Phil Ochs, a Musical American Hero
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During the idealistic youth movement of the 1960s, the political folk singer Phil Ochs was a kind of pied piper. Reflecting the era’s idealism, he set out very earnestly to change the world with his music, viewing himself less as a songwriter and more of a reporter, his incisive, sardonic lyrics mining the tumult of the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, the Nixon era, and the Chilean coup. Beginning his career in New York’s Greenwich Village as a compatriot to Bob Dylan, over the course of 15 years he became a hero-troubador to the peace movement, and quite possibly the most important American activist/musician of all time. Ochs loved Elvis Presley and John Wayne as American archetypes writ large, and eventually he became an archetype himself. But stricken by bipolar disorder and alcoholism, coupled with the disillusionment of the era, Ochs died by his own hand in 1976. And while his story hasn’t been entirely lost, like much of leftist history his achievements have been buried.
Until now. Director/producer Kenneth Bowser has been working on Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune for the better part of 20 years, in between directing other documentaries on similar heroes and institutions -- Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, "Saturday Night Live." With There But for Fortune, he rescues Ochs’ striking, tragic, truly American tale and shows why he’s as important today as he was 40 years ago. On the cusp of the film's release, he spoke with AlterNet about his labor of love, Ochs’ idealism, and how we can learn from his life and times.
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune opens Wednesday, Jan. 5, at the IFC Center in New York City, before playing select dates across America. Go here for showtimes. Watch the trailer above.
Do you remember the first time you heard Phil Ochs’ music?
Kenneth Bowser: I heard him first when I was 16 or 17 and I kinda fell in love with his music. It’s not much more complicated than that. I always found his lyrics to be... he viewed the world in a complex way, and I loved that. I loved the idea that he could love John Wayne movies and be leftist and live with both those things in the same world. You kind of choose your view of life and his wasn’t narrow, which a lot of political material can be, whether from the right or the left. People can take a very simplistic view of things. His view was more eloquent and complex.
I think unlike Dylan, Phil was very open, and you could sense who the man was. He made every effort to show everything about himself, from his wit to his darker views. His emotionality was always there.
And that planted the seed for your documentary?
KB: It’s been the great fortune of my life to be able to make films about artists who I really admire, and whose vision enriched my life. Whether it’s Preston Sturges or John Ford or Capra or Phil Ochs, if they have something in common it’s a love of the idea of America. All of those artists -- Preston Sturges, while he isn’t necessarily what one thinks of as an American artist, is quintessentially that. He could take the best of a lot of worlds and see them through the eyes of an average American. And Capra, obviously. Phil loved all of those artists. I also shared similar sensibilities to Phil. Phil loved Ford’s work, Capra. But I think more than anything, Phil just loved his country. If he had a flaw in his world, part of it was, I think, his adoration of mythic heroes. He bought into that in a way that ultimately was destructive.