Ochs, Philip David ("Phil")

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OCHS, Philip David ("Phil")

(b. 19 December 1940 in El Paso, Texas; d. 9 April 1976 in Far Rockaway, New York), folk musician whose pointed political songs about the Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, American foreign policy, and other controversial issues made him one of the most influential singers and songwriters of the 1960s.

Ochs was the son of Jacob Ochs, an itinerant doctor, and Gertrude Phin Ochs, a homemaker and Scottish immigrant; he had one brother and one sister. After seeing combat at the Battle of the Bulge, Jacob Ochs was diagnosed with manic depression (now called bipolar disorder) and spent most of his son's childhood in and out of mental institutions. When not institutionalized he took whatever medical jobs he could find, moving his family at various times to New Mexico, Texas, New York, and Ohio. When Ochs was in the fifth grade he began playing the clarinet and soon demonstrated extraordinary musical aptitude. By age sixteen he was the lead clarinet soloist for Capital University's Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio. In 1956, at his own request, he was sent to the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, and after graduation he enrolled at Ohio State University in 1958. There he majored in journalism, became obsessed with Elvis Presley and James Dean, adopted a radical political philosophy, abandoned the clarinet for the guitar, began composing folk songs, and started his own newspaper when the student paper refused to publish his leftist writings.

After winning local acclaim as a folksinger, Ochs dropped out of college one semester short of graduation and moved to New York City. On 15 March 1963 he performed his first paid concert at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village and soon was playing at a variety of clubs and writing for the folk music magazine Broadside. That year he married Alice Skinner, with whom he had a daughter; they separated in 1965. Ochs's first exposure to a large audience came in July 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, a performance that brought him widespread acclaim. As his fame grew, Ochs's Bleecker Street apartment became a frequent hangout for other folk singers, including the emerging Bob Dylan, who became a close friend. In 1964 Ochs's first album, All the News That's Fit to Sing, was released. Its title and contents reflected his songwriting process, which consisted largely of scouring newspapers for material. "Every newspaper headline is a potential song," he said. Like Dylan's early work, Ochs's songs were anything but subtle. They were harsh, witty, and pointed attacks on war, racism, and the establishment. The melodies were simple; the lyrics, Ochs felt, were the important part. Though well received by critics, the first album sold poorly, in part because radio stations refused to air its controversial songs. The album did, however, bring Ochs to the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), which monitored his movements, tapped his phone, and began compiling a file that numbered hundreds of pages by the time of his death.

In 1964 Ochs traveled to Mississippi for a series of concerts; he had just arrived when the bodies of three murdered civil rights workers were found in a nearby swamp. "I'm afraid they're going to kill me while I'm singing on stage," he told a friend. But he survived, and the experience led him to write one of his most significant songs, "Here's To the State of Mississippi," a scathing attack on white southerners. The song included the chorus "Here's to the land you've torn out the heart of / Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of." In 1965 Ochs released his second album, I Ain't Marching Anymore, a brilliant collection of fourteen biting political songs. Among them were the clever satire "Draft Dodger Rag" and "That Was the President," an elegy to John Kennedy. But the undisputed masterpiece was the album's title track, a defiant declaration of pacifism that became an anthem of the antiwar movement. "The fact that you won't be hearing this song on the radio," Ochs wrote, "is more than enough justification for the writing of it."

In 1965 one of Ochs's most poignant songs, "There But for Fortune," became a Top Forty hit for Joan Baez. Always an aggressive self-promoter, Ochs had enough of a following by 1966 to sell out Carnegie Hall for a concert appearance that later became part of a live album, Phil Ochs in Concert. By this time Dylan had converted to rock music, and Ochs also began writing songs that were less overtly political. His best songs from 1966 and 1967, including "Changes," "When I'm Gone," and "Crucifixion," were more personal and abstract than his previous work, and more musically intricate. But to his dismay none of them became hits.

On 23 June 1967 Ochs organized and performed at an antiwar demonstration in Los Angeles, where he was living. Dubbed the War Is Over Rally, after the title of one of his songs, the event made national news when police attacked the peaceful demonstrators. Later that year Ochs released Pleasures of the Harbor, the first album to exemplify his new, subtler sound. In 1968 he became, along with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, one of the founders of the Youth International Party (YIP). At the Democratic National Convention in Chicago the Yippies mocked the political process by nominating a pig for president. Chicago police, not amused, arrested Ochs, Hoffman, and four others for possession of livestock inside city limits. Ochs was released after a few hours in jail, but he later became a key witness for the defense in the infamous Chicago Seven trial of 1969. Ochs's next album, the prophetically named Rehearsals for Retirement, drew on his Chicago experience. Though it is now considered one of his best albums, it sold poorly at the time.

As the 1970s began Ochs seemed lost both artistically and personally. The public did not respond to his new style of songwriting, and two more albums flopped. So did an ill-conceived concert tour in which he wore a sparkling gold suit and sang Elvis Presley songs. He became an alcoholic and a Valium addict and began believing he had stomach cancer and was a member of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He tried to hire Colonel Tom Parker, who managed Presley, as his manager, and when that failed, he tried to hire Colonel Harlan Sanders, the fast food entrepreneur, instead. He assumed a new identity, calling himself John Butler Train, lashing out at anyone who referred to him as Phil Ochs. He was arrested at various times for assault, driving under the influence, and weapons possession. Friends convinced Ochs to commit himself to a mental institution, but he left after one day. On 9 April 1976 Ochs hanged himself in the bathroom of his sister's apartment, where he had been living while trying to recover. The body was found by his fourteen-year-old nephew. Ochs was cremated and his ashes scattered around Edinburgh Castle in Scotland, his mother's homeland.

Throughout his career Ochs seemed to be tormented by his apparent inferiority to Dylan and that he was nowhere near as commercially successful. "It never ceases to amaze me how the American people allow the hit parade to hit them over the head with a parade of song after meaningless song about love," he wrote in 1963. Still, at his peak from 1963 through 1965, Ochs was arguably as influential as any folksinger in the nation, Dylan included. Songs like "I Ain't Marching Anymore" and "Here's To the State of Mississippi" helped drive a social movement that redefined American society. Like many whose lives revolved around the social movement of the 1960s, Ochs seemed to fall apart after that movement degenerated into chaos.

Ochs is the subject of two full-length biographies: Marc Eliot, Death of a Rebel: A Biography of Phil Ochs (1979; expanded ed. 1989), and Michael Schumacher, There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs (1996). David Cohen, Phil Ochs: A Bio-Bibliography (1999) contains biographical information, a bibliography, a discography, and an analysis of Ochs's work. Significant articles are in Esquire (Oct. 1976) and the Austin Chronicle (18 Aug. 1997).

Eric Enders