Guest Commentary

Phil Ochs: A sensitive singer in a parking lot

Phil Ochs was singing in the back of a flatbed truck in a Florida parking lot to 80 people at a benefit concert supporting defendants in the 1973 "Gainesville Eight" trial.

The eight had been charged with conspiring to disrupt the previous summer's political conventions in Miami, and Ochs volunteered to sing on their behalf. The sound system was awful; the afternoon sun was sweltering; and people slowly drifted away. In the middle of Ochs' poignant ballad "Pleasures of the Harbor," a two-ton truck revved up. Uninterrupted, Ochs finished the song to light, half-hearted applause. "You know," he said softly, "it's tough to be sensitive in a parking lot."

It was illustrative of Phil Ochs' life, which ended abruptly at the age of 35 on April 9, 1976. Ochs, one of the most prominent topical singers to come out of the fertile Greenwich Village folkie scene of the early '60s, carved a niche for himself by consciously blending a politically radical awareness with an appreciation of mainstream American culture. Dry politicos never understood his constant allusions to mythic movie-land characters; loyalists booed him at a 1970 concert when he mixed songs by Merle Haggard, Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley with his own. He exploited this contradiction, seldom losing his socialist vision.

Among Ochs' best-known anti-war melodies are "I Ain't Marchin' Any More" and "The War Is Over." He used sarcasm, outrage and irony to clarify confusion and dilute the obvious. As a troubadour, he affected the collective consciousness of an era with songs mocking wishy-washy liberals and U.S. intervention in the Caribbean.

Ochs felt a special kinship with Chilean poet Victor Jara, whom he met during a 1972 visit to Chile; it was Jara's death during the September 1973 military coup that sparked Ochs' most ambitious project: organizing a Madison Square Garden concert in support of Chilean refugees. The concert, a sloppy yet joyous affair, featured Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and scores of others paying tribute to the fallen Allende government. The benefit was a smashing success. Ochs called it the high point of his life.

In his movie-going prime, Phil was known to take in 20 movies a month. He wrote a movie column for the Los Angeles Free Press, juxtaposing Marxism with Bruce Lee shows, all of which he had seen. He knew theater schedules in both New York and Los Angeles, where he kept sloppy apartments, and was known to time his flights between the two cities to catch movies within an hour of arrival.

He was in the creative vanguard, maintaining high energy for himself and those he sang for. Less acknowledged were his moving, nonpolitical works on later albums. However, the catalyst for his creativity was the friction produced by civil-rights activity and support for countries invaded by the United States; when that dynamic changed, Phil's sensitivity remained, but he found little to write about. Sparks of ideas would come, and he'd jot them in his journal, but no songs came forth. His record company was content to keep him on; it even printed buttons reading "Inspire Phil Ochs." During Watergate, he released a remake of his civil-rights song "Here's to the State of Mississippi," with "Richard Nixon" substituted for "Mississippi." But he wasn't fooling anyone.

In the two years following the Chile benefit, Ochs went through manic-depressive cycles. He was often arrogant to those he was close to; he retreated into himself for long periods.

A few months before he died, I found him living in a New York flophouse. He said that in the previous months, he had been careening around the country in and out of jails under various names, drunk and involved in unbelievable scams with outrageous characters.

We spoke on the phone a few weeks before he died. He had moved in with his sister's family in Queens, Long Island, and it sounded like his depression was bottoming out. His suicide ended the pain.

A month after Ochs hanged himself, New York's Felt Forum filled with thousands of his fans for "An Evening With Phil Ochs and Friends." After the show, family and friends gathered at a Village bar to toast our friend and brother. We raised our glasses: "There but for fortune," we agreed.