Culture

Phil Ochs, a Musical American Hero

An interview with Kenneth Bowser, director of the new documentary, 'Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune.'

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 miningthe 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.

It’s true, but the way he idealized heroes, it felt like heroism was a possibility.

KB: It felt that way to that generation. There really was a feeling of, we’re gonna take control of this situation. We’re gonna change the world. Unfortunately we’ve all grown, as one of his lyrics say, older and wiser/and that’s why I’m turning you in. We’ve come to see that the world doesn’t operate that way. But I think, at the time, for him and for others, whether it was the Jefferson Airplane or Phil Ochs, when you see thousands of people beginning to embrace your view, you think, wait a minute, i could really change this thing. And, as everything from assassinations to political coups show... the world doesn’t always change in the direction we want it to.

Obviously Ochs’ bipolarism and alcoholism led to his demise. And when he died, Bella Abzug made a statement that his death was congruous with the despair his generation felt at seeing their values be squashed. In your research, did you think that maybe the increasingly desperate times, the coup in Chile which really affected him personally, had anything to do with where he ended up?

KB: I think as the kind of liberal left movement spun out of control in the late ‘60s and into the ‘70s, his life reflected that. One of the reasons I always wanted to make the film is that, it’s easy to recognize a great story, and there are very few artists whose lives so perfectly mirror their times. I think that Phil’s life is a perfect reflection of what happened in the ‘60s -- both the aspiration, the passion, the wanting to change the world into a better place... and then the disappointment as he hit the realities and limitations of what you can do. And again I think his mythic viewpoint of what was possible couldn’t be met by reality. I think that happened to the movement, too. I think that the movement ran up against the realities and that disappointment was really tough.

It’s like first love. I mean, I know this is reaching a little on the metaphor, but I think in the ‘60s there was this youthful generation that thought, Yes, this is the greatest love and it will last forever and it will be perfect. And then you have that great, crushing disappointment of having your heart broken. I think Phil lived in a larger political world, and his heart was broken. One of the issues that was important to me was that I couldn’t believe Phil was written out of history... and I think he’s been written out of history by the left. Because his decline -- the failure of his spirit -- is so painful, that people don’t want to look at it. I wondered about that.

The way you told his story, it reflected so perfectly what went on with the youth movement in the ‘60s, and he was so ahead of his time and incisive, hilarious, sardonic. Even if you take the Bob Dylan narrative, where Dylan’s fame as a musician trumped his, it’s still confusing why he hasn’t been more widely heralded.

KB: You know, failure is not interesting. It’s painful. Success is a much easier story. Phil is the broken heart of that political time and movement. People just turn their gaze away because it’s too painful. That’s a problem in our society. I don’t think we should live in the pain, but we can’t avoid it, and I think for Phil and the people who loved him... they just stopped talking about him. I didn’t say this in the film, but there have been a number of documentaries about the protest movement, and they don’t mention him. I don’t know how that’s possible. I’m not saying he was in any way the best musician or the best anything. But I would make a good argument he was the most important protest singer of the ‘60s. As important, if not more so, than Dylan. Again, not a greater artist, but in terms of the political movement, he was the most important guy. He’s not mentioned in films about that. And when they put out compilations of political music, he’ll get one bite out of 50. How is that possible?

Was it difficult to get the rights to his music? Does that have anything to do with it?

KB: No. I’ve been talking to and have become friends with the family over the course of 20 years of trying to get this made. They have always been supportive and generous to anyone who wants to get the word out about him. His brother Michael, who was involved in the film, and Phil’s daughter Meegan, have always been completely open to anyone who wants to celebrate Phil. It’s never been a question of the music not being available. It’s interesting, there is a hardcore fanbase out there. When Rhino put out a box set about five years ago, they sold out immediately and you can’t find it anywhere. Christopher Hitchens talks about it in the film, he said there’s a difference between people who knew Dylan and people who knew Ochs. Everybody knew Dylan. Dylan was brilliant. He was the Shakespeare of his time, without question. But the people who knew Ochs were really paying attention. They knew that there was this other voice out there that was as sharp and passionate and focused on the political narrative of the world.

And it’s also, you know, there’s a tone issue. Phil was never a huge selling artist. He’s an eccentric voice. A lot of people love what he was singing but don’t particularly love the sound of his voice. It’s just personal taste. And between Phil’s music being so passionate, so insistent -- his voice is very insistent, the music and the lyrics were very insistent -- some people back off from that.

His tone was incredibly funny and his sarcasm was really advanced. He called himself a proto-revolutionary, and I wonder if his sense of humor would play better now.

KB: You know, he did that song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” He was very happy to take shots at the left. And just like the right, the left can be a little sensitive to being criticized. Even though he’s considered a left-wing political folk singer, he never missed an opportunity to call the left on their lack of whatever, to make fun of them and make fun of himself. He was a sarcastic, witty guy, and I think some people felt a little stung by that. His daughter said to me once, he regularly bit the hand that fed him. Phil didn’t suffer fools, from wherever on the political spectrum they came from. I was never interested in getting into a debate about his validity as an artist. Music is such a personal thing. I wasn’t interested in entering that debate, or the debate of his music versus Dylan’s or any of that. I was interested in the story, and you could take his music or deny it. I obviously love it and feel deeply moved by it from my youth onward. 

In the film, you touch on how Ochs opposed the freak counterculture because Nixon was using it as a way to pit progressives against the working class. The narrative was really familiar -- like a parallel to the false dichotomy the far right is trying to create now, but instead of the “freak counterculture” they’re just demonizing “liberals.” Did you experience a lot of deja vu making this movie?

KB: What’s scary is, when you listen to Richard Nixon talk about the security of the South Vietnamese, you kind of go, Wait a minute, didn’t I just hear this speech a year ago on Iraq? And as you said, Nixon made it about how the scary, longhaired “freak” culture is against the working class, and I think that’s exactly what the right has once again successfully done -- they’ve defined the argument that way, and whether it’s Obama or whoever has to find a way to counter that. Phil was deadly accurate. He understood the game and I keep coming back to the word complexity, but he understood the complexity of the game. And he was right -- because his friends Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin in those guys in the Yippie party went too far and the culture reacted and elected Richard Nixon. We’re repeating a cycle.

Did you feel that way before you made the film, or did it come out in your research?

KB: Certainly I was stunned as I went through old political speeches how many ideas are being recycled and how many battles are being fought today that were fought then. Yeah, I probably was surprised how much things have stayed the same, to contradict myself about the culture changing things. Maybe they’re just hiring the same speechwriters. (Which they are!) It worked for them, you know. It worked for George Bush and it’s frightening that it could work for the next group. I’d like to think the American public is smart enough to not recreate Spiro Agnew, but nothing would surprise me.

As a director, it seems like you really gravitate toward these big-idea American stories -- even 'Saturday Night Live' has always had political overtones. 

KB: I grew up in New York City. My father was a cop. He was a sergeant in the NYC police force who was also down in Mexico in the early ‘60s doing peyote and reading Aldous Huxley. And at the time in New York, every television station ran movies at all times -- I grew up in this very large culture and was drawn to it. I love the idea of America. I think it is the greatest idea ever. And all those artists shared that view, and I’ve gotten to explore that view with them. I’m drawn to artists that are in love with the idea of America, who hopefully see it in a critical way in the sense that it can be improved upon. But that the idea is valid and rich.

Someone referred to Phil Ochs as Tom Paine with a guitar. This was a great American artist -- and American is probably the key to it. He was an artist who loved this country who was disappointed with it. He lost faith in himself, but I don’t think he ever lost faith in the country.

 

“Love Me I'm a Liberal”

 

“I Ain't Marching Anymore”

 

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
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