Phil Ochs: No Direction Home

New documentary shows Phil Ochs caught between folk and rock.

01/04/2011
Special To The Jewish Week
Protest singer Ochs committed suicide at 35.
Protest singer Ochs committed suicide at 35.

It is undoubtedly simplistic to suggest that a single incident can shape the way a person lives his entire life. Even the survivor of a catastrophic accident is more than the accumulated scars and physical deficits thus incurred. But watching Kenneth Bowser’s new documentary, “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune,” it is impossible not to register a story that the great singer-songwriter’s brother Michael recalls from their childhood in small-town Ohio.

He tells the filmmaker how he and Phil “were the only two Jews in the school, so we learned what it was like to be Jewish: ‘Oh, you’re Jewish?’ Pow!” Michael laughs and adds, “We also learned how to fight.”

Judging from Bowser’s film (which Michael Ochs co-produced), Phil spent the rest of his life fighting, measuring himself against the biggest bullies he could find. As one of the best of his generation of politically aware songwriters, Ochs took on segregationists, union-breakers, warmongers and the like. He would face off against rural poverty, unsafe working conditions, the Vietnam War, the coup d’etat in Chile and any other manifestations of what his friend and fellow folksinger Judy Henske calls “the unfairnesses of life.”

Bowser tells Ochs’ story methodically, deliberately and chronologically. Thanks in no small part to Michael, who is one of the great rock ‘n’ roll archivists, he had access to a huge trove of photos, audio, film and video clips, and fortunately for his project, Ochs appears to have been a hoarder who never threw away a concert flier or a newspaper clipping.

Early in the film, Bowser throws out an interesting clue to Ochs’ career, noting the 15-year-old’s obsession with the movies and his love of such unlikely heroes as John Wayne and Gary Cooper. As a couple of the film’s interview subjects shrewdly observe, Phil was a wholehearted believer in the American myth of individual heroism, the lone guy (with gun or guitar) who rights wrongs, redresses grievances and then rides off to the next fight. This is, of course, an ideology that sits rather uncomfortably with the collective action mystique of the activist left, making Ochs something of a fish out of water. But as his brother notes at one point, “He never went with the mainstream.” Even when he was swimming against it.

But the second half of “There But For Fortune,” like the life of its subject, takes an increasingly bleak turn. Ochs, who readily admitted that his great ambition was to be like Elvis, was caught between musical stools, unwilling or unable to continue in the folkie vein, unwilling to turn to so-called folk-rock and unable to be an out-and-out rocker. Artistic burnout coupled with a family history of bipolar disorder, sped forward by alcoholic binges, caused Ochs’ life to begin to unravel. He committed suicide in 1976. He was 35.

This makes for understandably dispiriting viewing. But what makes it all the harder to watch is the gnawing sense that the film hasn’t provided viewers with enough reason to be sorry for the loss. As someone who grew up listening to Phil Ochs’ records and singing his songs and sharing many of the same causes, I have no trouble explaining to myself or my friends why Ochs mattered so deeply to my cohort. But watching this film wouldn’t enlighten someone who had never heard or seen Ochs. There is too much of his life and not enough of his work for a stranger to make a judgment as to whether the film was a journey worth making.

“Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune,” written and directed by Kenneth Bowser, opens on Jan. 5 at the IFC Center (323 Sixth Ave.). For information, call (212) 924-7771 or go to www.ifccenter.com.

Comments

It's not "psychobabble" when it's true. Ochs' bipolar disorder was a tragic fact that underlay his life and explains much of his behavior, and any treatment of his life that did not deal with it would not be complete or fair.
Why must every bio be interpreted though the idea that mental illness underlies the subject. "Family history of BiPolar disorder" who says. It's easy to pychobabble any life to fit the "disease modality" interpretation.
Phil may have gone to a military school - but not with his brother Michael. I assume the school in question was a public one in Columbus.
I thought Columbus was a small town. Anyway, that does not negate the statement about being the only Jew in his class. Phil went to a military school.
Actually, the Ochs family didn't live in "small-town" Ohio. They lived in Columbus, which was not only a major city (the state capital, in fact) but also has -- as it did even back then -- a rather substantial Jewish population.
As a devoted admirer of Phil's lyrical genius and one who wrote a song in his memory - despite being completely opposed to his politics and aims for America - Phil was indeed someone to be admired and pitied at the same time. In comparing Dylan to Ochs, I've always said that Bob was Picasso while Phil was Da Vinci when it comes to their styles of music and lyrics, although each was capable of of being both. Like all human beings, he had his strengths and weaknesses. "Each note and chord left us all dangling His departure left all of us hanging."

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