My undergraduate years at Columbia, 1962-1966, corresponded with the height of the folk-singing craze which, centered in New York City’s Greenwich Village, spread throughout the land. Armed with my guitar and my long-neck 5-string banjo, I was a regular performer at the on-campus Post Crypt, an intimate student hang-out directly behind the crypt of St. Paul’s Chapel.
To this very day, when it is late at night and I am too tired to read or to write, I take a trip down memory lane on YouTube to remind myself how such greats as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Neil Young looked and sounded 50 years ago; I then proceed to check out their recent performances to see what the passing decades have done to them. While time has painted their hair gray, all three of them remain powerful presences onstage.
Phil Ochs, writer and singer of topical and protest songs, contemporary and sometime rival to Dylan, seems so fresh and wholesome in his ’60s performances; but I can’t turn to YouTube to see how he performs as an old man because on Friday, April 9, 1976, at the age of 35, he hanged himself.
In order to begin to understand what led a young man with such seeming promise to take his own life, I read two biographies: Marc Eliot’s “Death of a Rebel, Starring Phil Ochs and a Small Circle of Friends” (Anchor Books, 1979) and Michael Shumacher’s “There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs” (Hyperion, 1996), which covers much of the same ground. Before reading these books, I thought I would find that the story of Phil Ochs was essentially that of a talented and decent young man brought to his tragic end by his uncontrollable manic-depression reinforced by his descent into the maelstrom of alcoholism. But I have come to learn that his life story is far more complicated.
To paraphrase a line from the contemporary Russian poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, for most of his brief life, Ochs was stretched like a wire between the city of Yes and the City of No. In the city of Yes, he was a prodigious talent; time after time his overflowing creative energy enabled him to translate today’s headlines into tomorrow’s songs.
In one of his early efforts, “The Power and the Glory,” Ochs offered his audience a recurrent chorus of proud patriotism: “Here is a land full of power and glory/Beauty that words cannot recall/Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom/Her glory shall rest on us all.” Yet some of the verses call into question the quality of our country’s freedom: “Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor/Only as free as the padlocked prison door.”
Ochs had a disarming sense of humor; nowhere was it more in evidence than in his mildly subversive “Draft Dodger Rag:” “Yes, think of my career, my sweetheart dear, and my poor old invalid aunt/Besides I ain’t no fool, I’m a-goin’ to school/And I’m working in a DEE-fense plant.”
Count among the many other Phil Ochs songs that have stood the test of time: “There But For Fortune” (given a boost when performed and recorded by Joan Baez), “I Ain’t Marching Any More,” “Changes,” “Crucifixion” (about JFK).
At his best and most focused, Ochs was able to harness his enormous energy to organize large-scale public events. On the evening of May 9, 1974, he managed to persuade such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie to donate their talents to celebrate the life of Salvadore Allende, 29th president of Chile and one of Ochs’ political heroes, who had lost his life in a military coup on Sept. 11, 1973. The program of song, dance, poetry, drama and political speeches drew a sellout crowd to Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum. Net proceeds went to Chilean refugees. When Ochs was good, he was very, very good…
But … there was a dark side to Phil Ochs; he lived too often in the city of No. People who knew him best saw that beneath his bravado, beneath his delusions of grandeur, was a fragile young man tormented by indecision, insecurity and stage fright. He had dropped out of Ohio State University not once but twice – the second time with only a semester to go for his degree.
Both of his biographers agree that Ochs could never get enough love or approval. He treated his wife, his daughter and the other women who came and went in his life as appendages to his career – sometimes useful, often in the way. He was a performer who knew how to make love to his audience, but his overweening narcissism and inconsiderateness rendered him unable to experience the tangled but richly rewarding bonds of one-on-one intimacy.
The last year or two of Ochs’ life (as he exhibited increasingly worrisome signs of physical and mental deterioration resulting from his untreated manic-depression and deepening alcoholism), were a nightmare for Ochs and for those who tried to help him; drunk and violent most of the time, he was a menace to himself and to others. By the end of June 1975, Ochs seemed to have made a break with his psychic identity and adopted the persona of John Butler Train. As his biographer Michael Shumacher puts it: “With his huge pot belly, filthy clothes, confrontational attitude and arsenal of strange weapons, Train could not have been more different from the Phil Ochs of the sixties. Train was Mr. Hyde on the loose – a tortured, violent being incapable of freeing the Dr. Jekyll trapped inside.” By now Ochs/Train was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.
There was a man; he is no more. Phil Ochs died before his time. Because he cut off his life in the middle, we will never hear the words and the melodies that might have been.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG, rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington, can be contacted at email@example.com.