Filling Up On Ochs
By Lou Harry

First posted: 5-23-01

Phil Ochs ended his life 25 years ago this April, dangling from a belt in his sister’s bathroom. Few who knew him were surprised. When you put your own tombstone on an album cover and close the disc with a tune called "No More Songs," a suicide note is a redundancy.

A principal in the ‘60s topical song movement, Ochs lived perhaps the quintessential ‘60s story. His was a trip from radical optimism to suicidal depression filled with sharp climbs and deep drops. I won’t go into the biographical details—read Michael Schumacher’s There But for Fortune (Hyperion, 1996) for that. Instead, here’s a refresher course on the eight discs released while Ochs was still on the planet.

His 1964 debut All the News That’s Fit to Sing dealt with heavy stuff—he was already "Talking Vietnam" before it was on other singer’s radar—but the disc reflects a belief in the ability to change the world with song. Ochs bread-and-butter was such topical songs, many of which had subjects now forgotten (anybody remember William Worthy? The Thresher?). Most of the songs still work, though, and the closer, "What’s That I Hear?" even hinted at hope for the future.

Ochs stuck with 3-minute-ish topical songs on I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965) and had his first breakout semi-hit. That ode to excuses, Draft Dodger Rag showed why Ochs was such a hit at rallies—he had the ability to combine wit with passion and political conviction. The formula continued on Phil Ochs in Concert (1966), which introduced another humorous/biting classic "Love Me, I’m a Liberal" and the gentle "There But for Fortune" and "Changes." In no way, though, did the first three discs hint at the changes on the way.

With full orchestrations, electronic sound effects, songs stretching longer than eight minutes and subject matter straying from the headlines into headier realms, Pleasures of the Harbor (1967) broke out of the folk mold even more dramatically than his friend/rival Bob Dylan had done with Blonde on Blonde. Fans were confused, but it holds up as a stunningly gutsy gear-shift—especially Ochs' consideration of the apocalyptic implications of the Kennedy assassination ("Crucifixion"), the ache of a sailor on leave (the title track), and the what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here plight of a cocktail pianist ("The Party"). Tape from California (1968) continued the experiment but, while pleasing the critics at Billboard and The Associated Press, lacked the clarity of its predecessor. The obvious question: Did Ochs have anything left to say?

Although released the same year, Rehearsals for Retirement (1968) is a very different animal. An album-long lament for his lost country and lost idealism, it bore the scars of Ochs’ frustration with the volatile 1968 Chicago Convention and included some of his most interesting arrangements, sharpest poetic lyrics and most compelling tunes. "The World Began in Eden But Ended in Los Angeles," "Another Age," and "The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns" speak as much to Ochs’ shattered psyche as they do to his perceived collapse of the country.

Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits (1970), featuring the troubadour on the cover in a gold Elvis suit and the line "50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong," was a middle-finger disc to the very concept of popular success: much to the confusion of record buyers and sellers, it contained no previously released songs (for years, though, it was the only Ochs disc that some stores, not getting the joke, sold). Unfortunately, the inventive sleeve held a disc whose only wholly successful cut was the door-slamming closer, "No More Songs."

Ochs actually wore that gold suit in the concert captured on Gunfight at Carnegie Hall (1975) and was booed for his troubles. (Go ahead, name another artist who would have let those hostile sounds stay on the disc.) But the statement went beyond mere costuming. Mixed with previously recorded Ochs songs were Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly medleys, a kicking version of Mona Lisa and a fun cover of Merle Haggard's Okie from Muskogee. "If there’s any hope for America," Ochs told the crowd, "it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara." Eventually he won them over. You can hear that on the discs as well—along with their reaction as the management shuts off the power to the stage although audience members were dancing in the aisles.

That scene would be a likely highlight in a movie on Ochs’ life, something Sean Penn has been talking about making for years. An Ochs flick is an interesting idea—matching the historical sweep of, say, Reds, with the ugly emotional power of Raging Bull. Whoever plays the lead (Penn still has a few years to believably pull it off—Ochs was 35 when he offed himself), Award nominations are practically a lock, what with Ochs actor-friendly alcoholism, manic depression and paranoia. And the movie would have a damn interesting soundtrack. Ochs, I think, would appreciate the irony of finally becoming famous long after his death.

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