A Rebel With a Cause: Phils Ochs

To say someone's life represents the 1960s is cliched at best and reductionist at worst, but folksinger and protest troubadour Phil Ochs' odyssey through the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early '60s, the Yippie days of the Chicago Democratic Convention and the despair of the '70s almost begs to be placed in such a category.At the peak of his career, Ochs sped from protest demonstration to sold-out Carnegie Hall concerts. He sang his songs, "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," "There But For Fortune," "Changes," "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" and "The State of Richard Nixon" at hundreds of civil rights and anti-war rallies across the country. He recorded seven albums, including the just-released Phil Ochs in Concert, containing the best of his political material.By the time he took his own life in 1976 at the age of 35, he had become a hopeless street creature, fighting mental illness, alcoholism, and despair at the state of American politics.Recently, Peter Werbe talked with Michael Schumacher, author of There But For Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs (Hyperion), about Ochs' creative but troubled life. Schumacher has written four previous books, including Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton and Dharma Lion: A Biography of Allen Ginsberg.Peter Werbe: The subject of your book has been dead for 20 years, never had a major hit, and was a political creature, and these are cynical political times. Who was Phil Ochs and why should we care about his life?Michael Schumacher: I think what Phil was all about still applies today. Look at bands like Rage Against the Machine, or a guy like Billy Bragg, who was just in Detroit doing a benefit for the newspaper strikers. Billy is a direct political descendant of Phil Ochs. If you talk to Michael Stipe of REM, he's well aware of who Phil Ochs was, and so is Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder. Neil Young wrote "Cinnamon Girl," one of his signature songs, after being inspired by Phil. These people all have the same passion Phil had.PW: How did Phil Ochs' music arrive on the music scene?Schumacher: Phil went to Ohio State University and studied journalism there in the early '60s.Phil became disillusioned with college after he was told his political beliefs made him too radical to be editor of the student newspaper. He moved to New York City, one semester shy of graduation, where he met other unknowns like Bob Dylan, Peter Yarrow, and Dave Van Ronk, who were just breaking on the early '60s scene. Phil, Dylan and a handful of others became known for protest material, not to mention people who weren't as political like John Sebastian, who was a close friend and went on to play with the Lovin' Spoonful.It was a fertile time in Greenwich Village, and Phil was right at the red-hot center of it all. Dylan didn't remain a protest singer, but went on to do more personal and poetic stuff, where Phil continued to write things that were very, very political. He went on voter registration drives in the deep South and played at union rallies for coal miners in Kentucky and West Virginia. He did a lot of benefits. Phil believed very strongly in putting his money where his mouth was and frequently turned down paying gigs to do freebies for the right cause.PW: Did Phil desire stardom?Schumacher: Oh, yes. He was a funny guy, because he was one of those people that protested too much. To the press he would say, fame, that's not important. But he would have loved to have been as big as Elvis, certainly as big as Dylan.PW: Didn't he issue an album where he appeared on the cover in an Elvis-type outfit?Schumacher: Yes. He had Newtie the Tailor, the same guy who did Elvis' gold lame suit, make one up for him. He thought the only hope for America was to combine Che Guevara and Elvis Presley.PW: So he wasn't short on ego.Schumacher: No, he wasn't. You have to have a pretty healthy ego to throw yourself out in front of the public, especially if you're trying to convince them that your opinion is worth anything. It's one thing to sing a love song or write a beautiful ballad, but it's another to try to influence people.Unfortunately, he was a real romantic in some respects, including the way he saw the United States. He went to the 1968 Chicago Democratic Convention believing, as so many did, that they could change the world. Instead, they were bopped on the head with batons and tear gassed. Phil gave up. He gave up on the country and fell into a deep depression. A sort of writer's block set in, and that was coupled with his manic depression.PW: Was he taking medicine for his condition?Schumacher: He was supposed to, but didn't. When I was working on research for this book, I talked to people who knew Abbie Hoffman, a friend of Phil's, who also suffered from manic depression and also committed suicide. The two of them had parallel situations where they did their own medicating, so to speak, which is not uncommon among artists who have manic depression. They don't want to lose what gives them the edge to be creative. Abbie was the son of a pharmacist, and he knew a little bit about chemicals, so he mixed up his own. Phil drank....His highs became bigger and bigger, and his lows became deeper and deeper. Toward the end of his life he took on another persona and changed his name to John Butler Train. He began falling apart in front of his friends. It was horrible to watch, and very tragic. No one was capable of doing anything to change him.Probably one of the great tragedies of the book was the question I put to (his friends), what was your reaction when you heard that Phil had taken his life in 1976? So many people had the same response, "Thank God." The reason they said this was that his suffering was so immense at the end of his life, his depression so deep and he was so incapable of functioning, that they could not bear to see him suffer any more.PW: When the social context in which both Abbie Hoffman and Phil Ochs thrived collapsed in the early '70s, it pulled the rug out from under both of them.Schumacher: When the war in Vietnam ended, Phil hosted a huge rally in May 1975 called the "War Is Over" in New York's Central Park. Harry Belafonte, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger played along with Phil and other bands.It was a beautiful day in the park, and it was packed with 100,000 people; everybody came and had a great time. But there was almost a palpable sense of loss or sadness that something which had united all of them, this terrible war in Vietnam, was gone. Now what? Phil and Abbie and Jerry Rubin and a number of other people who were active in protesting the war in Vietnam, when the '60s came to an end, didn't know what to do. You had the cynical attitudes of the '70s setting in about politics.We got our heads bashed in Chicago; we saw students shot to death at Kent State; we had people stabbed to death at the Rolling Stones' Altamont concert -- what do we have to believe in anymore? Unfortunately, for Phil Ochs, he couldn't give an answer. He lost his faith.PW: Phil Ochs was a folksinger who represented a different trend from the hard rock of the MC5 and Iggy and the Stooges which typified Detroit in the '60s and '70s.Schumacher: True, but he was involved in the 1971 Free John Sinclair Rally which featured John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Seger, Stevie Wonder, the MC5 and others at Ann Arbor's Crisler Arena in an effort to free the imprisoned poet and White Panther leader. For this rally, John Lennon was putting together his album, Sometime in New York City, which was a collection of protest songs and the first such collection he'd done. He was interested in what people's take would be on this, and who did he call but Phil Ochs. Phil went to Lennon's New York City apartment, and there's a tape of their conversation.It's too bad it's never been released. Lennon had just written the song, "John Sinclair," and he played it for Phil. The ensuing discussion about topical songs and protest music was quite interesting. Phil believed strongly that one could change events, or change people's perception, through a well-crafted song.PW: I think Phil Ochs' music is certainly appropriate for these times. There's been a resurgence of acoustic music from a number of bands in the alternative scene which often express a sense of hopelessness, despair, and that beautiful-loser mentality.Schumacher: Sure, you could tell Kurt Cobain knew something about Phil Ochs when he did Leadbelly and some of those rather obscure folk songs on the unplugged Nirvana album. This year there's been a troupe of musicians going from city to city playing Phil's songs. They're well attended, including by young people, which amazes me.PW: Wasn't there supposed to be a Sean Penn movie about Phil's life?Schumacher: It's still in the works. It's not easy putting anything together out in Hollywood; it seems to take forever. There are a couple of other Phil Ochs-related things happening besides the Sean Penn project. There's a television documentary in production which isn't going to be a biography per se, but tying his life and music into the events of the last 30 years.PW: Where did your interest in Phil Ochs stem from?Schumacher: He was kind of forbidden fruit in a way. That's how it was with Phil. He was seen as this radical, which is really kind of funny. When you look back, his message was so humanistic, how could it possibly have seemed so radical? He was singing for equality and freedom and the end of war.I was talking about this recently backstage at one of the Phil Ochs song nights. Someone was complaining about how in the election campaign, Republicans were saying it's about time we expose that draft dodger in the White House. Someone said, wait a minute, at the time Bill Clinton was trying his best to stay out of the war in Vietnam, a majority of the country was condemning it as being immoral. What would it have made Clinton if he had gone willfully to the war?PW: I wonder if we could get Bill Clinton to do a version of Phil's song, "Draft Dodger Rag"?


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