Tuesday, February 7, 2012 / 3:29 pm
Injustice’s Jukebox: Phil Ochs
The sorry arc of an American true believer.
by Jim Washburn
I owe a lot of my upbringing to Thrifty Drug Stores. Along with the usual drugs, notions, sundries and the best selection of 5-cent ice cream cones in the neighborhood, Thrifty had a wide selection of paperback books, more of the monthly Marvel comics titles than most racks, and a bin of discounted record albums.
At age 12, in 1967, I’d read an interview with the Hollies’ Graham Nash that Simon & Garfunkel had dedicated a song to Lenny Bruce. That was the first I’d ever heard of Bruce, but it was enough to make me plunk down 95 cents for The Essential Lenny Bruce at Thrifty, which turned my little head around.
The discount record rack was always crowded with whatever the labels were trying to unload. There was a lot of 50 Guitars style dreck, but also mono copies of Magical Mystery Tour, the obscure Play the Electric Bass with Harvey Brooks album and Phil Ochs Live at Carnegie Hall, which was one of the better 77 cents I’ve spent.
I’d heard Ochs’ “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” and liked its honky-tonk piano and sardonic lancing of our already indifferent society. Carnegie Hall was just folkie Phil and his guitar, singing topical songs about migrant farm workers, sundry US invasions of tropical islands and how much liberals sucked.
Most of it was news to me. Even being 12 in Buena Park in 1967, you pretty much got the idea that Vietnam wasn’t our finest hour, but I still thought my country usually went by the golden rule. I’d only recently sorted out that liberals were the sort of people I wanted to hang out with, that Bobby Kennedy was more fun than Richard Nixon. But here was Phil describing liberals as “ten degrees to the left of center in good times; ten degrees to the right of center if it effects them personally,” and continuing that portrait in song:
I cried when they shot Medgar Evers,
Tears ran down my spine,
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy,
As if I’d lost a father of mine,
But Malcolm X got what was coming,
He got what he asked for this time,
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.
There were a lot of schisms in Ochs’ thinking, fitting since he was later diagnosed as schizophrenic. He loved America and thought it could change from the inside. Though he’d been critical of a lot of John F. Kennedy’s policies, he was torn up when Kennedy was shot, and later went on to support his brother Bobby and George McGovern. Yet he also believed in revolution and respected Malcolm X, who famously dismissed JFK’s assassination as just being America’s violent, imperialist “chickens coming home to roost.”
Again, being 12, what did I know from Malcolm X? But the passion of Ochs’ voice got to me, the romantic sweep of his songs about revolution at the doorstep and boots on the wrong ground, about standing up and changing things while you’re here, because you sure can’t once you’re dead.
He had a limited voice, but it got the job done, which was also true of his ham-fisted guitar playing, of which critic Robert Christgau wrote in Esquire, “too bad his guitar playing would not suffer much were his right hand webbed.” (Many years later Christgau wrote the world’s best, and shortest, album review, about GTR, the all-star guitarists band. It read “GTR: SHT.”)
Some of Ochs’ stuff was just made of the standard folk song building blocks, going for the obvious stereotypes and outrage. But other of his songs were practically cinematic in their imagery. Considering the opening verse of “The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo”:
The crabs are crazy, they scuttle back and forth,
The sand is burning,
And the fish take flight and scatter from the sight,
Their courses turning,
As the seagulls rest on the cold cannon nest,
The sea is churning,
The Marines have landed on the shores of Santo Domingo.
The song was about the US sending 42,000 troops to the Dominican Republic to stop the island from “becoming another Cuba,” this after citizens had revolted following the US-backed overthrow of the island’s first democratically elected government in three decades (before which the brutal dictator Rafael Trujillo had ruled since being installed after the previous US invasion in the 1920s). Thanks to Ochs and a few other sources, I began to notice a pattern there, in which “do unto others” was not exactly the US aim in such deployments.
Ochs had spent three years in military school, and his father had served as a medic in WWII. He’d grown up in El Paso. Lenny Bruce, in my Thrifty-bought tome, had explained Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald as being the result of being Jewish in Texas, where the presumption was that if you were Jewish you must be a tailor and your manhood was not at all assumed. Bruce said that Ruby must have figured if he shot the guy who shot the president, everyone would go, “Wow, what balls he has!”
Ochs seemed to have a need to prove himself as well. As much as he did benefits for every cause but himself, and played for sharecroppers, striking unionists and war protestors, he was hungry to be famous.
In a recently debuted PBS American Masters documentary, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, his friend and fellow activist Cora Weiss said of his protest songs and his need for attention, “He took on whatever was ridiculous, even though he was ridiculous too, but in a very decent way.”
Like all good folkies in the early ’60s, Ochs wound up in Greenwich Village (which was also where the master of the mystic arts Dr. Strange abided, according to my Thrifty-bought copies of Strange Tales). He had one particular problem in standing out there: a young fellow from Hibbing, Minnesota had arrived there ahead of him, also hungry to prove himself.
Though Ochs churned out topical songs with the frequency of a newspaper, everything he did was in Bob Dylan’s shadow. The documentary repeats Arlo Guthrie’s cogent observation: “Songwriting is like fishing in a stream; you put in your line and hope you catch something. And I don’t think anyone downstream from Bob Dylan ever caught anything.”
Ochs was in awe of Dylan, who, in turn, seemed to enjoy taunting Ochs. Maybe it was Young Bob’s way of challenging others to do better, but he seemed to have a mean streak back then. Once he was giving Ochs a ride somewhere and asked what he thought of “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.” When Ochs told him, Dylan pulled over and made Ochs get out of his car and walk, in the snow.
After storming the folk world, Dylan reinvented rock and roll, to general clamor and acclaim, while Ochs kept treading the same circuit. The Carnegie Hall album was a fine representation of Ochs at his finest, including “Bracero,” “Cops of the World,” and his best-known song, “There But for Fortune.” It still works 46 years later, but less than a year after it was released, it was remaindered at 77 cents next to Billy Strange Plays Goldfinger. (Yes, I still have that album, too.)
Ochs tried reinventing himself as well, hence the mock good-timey minor hit “Outside of the Small Circle of Friends.” Some of his newer songs were beautiful, but more of them sounded awkward and forced, like he was desperate for someone to recognize his sensitivity and brilliance. It wasn’t entirely in jest that Ochs later donned a gold lame’ Elvis suit for his jocularly titled Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits album. He craved the acclaim due a rock star.
He’d appeared alongside Martin Luther King at the Washington Mall, and took King’s murder hard, as he did Bobby Kennedy’s. He was deeply involved in the anti-war movement, and was in the thick of the 1968 Chicago demonstrations that became a police riot. When the federal government defended the brutal police actions, and the demonstration’s organizers were instead charged with conspiracy to riot.
According to the PBS documentary, that broke Ochs’ heart. He didn’t do protest songs because he was negative, but because he had the hope that things could change; that truth, justice and the American way would win out in the end. The naked oppression on the Chicago streets and the courtroom farce that followed crushed his notion of the American dream.
He began drinking heavily. He travelled to other countries to see what they might have to offer. He was mugged in Tanzania, and the thieves nearly strangled him to death, causing damage to his vocal cords that affected his singing. He suspected the CIA of being behind it; not impossible, but that belief conveniently let him feel more important, while also escaping the notion that his attackers were most likely just two of the poor people he’d defended in song for years.
He travelled to Chile in 1971, where he found a ray of hope: the leftist, reform-minded Salvador Allende had just been elected president, and working people felt great things were at hand. Ochs met, befriended and recorded with the great Chilean folk singer/activist Victor Jara.
The US government, which had already covertly spent nearly half a million dollars to thwart Allende’s election now became devoted to his overthrow, which our CIA helped orchestrate in 1973, with a military coup that brought in Augusto Pinochet for 16 years of repressive assholedom, which commenced with the murder of many of Chile’s prominent leftists, including Jara, who were held captive in a soccer stadium. There Jara was tortured; his hands were smashed with rifle butts, while his tormentors taunted him to try playing his guitar now; then he was shot in the head and his body riddled with 44 machine gun bullets.
That horror really sent Ochs around the bend, descending into alcoholism and mental illness, though he did hold himself together long enough to organize a concert to publicize and support Chili’s plight. The concert has become legend for its spirit of drunken unity, with several of Ochs’ old Greenwich Village compatriots chiming in, even Dylan, who reportedly had such a good time he had to leave the stage twice to vomit.
Ochs had one more golden moment, organizing a rally in New York City to celebrate the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, attended by nearly 100,000 people. Less than a year later, Ochs hung himself. Along with the legacy of his songs, this non-violent, justice-loving, hope-maddened soul left behind a 500-page FBI file, in which he was still listed as a threat to the nation’s security years after he had died.
Thanks, Thrifty drugstore, for the beautiful music, and for bumming me out so bad.