the agenda. Phil could not make that transition and he could not figure out a way to live that was personally fulfilling. I do think that Phil’s struggles were reflective of a much wider generational problem: how to live ethically and in a principled manner when the society is deeply morally compromised and its values are deeply problematic.

I always liked the words from Phil’s song “When I’m Gone” so I will end with that:

There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone
And you won’t find me singin’ on this song when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone
All the pleasures of love will not be mine when I’m gone
My pen won’t pour out a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t breathe the bracing air when I’m gone
And I can’t even worry ’bout my cares when I’m gone
Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t be running from the rain when I’m gone
And I can’t even suffer from the pain when I’m gone
Can’t say who’s to praise and who’s to blame when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone
And the evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone
Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone
So I guess I will have to do it while I’m here

All my days won’t be dances of delight when I’m gone
And the sands will be shifting from my sight when I’m gone
Can’t add my name into the fight while I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

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  1. Pat Dawson
    February 16, 2014 at 3:17 am

    It took me a while to warm up to Phil Ochs – sort of like Leonard Cohen – but I grew to really love the music of both of them. (Pleasures of the Harbor included!). It’s true that there don’t seem to be as many vocal protests as we grew up with, but that’s not for lack of protesting musicians. The problem is more inactive populations. There are celebrity protesting artists but the public seems to be more spectator than active grassroots protesting supporter. They buy bracelets or whatever to show their commitment and that’s it. They seem to have taken “I’m not marching anymore” to heart!

    I have seen this film – it is incredible, and so sad seeing his life spin out of control at the end. I’d like to think that we have progressed to the point today where, with proper treatment, Phil Ochs would be able to find the balance he needed to find his way through. Not sure if we really have progressed that far, though.

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