I want a one-way ticket home…
When Texas-born Phil Ochs landed in New York City, he realized he was finally home. The son of a bipolar Jewish-American father and distant Scottish mother, Phil felt like an outsider both in his birthplace of El Paso and when the family moved to Ohio, where he was constantly drawn into fights with bigoted schoolmates.
Nor did Phil find peace at Staunton Military Academy in rural Virginia, or later at Ohio State University, where he wrote for the school newspaper but had many of his stories censored or rejected outright for being too “controversial.” After he won a guitar on a bet (that Kennedy would defeat Nixon) Phil started voicing his political opinions in song.
Only when he moved to New York City in the 1960s and was surrounded by creative peers did Phil begin to flourish. His cut-to-the-bone songs about Vietnam, civil rights and wondering if America really benefited from being the “Cops of the World” not only put him squarely on the musical map but turned him into what director Ken Bowser deems “the best protest singer who ever lived.”
When a young Phil and Bob Dylan were invited up to music legend Pete Seeger’s apartment in the early 60s to sing a few songs for him, Seeger was bowled over. “I was just stunned by their talent,” says Seeger, “and certain that these two unknown singer-songwriters would soon be world famous.”
Seeger was right about one of them. Dylan, the more savvy of the two, kept his “protest” songs general enough to not really offend anyone, while the more intense yet innocent Ochs wrote too-close-for-comfort songs that made many listeners squirm, including the cutting, ironic Love Me I’m a Liberal:
Sure once I was young and impulsive, I wore every conceivable pin, even went to socialist meetings, learned all the old union hymns. Ah but now I’ve grown older and wiser…and that’s why I’m turning you in!
Bipolar like his dad, Phil channeled his manic energy into both his songwriting and political theater. ”Phil was the kind of guy who always chose a benefit over a paying gig,” recalls his brother Michael. But when the energy and commitment of the 60s turned into the apathy of the 70s, Phil was lost.
After Chilean folk singer and Phil’s close friend Victor Jara was brutually murdered by Pinochet’s henchmen in Chile, Phil began to drink heavily and went into a downward spiral. When he appeared on stage in Carnegie Hall singing country songs in an Elvis-style gold lame suit his fans felt betrayed, booing and screaming ”Bring back Phil Ochs!”
Show me the hobo who sleeps out in the rain…
The former shining star of the 60s topical music scene, whose empathic ”There But for Fortune” was made popular by Joan Baez and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” the anthem of the anti-war movement, was now sleeping in Central Park and begging for spare change.
When radical Abbie Hoffman and his wife Anita strolled up the West Side followed at a discreet distance by FBI agents, Phil suddenly sprang from the park and asked the couple for some coins. Anita sadly gave him some and they continued on. The FBI, which had a 500 page dossier on Ochs, kept tailing the Hoffmans, having no idea who the disheveled beggar was.
Not long after, Phil took his own life at his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, New York.
Does anybody know my name or recognize my face?
Say the name Phil Ochs and 99% of Americans will return a blank stare. “Phil has been erased from history,” says Bowser, a successful movie and television director who made it a personal mission to bring Phil’s story to the big screen. After nearly 20 years of securing interviews and musical rights, There But For Fortune, his stunning documentary on Ochs, is now playing at the IFC Center on 6th Avenue.
When I saw the film, Bowser attended and was smiling, having just gotten the go-ahead to release the film in 50 cities nationwide. His decades-long quest to bring the forgotten troubadour to the attention of a new generation had finally succeeded.
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