Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

I came down with Dylan freakitis at about age 13, which has proven to be a chronic, life-long condition. Then persistent complications of folk music overtook me. When you acquire a taste for acoustic Americana, sooner or later, you encounter Phil Ochs.

I was much younger than the Vietnam generation and never eligible for the draft. Phil Ochs was not the Poet of Protest (that might be the Clash) for me. Yet, I loved his music. I had just about every record as part of my early vinyl collection. Ochs was truly a singular, if highly enigmatic talent. I may not feel compelled to play his music as often as I had, but I still love his songs. I remember most of his songs and still sing them to myself (just ask my Axe Shower Gel).

That is the essence of my complaint about the new Ochs documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, which I went to see at the very groovy IFC (the cineaste dream theater). It’s a compelling, well crafted film. I applaud anything new about Phil Ochs. I learned a few new things about the man, such as the extent of his bipolar disorder. For a documentary about the antiwar movement of the 60s and its convergence with the folk music revival, it’s a great place to begin. But ultimately I found the film unsatisfying because of the nearly complete lack of attention given to the man’s actual art.

The film’s underlying premise is that Ochs is an important artist because of the importance of his politics (and old leftie nostalgia for the politics). For me, I love his music not because I share his politics (which I basically do), but that that his songs transcend the politics—they have a life beyond the issues of the 60s—an uncanny achievement because most of the lyrics are so specific to the politics of the era. Why does his music last? Why have his records remained in print while most of his contemporaries are forgotten? The film ignores these questions. The film is a decent documentary of the 60s anti-war movement and Ochs was often the folksinger on the front lines at many of the biggest demonstrations. It adequately depicts the evolution of the Anti-War movement from a handful of activists to nationwide pop culture movement, resulting in a violent government backlash that soon transformed into rage the optimism of the protesters.

Lots of unseen footage from the era is available here, especially of Ochs, and it is compiled in often riveting fashion. The film clearly points out that Ochs songs, especially his early ones, were intelligent and specific broadsides against the war and other social ills, and it showcases what an articulate and literary lyric writer he was. Yet, the film fails to explore is the poetry of the lyrics, which I feel is why, even though the subjects are about bygone current events, Ochs remains an important musical figure. The film dwells on the fact he never became the star he wanted to become, yet completely ignores the cult following that has lasted and grown for the man’s music.
Dave Van Ronk in his autobiography wrote that all of songwriters of the 60s folk scene, Ochs wrote the best chord. Too bad he died before he could be interviewed for this documentary, Van Ronk have given some of the sorely missing perspective on the music of Ochs, especially the early years, and its impact on folk music. Judy Henske, a folk singer of the era, provides a dollop of this by contrasting his protest songs with the Kingston Trio’s popular hits, but for me this tid-bit fell short of fully explaining the complexity and diversity that was (and is) folk music.

In fact, almost the entire folk music movement is summed by the rivalry between Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, which is both well documented and totally blown out of proportion. The rivalry is about the only aspect of the Greenwich Village years clearly portrayed in the film. I wanted more. Not of the Dylan connection, that’s old hat, but of Ochs in the folk music milieu of the early 60s. The galling aspect is that I know there is more there and the film makers ignored it.

According to one of the talking heads, Ochs was in college, won a guitar in a bet, decided to be the best song writer in the world and went to NYC, then heard Bob Dylan and decided to be the second best song writer. Huh? Now, I’m sure there’s some truth to this, and maybe Ochs was such a savant that he immediately self taught himself enough guitar to write memorable songs, but did he play the folk club circuit before being signed by a record label? The film makers point out that Ochs, once in New York, would play for any cause, something he continued throughout his life—but was this before or after the being signed by Elektra. The film makers leave blank how he got from Ohio State to Elektra and produced by Paul Rothchild, a famous producer responsible for The Doors. Why did Ochs select folk music as the medium for his songs? We are never told.

His roommate was a red diaper baby who loved the Weavers—except for a passing reference to being a fan of Elvis and Hank Williams in his youth—that is it for an explanation of the musical history behind one of the greatest folk music song writers of his generation. The missed opportunity here is galling. Ochs and the roommate had a duo act in college, yet no mention of their repertoire, the songs he cut his teeth on. Did he just play originals when he picked up the guitar? Of course, a wiki entry says that Ochs was actually a prodigy on clarinet in high school and was influenced by a folk singer Bob Gibson.

It’s a sad state of the affairs when Wikipedia has is more believable than a highly anticipated documentary.

If you wanted to be a songwriter, you didn’t gravitate towards the folk scene. Until Dylan, self-penned folk tunes were a rarity in the folk movement. Most folk musicians went the Cisco Houston or New Lost City Ramblers route, preferring rousing version from the Woody Guthrie song book or a cut off of the Anthology of American Folk music, complied by Harry Smith. Things changed with Blowing in the Wind, but even Dylan had a well documented pre-history of covering Woody Guthrie and other folk ditties before he wrote his first songs. There is no such history documented for Ochs, so for him to instantly decide to be a folk music writer, right out of the gate, before he even got to Greenwich Village, is truly phenomenal—and obviously dubious if not blatantly false.

Before Och’s first record, “All The News That’s Fit to Sing,” Phil made a record of camp fire songs. Don’t forget, folk music had the biggest tent available, and record labels, like Folkways, were releasing sea shanties or work songs and ditties of that ilk alongside the latest cover versions by the New Lost City Ramblers. Campfire ditties would fit well into this folklore aspect of folk music. During his lifetime, Ochs was embarrassed about this record, which little is known of, yet its existence and the little history that has so far emerged might have shown how Ochs went from Ohio to getting signed by Elektra. But, we get nothing about the campfire songs, or specifics about how Ochs developed as a folk song writer or his experiences in the NYC club scene. Dylan name checks Phil Ochs as coming to town in Chronicles Volume I, but we get nothing about those months or years in this film.

When Dylan became known—and it wasn’t just Freewheelin, but Peter, Paul & Mary having a number one hit with Blowing in the Wind—where was Ochs, in NYC or Ohio? The truth is of course that when Dylan broke, Electra decided to see if they could make some money with folk music and signed the next Bob Dylan; at that time that would be protest singers. Ochs was Elektra’s angry young man, also the label’s first foray into folk, which PP&M and Joan Baez not to mention the Kingston Trio and others showed there was a post-Weaver audience for. Ochs rode the wave; he had a wonderful voice, wrote gripping songs and a very idiosyncratic style.

But he wasn’t a great guitar player. Danny Kalb, a New York-based blues guitarist and session musician of some note, accompanied Ochs on the first release. Why? Kalb isn’t mentioned at all in the film. The talking heads make a big deal about how Ochs had this “crazy” idea that he could be a big star, yet they fail to acknowledge that folk music was getting big and protest songs were in. That’s why a major label signed him. Maybe they thought if they brought in a real guitar player to add texture, maybe Ochs could make it. Did Kalb and Phil ever perform live together?

If you want musical queries answered, look elsewhere. The film doesn’t get into the midwifery of Phil’s big break, so if you find stories about musical careers interesting, this is not the bio-pic for you.

Lots of other musical questions about Ochs are left unanswered, and this glossing over of the early years does the music of Ochs a disservice. The film excels at the political context, how the antiwar movement expanded Phil’s audience, but it completely undermines the unique role Ochs had in the folk music boom of the early 60s. The film mentions that Ochs was briefly managed by Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager and the manager of Peter, Paul & Mary, but it is just a stray fact, no connection made with the Elektra contract—Tom Paxton and Tim Hardin never got major record label deals—and the Grossman management. Peter Yarrow is interviewed extensively, not about the folk music scene, or why P, P & M never covered Ochs (could a falling out with Grossman been a factor ya think?), no, Yarrow only talks about the anti-war movement. Ochs role in the folk music movement? Yarrow doesn’t seem to be asked.

Pete Seeger is also interviewed, and he gives a moving reminiscence of the death of Victor Jara, the Chilean folk singer who was slain under the Pinochet regime. Ochs befriended Jara and organized a Friends of Allende concert, where Dylan performed at a time he when he wasn’t performing live very often. The film’s coverage of this over-looked benefit concert I found one of its highpoints.Aside from the moving Jara recollection, Seeger offers a rather pointless yarn of he, Ochs and Dylan being together at the offices of Broadside (what year?) Magazine. I guess the fact all three legends were in one place at one time was enough for the interviewer.

Seeger gives us no perspective on Ochs. Seeger also had a folk hit with his version of Draft Dodger Rag, what about that? Nothing from Pete about Och’s contribution to folk music—and Pete was known for doing public domain ditties, his covers of contemporary songwriters were few and far between. Why did he consider Ochs worth covering? Nada! Or how about the ostracizing Ochs felt from the folk community, especially after Ochs’s politics became more radical and he embraced Abby Hoffman’s Yippee movement. For instance, Why wasn’t Ochs invited to play at the 1967 Woody Guthrie, which Seeger organized?

There is a snippet of footage from Festival, the documentary about the Newport Folk festival that covers Newport 63, 64, and 66. Seeger is introducing Ochs on one of the secondary stages, warning the crowd he can only play two songs. No other Newport footage of Ochs at Newport is shown. Not only did he play there every year during the festival’s hey day, but after 66, he was not invited back. The film over looks this fact, but the folk music scene is quickly brushed aside, the viewer is left with the feeling that it was all about Dylan being a prick (as a club owner is quoted as saying in an interview sequence that is deliberately edited to remove any qualification to the slur) and Ochs being bipolar.

When Joan Baez—who looks a lot more gaunt than she did in No Direction Home filmed only a few years ago—talks about the movement, it’s the Anti-War movement, barely mentions his music. She is always compelling, but her paucity of musical insights is incongruous. One of her big hits pre-Night They Drove All Dixie Down was There But For Fortune, the film’s title. Her cover is a mainstay of her greatest hits records. It may have been the first time she cracked the top 40, and this was also the biggest seller of any of Phil’s songs. It’s a great song and her rendition is a high point of her musical legacy. Why did she cover it, why was she able to get airplay for one of his songs? Nothing! Cut to the draft card burners and police with billy clubs and Paul Krassnar and Tom Hayden rattling on with worn out quotes seen on more than one PBS program.

Interviews with Van Dyke Parks and the president of A&M about the later record do a slightly better job with the recording of Pleasures of the Harbor, which just begged the question, why was there no live performance of the full orchestra, just Ochs on guitar. What kind of support did he get from the record label? How was Ochs to work with in the studio environment—especially now that he was performing with musicians. Aside from being respectful, what sort of input did he have with the complex arrangements? This record is beloved—I used to love listening to it while I “smoked”—and has remained in print. It’s more popular than any other of his A&M releases. Again, no perspectives on this record are given. The filmmakers barely acknowledge that Pleasures has never gone out of print or how it is a considered a masterpiece of the era. A loyal albeit cult following is than say Tom Paxton or Tim Hardin or Barry McGuire ever got. They are the true peers of Ochs, not Dylan, whose career transcended the folk movement early on and who is indeed in a class by himself.

Except for Pleasures, the last part of the film and Och’s life is dominated by his disillusionment with the U.S., his bizarre behavior, his worsening mental illness and his escalating alcoholism. His story is heart breaking and his friends and family sit a poignant Shiva. Before committing suicide, Ochs called himself John Train and had a breakdown much of which was filmed. This footage is striking.

Unfortunately, “Greatest Hits” and “Gun Fight at Carnegie Hall” are depicted in the context of his breakdown, which is unfortunate. History has shown these misfires to be fantastic recordings, yet nothing is said of this well known revisionist criticism that has now emerged concerning his later work, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, a collection of new songs which Ochs in his typically confrontational, self-destructive style, named Greatest Hits, is now considered the first California Country Rock record. When released, it was a huge bomb, a failure in sales and ridiculed by the critics. Musicians on it include Gram Parsons, Clarence White and Ry Cooder. Did I mention Clarence White (the film does not). This record has received long over due praise. Aficionados of Country Rock consider it one of the first classics of the genre.

It is recognized as crucial touchstone. I was shocked that the reputation music historians and critics have bestowed on this misunderstood masterpiece was ignored by the film.

Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, which for a long time was only available as an import, was a recording of this famous Carnegie Hall show, where Phil wore a gold lame suit and performed rock and roll songs along with his own. The outrageousness of the act, the fact it alienated his audience was all that is said about this event. In the context of the times, it really wasn’t so off the wall. A revival of 50s Rock & Roll was well underway by then, spurred on by Sha Na Na’s breakout performance at Woodstock.

Like Greatest Hits, time has brought justice to this great record. I have always loved it. Ochs performs great versions of Buddy Holly and Elvis songs, does a fascinating take on Okie from Muskogee, and rips it up with what is still my favorite version of Mona Lisa (he does a sped up take on the Conway Twitty arrangement). He also does a few of his songs, including a killer version of Tape from California, which I think was the only time he performed that song live with a band.

Greatest Hits and Gunfight are two great records, and as good as anything he ever released. But the film is more interested in the Shiva service and wallowing in antiwar movement nostalgia than providing some cultural insight about the actual music, especially the remarkable achievements just before the full decline and fall.

Well, I guess we get some musical insight, unfortunately it’s from Jello Biafra and Billy Bragg. Two very lame artists and in my opinion, douche bags. I thought their music was the worst thing I ever heard until I encountered these interviews. That’s the best they can do, these two no talents? As if the singer song writers of the 70s, while eschewing political songs for the most part, cut their teeth on Och’s early records, which were folk music classics, and Ochs, along with Dylan, carved a niche for the singer songwriter model. Instead they come up with two of the dopiest performers around. Jello did “Love Me I’m A Liberal,” Och’s tongue in cheek screed against folks whose politics are not radical enough, and he’s astounded how little he had to change to make it relevant to the Bill Clinton era (remember, those awful 8 years of peace and prosperity). I wonder how many idiots dug his crappy music enough to vote for Ralph Nader, thus giving us 8 years of GWB. Ochs may be buried in Long Island but I could still hear him roll over in his grave in the IFC Theater on 6th avenue.

While most of the concert footage used was fascinating, there were two egregious omissions. In the early 70s, Ochs reportedly was on In Concert, was going to play a protest song but was forced to play Chords of Fame, one of his latter song, with the immortal line “:reporters ask the questions, they write down what you say.” Where was this footage? More blatant was the Rolling Thunder audition. If you ever get a chance to see Renaldo & Clara you will see a snippet of Phil Ochs, but nothing of his performance. Phil Ochs reportedly played Jimmy Brown the School Boy and Dylan’s own “Lay Down My Weary Tune,” the night of the launch of this famous tour. Dylan filmed this night and every night of the tour. He shot some ungodly amount of footage for the film, Renaldo & Clara. The footage of this must exist.

Larry “Ratso” Sloman is interviewed in the film, but no mention of Rolling Thunder is made!

For whatever reason, probably because Ochs was unstable, he was not asked on this tour which included many folkie luminaries, such as Ramblin Jack Elliot, Roger McGuinn and Arlo Guthrie. Phil committed suicide less than a year later, and some at the time implied Dylan’s not inviting him on this reunion of the Folk Movement contributing to the tragedy.

Did Dylan not allow the footage to be used? I find that hard to believe. Dylan was not interviewed for this film, but he refused to be interviewed for a documentary on Ramblin Jack Elliot but the Dylan camp made available all the archival footage they had on Jack to the filmmakers. One wonders if he did turn them down, was it before or after they had a club owner call him a prick. Sloman’s portrayal of Ochs, which was in his book, On The Road with Bob Dylan, makes any fan want to see this footage. Where was it?

Also, before his death and omitted in the film was a multi-night gig with Patti Smith, a bizarre match of a rising star and falling star, at the Bottom Line or Bitter End, one of them clubs. Instead, there is the albeit riveting film of Ochs raving and paranoid. It’s tragic, because his music was so great, he seemed like a naturally sweet, nice guy and he was sick, with some mental illness and alcoholism, issues society has long since learned to help those suffering with. There are cures now. Back then, not so much, which makes this segment so heart wrenching. The film points out that mental illness ran in the family, his father was institutionalized. But the Rolling Thunder incident and the Patti Smith series of shows indicates that Phil was not entirely lost. He may have lost the struggle but he did struggle, he put up a fight. I wanted to see some of that, even though the drama of his tragic ending would not have been changed, only deepened.

The film takes the simplistic stance that Phil’s legacy lasts only because so many of the issues of the 60s are relevant today. That’s as true as far as it goes, which is not very. His songs are catchy. His songs are for all time because he was so of his time, just like Woody Guthrie’s. They have an uncanny quality about them. I would love to hear a musicologist talk about, or one of his Och’s biographers, or one of the many historians of the era. But save for the two aforementioned lamos—and a very good Sean Penn—the filmmakers are only interested Phil’s friends and family.

The film makes a big deal how he was never a big star, but always wanted to be, yet they never explore why he had a loyal if small following, why his records were in print at the time of his death, his heyday long in the past by then, why they are considered real landmarks of the music of the era, why most are still available, not to mention the surprising amount of newly discovered material now widely available. Why is there still such an audience for his music? Alas, musicology was not in their purview.

I am not saying do not see this film. It is entertaining and informative. I learned some new stuff, for instance I never knew he recorded a song in Africa. It’s the best film about Phil Ochs now playing. That’s also why it left me me feeling frustrated.


  1. Camp Favorites is of no (real) importance to the Phil Ochs story. It's a perfectly charming record, but is really not worth discussing. It would have done nothing other than make the documentary longer.

  2. In 1969 Tim Hardin signed to Columbia (which was a huge label)

  3. Tom Paxton for that matter was also signed to Elektra, which became a "name" label.

  4. Seeing how Verve was sold to MGM before Tim Hardin was signed to Tim Hardin signed to it, so you could say Verve was a large label as well.

  5. A lot of Seeger's material is traditional, but your obviously unaware of his work if you think that is "all"he is known for. Ochs was not invited to appear at 65 Newport. He watched, but he only performed the two previous, and following year.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. "This record has received long over due praise. Aficionados of Country Rock consider it one of the first classics of the genre."

    Before reading your blog, I have never once seen the record referred to in such a manner; Of the ten songs on the record, only the 4-6 are country. It is recognized (in some circles as underrated, depressing album) but aside from in your imagination, it is not considered "crucial touchstone."

    Gunfight is considered by some, an interesting document, but few would rate it as agreat (or important) record.

    Pleasures was out of print for several years. Rehearsals for Retirement, and Greatest hHits both cancelled within months of being released, and remained that way until after he died.

    Of his album, only the first two have remained remained relatively consistintly in print over the years. It's amazing how misinformed you are. I don't disagree with some of your criticisms of Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, but stating (your opinos) as fact, and generally just ignoring whatever information contradicts your assertions does not lend credence to your argument.

  8. I meant track numbers 4-6.

  9. wow, such negativity. I admit I was wrong on the early recordning careers of paxton and hardin. I refer you to the book Up The Country, the history of country rock, and in it is a detailed description of the recording of greatest hits, the musicians, like Clarence white, who were all LA session greats who made that sound. Rehesals and Greatest hits were out of print by the time I came along, but most of his other work was in print when he died and for more than a decade after. My point abut the campfire song record is that the filmakers made some dubious choices about his history and that of the folk movement. How come not the same outrage for the missing rolling thunder footage!

  10. I said Seeger's covers of contemporary artists were few and far between. How come you don't address the point that Seeger isn't interviewed about the Ochs songs he did cover!