Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune (First Run Features, NR)

Phil Ochs lived about as many years as Mozart, and though his musical contributions were in an entirely different genre he certainly can claim to be Mozart’s equal in terms of mastering the musical context of his times.



The star of Phil Ochs burned brightly, but not for long; gifted with a genius for writing topical songs, a charming stage presence, and burning ambition, his talents were a perfect match for the folk song/social protest milieu of the 1960s. By the 1970s, however, the world had changed and so had its musical tastes. Ochs was floundering, his decline hastened by hereditary mental illness and over-indulgence in alcohol, and he took his own life in 1976 at age 35.

Kenneth Bowser’s documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune captures both Ochs’ glory days and his sad and rapid decline, communicating the brilliance of his songs (he wrote hundreds, and recorded 7 albums in his short career) as well as the less savory aspects of his life. It features many interviews with his friends, family, and fellow musicians (the main omission is Bob Dylan, who Ochs viewed as his greatest rival) along with generous selections from Ochs’ recordings and archival materials from the era. For those who, like director Bowser (who also directed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock’N’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood and several Saturday Night Live compilations) lived through these years, it’s a trip down memory lane. For younger people it’s a good introduction to a historical period they know only secondhand. I’m of Bowser’s generation myself and take it from me, kids, it really was a different era; we honestly believed we could change the world and music was a huge part of the context that supported that belief.

Ochs was born to a middle-class Jewish family, somewhat improbably attending military school and more probably excelling in classical music before being introduced to folk by fellow Ohio State student Jim Glover. In 1962 he moved to New York City and became part of the burgeoning folk scene, quickly becoming known for his pointed lyrics (and if some of them seem overly on-the-nose today, they certainly got the job done in their time). A natural performer gifted with good looks, a clear voice, and adequate talents as a guitarist, he became one of the brightest stars in the world of political folk music, travelling across the country to perform in support of causes large and small.

But the spirit of the times changed, as did the country’s musical tastes, and by the late 1960s Ochs was beginning to feel more out of touch with the direction the country was taking, particularly after the election of Richard Nixon in 1968. Unfortunately his need for attention and success remained as large as ever (to Bowser’s credit, he does not downplay this aspect of Ochs’ personality) and this, coupled with increasingly poor judgment fueled by mental illness and alcoholism, resulted in late career fiascos such as the infamous gold lamé suit and the Carnegie Hall concert at which he was greeted with demands to "bring back Phil Ochs!"

Ochs’ behavior became increasingly erratic and he put himself into dangerous situations—one of his friends recalls a terrifying visit to the slums of Port-au-Prince—while insisting on his own invulnerability. When he was mugged and strangled in Tanzania, an incident that damaged his voice, he insisted that it must have been the work of the CIA rather than accepting the more probable conclusion that some local thugs saw a man walking alone and simply took advantage of the situation. Friends noticed his decline, as he failed to take pleasure even in the success of the famous rally in Central Park to celebrate the end of the Vietnam War. He developed an alternate identity, "John Train," whom he claimed had killed Phil Ochs. Resisting encouragement to seek treatment (traumatized by his father’s mental illness, he had a pact with his brother Michael that neither would ever institutionalize the other) he moved to his sister Sonny’s house where he committed suicide on April 6, 1976.

Phil Ochs lived about as many years as Mozart, and though his musical contributions were in an entirely different genre he certainly can claim to be Mozart’s equal in terms of mastering the musical context of his times. Songs like "I Ain’t Marching Anymore," "There But For Fortune," "The War is Over," and "When I’m Gone" are perennials in the folksong repertoire while more topical material like "Here’s to the State of Mississippi" and "Draft Dodger Rag" perfectly encapsulate the spirit of their time. People will be singing Phil Ochs’ songs for years to come, and to not know his work is to remain ignorant of a large part of what the 1960s were all about.

My only criticism of this release is the skimpy package of extras: a text biography of the director and a gallery of photographs. | Sarah Boslaugh


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