Phil Ochs Biography (corrected from earlier mailing, long)

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CW Lockett

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Mar 10, 1995, 8:22:22 PM3/10/95
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Due to the 40 plus requests I received for the Phil Ochs bio and
discography I poster a few weeks ago, I decided to stop playing cut and
paste and decided to post it so more folks could check it out. Here it is.

Phil Ochs was born in El Paso Texas in 1940. Spent his early years on Long
Island and moved to Ohio where his father, a physician, worked at a
tuberculosis treatment center. Phil requested to be sent to a military
academy in Virginia and attended for a while. In college, he attended Ohio
State and majored in journalism.

While at Ohio state, he met Jim Glover and they started performing as a
duo called "The Sundowners." Also during this time, Phil wrote one of his
first topical protest ballads, "Ballad of the Cuban Invasion," about the
Bay of Pigs incident. Phil's outspoken political beliefs, considered too
controversial by post-McCarthy frightened administrators, resulted in his
being passed over for the editorship of The Lantern, Ohio State's student
newspaper. Not long thereafter, he left college and headed to Greenwich
Village.

He made the rounds at all the famous folk clubs of the day; Gerde's Folk
City, The Gaslight, The Bitter End, etc. It was through Glover and his
musical partner of that period, Jean Ray that Phil met his wife-to-be,
Alice Skinner. Soon married and pregnant with daughter-to-be Meegan, they
lived in apartments on Thompson Street, and then Bleeker Street, hanging
out with all of the old folkies like Von Ronk and company. In the winter
of 1962, luckily enough for Phil, Broadside magazine started publishing
songs and lyrics with a heavy bent toward Phil's specialty, topical
protest ballads. During the '60's, Phil published 69 songs in Broadside!!

1964 was a great year for Phil, he saw several of his songs show up on
compilation albums such as the Folkways Records release Broadside Ballads,
[Folkways BR-301] Newport Broadside [VSD-9114], but the highlight of his
year would be the release of his first solo album, "All the news that's
fit to sing." [Elektra Elk-269/ECK7269] which was released in both mono
and stereo. Danny Kalb, famous for his later work with the band The Blues
Project, played second guitar on the album. Two of his greatest songs are
on this album, "Too Many Martyrs," about the death of Medgar Evers and
other political and hate-based motivated assassinations of the day, and
"Bound For Glory," a wonderful song about Woody Guthrie which takes its
title from a book that Woody wrote. Check it out, it's a fantastic read.
Also, "Power and the Glory," an early masterpiece is on the album. Bunch
of political songs, mostly topical, are on here as well. Additionally,
"What's that I hear?" is on here.

On the album cover to All the News, Phil is pictured in a green peacoat,
apparently symbolic of the labor movement. It was a coat he would later
wear in many photos. Phil's second solo album, "I ain't Marching Anymore,"
was released in 1965. Elektra EKL287/EKS-7287. Photo of Phil in green
peacoat again. Title track and Draft Dodger Rag two of his best songs on
this or any other album.

January 7, 1966, the day Phil first played Carnegie Hall, a packed house,
Phil was bigger than ever, although perhaps disgruntled that I Ain't
Marching failed to become an anthem like Dylan's Blowin' In The Wind had.
Critically and certainly financially, Ochs lived much of his professional
life under Dylan's shadow. (This is not editorializing on my behalf. Each
man has their own merits, their own faults, but Phil did suffer under
Dylan's enormous popularity. However much or less Dylan helped foster the
supposed, although unsubstantiated on many levels, professional
competitiveness and animosity between the two is uncertain.)

Ochs In Concert, Elektra EKL-310/EKS7310 was also released in 1966. It
featured poems by Mao Tse-Tung in the liner notes. The hilarious "Love Me
I'm a Liberal," Phil's pithy dig at the fashionably correct, politically
out-of-touch and empty-souled Old Guard Left, is featured here as is one
of his most beautiful songs, the lilting ballad "Changes." How ironic it
is that Love Me I'm a Liberal could work just as well in 1995 (with the
major players names chaged, of course), referring to the sellouts among
the then New Left, the current plague of yuppie nostalgia monsters who are
far too quick to judge me and my fellow (shit I hate this phrase)
Generation-X cohorts as excessive, lazy and not as politically active as
they were when they were my age. Ya know, if every wannabe-hippie history
teacher I had really went on the marches they say they did, the world
probably would be a much better place. O.K. enough bile from me.
Evidently, the album was representative of Phil's fantastic performances
of the day, but rumor has it that the "concert" never actually happened.
Supposedly it was all recorded on a soundstage with all the audience
noises dubbed in. Still, it's prime Ochs in prime form.

1967, Phil signed to A&M Records and the album Pleasures of The Harbor
came out. The peacoat made another appearance. As much as Dylan shocked
crowds with an electric guitar at Newport Folk in 1965, Phil shocked the
folk crowd with heavily orchestrated arrangements of his songs here. The
gigantic swirl of image and passion chronicling the process by which a man
is torn apart with equal zeal by the cult of personality that helped raise
him up, "Crucifixion," is featured here. The album has been unavailable
for a long time now, but Rudi Schmid at Berkeley tells me that a 4-CD
reissue of Ochs' stuff has Pleasures in its set. The electric version of
"Crucifixion" is supposed to be something of a sublime oddity, especially
to those of us who are familiar with the song from the 1990 Rhino Records
issue of the 1968 Vancouver concert where Phil performs the song solo with
an acoustic guitar, his lonely tenor rising with anger and tragic beauty,
falling softly over angry guitar strums. The song "Outside a Small Circle
of Friends," a jocular indictment of bystander apathy and societal
hypocrisy in the wake of the Kitty Genovese murder which several people
saw but did nothing to stop, is also on this album.

Critics of the day were never Phil's friends. Some old school blowhards
went after him for trying to bring electric instrumentation and symphonic
arrangements into folk, while others attacked him for sticking to topical
material. In 1967, the year the Summer of Love supposedly happened, (this
26-year-old's premature cynicism seeping in here) Phil was already
expressing his deep disappointment with the so-called movement. A lot of
talk was flung, rallies were a gas, but the same old crap just got
reconstituted and piled back on the heaping crap sandwich which people
with a genuine interest in furthering the cause of freedom and liberty
without war and without groovy cliches either, were having to bite down
upon. At the same time, Phil reportedly wasn't happy about not rising to
some level of stardom either. Moving to California to campaign for Eugene
McCarthy, Phil eased many folk fans fears with the release of Tape From
California, an album remarkable primarily for his return to simple, spare
acoustic arrangements and stripped-down style. (that's a compliment by the
way) But, it was the events of 1968 that really rocked Phil for a long
time.

August 25-29, 1968, a few short months after I was born, thanks, the
Democratic National Convention in Chicago, famous for its riots and
Chicago Seven, exploded onto the scene. Phil was there and eventually
testified as a defense witness. Part of his testimony is recounted in Marc
Eliot's book, Death of a Rebel, (1995 reissue of the 1979 book, Carol
publishing group, New York, 364 pg. ISBN 0-8065-1555-4) The Vancouver
performance recorded on There and Now [Rhino R4 70778] was Phil's first
public performance after the Chicago riots. He sounds tired, worn, bitter,
and strangely, as on Crucifixion, more passionate in some places than ever
before, but it is immediately evident that the strain of it all was
getting to him. This album was not released until 1990 when the tapes were
discovered in am A&M vault. Billy Bragg, British socialist songwriter,
singer, guitarist, and one of the nicest, most sincere men you'll ever
meet, wrote the liner notes.

Rehearsals for Retirement, Phil's next album, is a dead giveaway to the
frustration he was feeling. There is a cover photograph of a tombstone
bearing the inscription Phil Ochs,/ (American) / Born: El Paso, Texas
1940 / Died: Chicago, Illinois 1968 with the album title beneath that. It
was around this time that the shadow of Dylan gave way to the shadow of
depression and heavy drinking that gradually stole most of what Phil had
left. His marriage now gone, his career in a tailspin, the death of
American democracy witnessed firsthand, all of it amounted to a heavy
burden under whose weight Phil was beginning to stumble

1970. A bad year for many things, especially Phil Ochs. Phil Ochs Greatest
Hits, which only contained previously unreleased songs nobody had heard
before, was a flop. Parodying the Elvis Presley album which read, "50
Million Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong," the back of the album had the line,
"50 Phil Ochs Fans..." His Carnegie Hall performance of that year, dressed
in a gold lame (lam-ay, my accent key doesn't work) suit and slinging a
Les Paul Custom electric guitar around his neck, showed that something was
clearly wrong. The concert was recorded, but A&M refused to release the
tapes. The thought of Phil Ochs rocking through covers of Conway Twitty,
Merle Haggard and Buddy Holly was enough to alienate his "if it ain't
acoustic, folk and protest, I don't want to hear it, mister" fickle
folkster fan base. The album was eventually released in 1974, called
Gunfight at Carnegie Hall. It flopped as well. Strangely enough, Mobil
Fidelity Rereleased the album in 1989. Phil was ragingly drunk, probably
more than a little high, and flat-out weary as hell during this
performance and it showed. He was banned from Carnegie Hall for punching
his hand through the box office window which had been slammed shut in his
face after he demanded some fans be let in for free. It did earn him a
spot on the David Frost Show, however, the only big -time TV talk show
appearance in his career.

1971 saw Phil traveling to Chile where he met Victor Jara., famous Chilean
political folk singer. Energized by Jara's dogged determination to keep
plugging away at his songs and activism in spite of Chile's repressive
dictatorship, Phil played a few dates in 1972 and 73. When Jara died a few
years later, the wind completely left Phil's sails. Reportedly, he had
already begun telling people he was considering suicide. But, in 1973,
Phil headed off to Africa, and at least a decade before Paul Simon,
recorded with local Kenyan performers, singing in Swahili and Lingala
dialects. One single "Bwatue/Nike Mchumba Ngombe," was released in parts
of Africa, but I heard it was re-released in Canada on the now-defunct
Sparkle Records due to the mini-revival Phil has been going through
lately. Sadly, in Tanzania, a mugger put such a tight chokehold on Phil
that it completely ruptured his vocal cords. His voice was ruined.

His voice, a high, lonesome, vibrato-tinged tenor, now sounded like Dylan
with a head cold on a bad night. The high notes were unattainable and his
range was limited to a single octave or less. In 1974, Phil attempted a
remake of his song, "Here's To The State Of Mississippi," which was
reworked for the Watergate generation as, "Here's To The State Of Richard
Nixon;" it did not sell well. He performed still, although often poorly
and in pain, both physical and emotional, due to his vocal cord injuries.
In the fall of 1974, Phil organized a Chile benefit concert where Dylan
played.

In 1975, Phil performed publicly only twice. (I have heard that he might
have played a few other small gigs, though) Phil the young protest ballad
singer was reportedly not in attendance at these performance.s His alter
ego, a drunken, drugged rambling monotone of a man, singing country and
western songs who apologized for his poor voice in between incoherent
monologues, seemed to take his place. On April 9, 1976, Phil hanged
himself.

There are a few other albums, such as the posthumous "memorial" album on
A&M called Chords of Fame and the Rhino release of previously unreleased
tracks, "A Toast to Those Who Are Gone," [R2 70080] are also available.
Also, Elektra released a great double-play cassette, (at least that's the
format I have it on,) called There But For Fortune which has tons of great
stuff on it. Half studio, half live. Some of which I believe are
performances from the earlier Phil Ochs in Concert album. It's still
fairly accessible and great nonetheless.

For me, Ochs' best song was When I'm Gone, an ode to doing what you gotta
do with your life while you're still here on earth to do it. It was fresh,
poetic, hauntingly lyrical and melodic and bore the optimism and warm,
active humanism of Phil Ochs that was submerged in his later years. When
his journalism background kicked in, he was unstoppable, but even Woody
Guthrie knew how to take a specific event and build upon the universal
themes of the little guy gettin' shafted by the big guy, etc. and turn
specific-events journalism into thematic poetry. Now, his more poetic
works like Changes, Crucifixion, When I'm Gone and a handful of others,
proved that Ochs was a force to be reckoned with. But, as he lived and
unfortunately died along with many of the immediate events of his day, his
legacy as a popular culture figure is obscure at best. However, the issues
he addressed are still with us. I live and work in Newt Gingrich's
congressional district in Georgia, for example.

He was definitely one of the last great topical protest songwriters of our
age. Eric Bogle, Si Kahn and a few others are still doing it, but as a pop
form of expression, it doesn't get much attention anymore. For example,
who remembers the Thresher incident? Phil wrote a song about it. I barely
even recall seeing it in history books. (Hey, I went to public school,
what can I say?) I work for a major U.S. newspaper and know all too well
that the immediacy of telecommunications, global satellite and cable
television, newspapers even, operate too quickly - constantly bombarding
people with information, infotainment, O.J. Simpson trials, etc. that
today's events, not their underlying issues mind you, are out-of-date by
the end of the month. It's like that line in the movie Heathers, "Oh
Heather, bulimia is so '87." The movie came out in 1988. (again, my youth
is showing itself, unfettered) However, and even on postmodern audiences
this is true, poetry always outlives journalism.

Phil wrote in When I'm Gone, "There's no place in this world where I'll
belong when I'm gone...." and to a tragically sad extent, that's true. At
the paper, I ask co-workers of Ochs' generation what they know about him,
even his name, I get the blankest stares you've ever seen. And these come
from very well-informed people. It is my hope and intention that this
brief history and other discussion groups will see to it that Phil is not
forgotten.

Oh yeah, check out the Billy Bragg song on his album The Internationale,
"I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night." It's set, appropriately enough, to
the tune of "I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night." If you need help with
Joe Hill, I can fill ya in there, too.

I welcome any comments to my Email address, including any corrections,
which I am sure will have to be made. It's been through a few already

I must give credit to Rudi Schmid at Berkeley for filling me in on the
book, and to Scott Robinson, whose wonderful article in the Dec. / Jan.
1991-92 issue of Dirty Linen much of this information comes from.

Lastly, and most importantly, Sonny Ochs, Phil's sister, has worked long
and hard at keeping her brother's name, and most importantly, music, alive
and well. For 12 years now, working around the Northeast U.S., she has
hosted, produced and documented several "Phil Ochs Nights," featuring
several top-notch folk performers singing a few of their own songs and a
whole bunch of Phil's. She said the next one is scheduled for June 4 in
Fairfield Conn.

Also, Sonny Ochs is due serious thanks for correcting the inaccuracies in
the earlier incarnation of this mailing.

One last thing. When Phil's FBI file was closed, it was 410 pages long.

Take it easy, but take it,

cwlo...@aol.com Chris Lockett

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