WHERE IS THE PHIL OCHS OF THESE DANGEROUS TIMES?
By John Pietaro
A bloodthirsty Right-wing power-grab. Virulent xenophobia. An ongoing illegal and immoral war. National divide. Governmental spying. Rising popular unrest. Social welfare in turmoil. Fear-mongering. A military industrial complex gone mad and a Democrat in the White House whose poll numbers are in rapid decline….
Contemporary headlines or those of the Vietnam War years? Today’s “great recession” notwithstanding, one overt difference in these times is the silence; God knows we don’t have Phil Ochs this time around.
History will demonstrate that Philip David Ochs (December 19, 1940 - April 9, 1976) was one of our nation’s most profound voices of protest. He was active in the fertile period that bridged the Civil Rights era with the struggle for peace and the youth movement; around him were erupting battles on campuses, town squares and in Washington DC. For an artist of conscience, there was much work to do, so Phil Ochs sang out against war and demanded equal rights and an egalitarian society. His songs damned the establishments that begat the murder of Medgar Evers and allowed organized labor to forget its true mission. He cried for our nation and praised its promise.
Ochs’ songs unashamedly revealed our faults but also offered the means to rectify them. Phil was a presence at demonstrations and other radical actions, not merely a voice on a record. A proud member of the IWW, Ochs traveled to Hazzard, Kentucky during the bloody strikes in the earliest 60s and boldly performed for the pickets and in ear-shot of the mine-owners’ threatening goon squads. Several songs document these struggles, including the hauntingly beautiful “No Christmas in Kentucky”. Shortly thereafter, Phil became entrenched in Civil Rights, traveling to many points on the Klan’s radar. His periods in the Deep South are chronicled in songs such as “Freedom Riders” and the brutally blunt “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”.
From Greenwich Village coffee houses to the national stage, Ochs sang his protest loudly. While his first two albums set the standard for topical singers henceforth, both All the News That’s Fit to Sing and I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore offer stark moments of beauty. Over the next few years, as he matured as a person and a writer, he’d offer the haunting “Changes”. And with “Crucifixion” he emoted about the loss of John Kennedy, but wasn’t he also singing about the loss of innocence, perhaps conscience itself? And “One More Parade”, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” and then “The War is Over” gave us anthems that would carry the peace movement. “The Power and the Glory” spoke of his pride in our nation’s mission and greatness—even as the FBI began an investigation of him that would span a decade and fill 410 pages. “Cops of the World” spit back into the faces of the reactionary government. Ochs was nobody’s fool.
Phil toyed with fans, and surely his own sense of doom, by titling a 1968 album Rehearsals for Retirement. Its cover depicted his own gravestone with the year of death listed as, of course, 1968. Continually plagued by demons, both inner and outer, Ochs struggled with bi-polar disorder, anxiety and alcohol dependence. Often, his performances became strained as lyrics were increasingly forgotten and melodies faded. In his later period, gigs became arguments with the audience.
Ochs was a major part of the protest surrounding the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, performing his best topical material right in Lincoln Park. Later, he was called in as a witness for the defense on behalf of the Chicago 7. Ochs told anyone who’d listen that he felt he spiritually died in Chicago, as the police riot rained blows upon democracy.
Ochs staged several ‘The War is Over’ concerts which featured many name performers in both folk and rock music. He would also travel to Chile and befriend the great songwriter Victor Jara. Shortly thereafter, the CIA-backed coupe would take the lives of Jara and thousands of others; this was a terminal assault to the faltering Ochs. By 1976, unable to prevail in this battle on every front, Phil Ochs would die by his own hand.
The protest song’s grandest voice dared to speak back to the criminal Nixon administration, uncovering and exposing with anger and wry humor. He alerted his audiences to corruption and brutality and especially to the right-wing’s manipulation of ‘the American dream’. Ironically, he also warned us that, “a protest song is something you don’t hear on the radio”. He dared us to care, at the expense of himself. And now, as the anniversary of what should have been his seventieth birthday approaches we are left to watch new generations of right-wing opportunists flail joyously with a new sense of slovenly power----the silence of Ochs’ loss has become deafening.