Phil Ochs (born December 19, 1940, died April 9, 1976) was the major American social movement singer-songwriter of the 1960s and the initiating irritating organizer of the more satirically absurd street demonstrations of the era. And he did it all while six sheets to the wind.
Ochs, of course, long after his semi-tragic alcohol-fueled death-by-hanging in 1976, became a musical icon in the 21st century. But during his short aggravated lifetime, Phil Ochs was the essential quintessential unknown American folk artist/social activist. And, historians agree, in the end he was not a very good brother.
Phil Ochs was unknown in the 20th century for such songs as "The War is Surely Almost Over", "I'm Considering Not Marching Anymore", and "Pleasures of Your Momma", heard by hundreds during his lifetime. He was favorably mentioned at the time of his minor ascension as the folky/protesty/uniony/unkempt heir to iconic singer/songwriter/hillbillytroublemaker Woody Guthrie. Ochs also lived in the shadow of his shadowy contemporary, Bob Dylan - likely because Phil Ochs didn't get one second of air-play on any major radio station during the 1960s, let alone television, which left him well enough alone. He was virtually unknown outside of the movement crowd, which wasn't really a crowd as much as a small knitting-circle of friends. Historians of the era agree that Ochs gained his chords of fame way too late - long after he was wind-blown ashes somewhere - and so missed out on some of the better groupies.
In Phil Ochs' prime, when he was a quarter of a century old and only half a century drunk, he was kind of happy and fairly sane. During the era's Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements Ochs would attend protest demonstrations across the United States and Chile at the drop of a hat, sight unseen, itching for a fight, wishin' on a star, and dumpster diving for a dime bag. It's been said that Phil Ochs gave his all to help the people stop an unjust war and gain civil rights for all their citizens, but that the people later sold those rights for a bowl of lentils. Although the ills of the world that Phil Ochs and his hippie companions were always singing and walking around about were swept away like a heavy fog lifting to reveal a sunny new day, they were replaced soon after Ochs' death by more frightful and insidious ills.
We repeat, Boy in Ohio.
Ochs began his immortal singing and immoral songwriting journey in Columbus, Ohio, where he wrote and starred in the first all-nude "Kindergarten Musical". He was soon playing guitar and singing for his neighborhood friends, many of whom (two) closely followed his rising career. From spying on poor people as they shopped, to peeking at his sister's friends at sleep-overs, and later submerging himself in his journalistic studies at Ohio State University, Ochs learned about society. He realized that he was a champion of fairness. He began to stroll the land in hemp-ash cloth and beret. One day, as he strolled, he began to sing about a news story he'd read. Ochs quickly realized that his innate ability to discern gems from the standard garbage in the news could be put to good use, and envisioned creating something in the no-mans land between a newspaper and a record album. All these realizations, studies, and plans gave him a heads up when he was asked, as he invariably was, "Hey, what's going on man?"
Ochs knew where the folk scene was gathering. He moved to New York. Then, later to California. All of these moves irritated his parents and other stay-at-home Ohioians, who never forgave him his wanderlust.
In summary, Ochs' sthick, his handle, his trademark, his yodel, his McGuffin, was that he took his training as a journalist seriously and shoved the news into songs as far as it would go. He then politely shoved those songs into people's faces and made them eat it. Ochs' foremost ability was to write concise songs about current events and then sing them in an interesting voice at concerts, demonstrations, and union halls. And then whisper them to farmer's and farmer's daughters in bars and brothels all across this great and growing land.
As Ochs aged like a wooden zephyr he somehow found the time to produce over eight albums full of songs and sentiment (See his 1971 album Songs and Sentiment). The highlight of his uncannily ignored career came when he perfomed at Carnegie Hall in New York before a rapt audience of dozens. There, dressed in a gold suit styled after his idol, Elvis Presley, Ochs recorded an album which was released under the unusual title "WTF?". Ochs perfomed the title song on the "Ed Sullivan Show" (Sullivan somehow thought the initials stood for "Wise Tiny Flamingo", and he really liked the image his mind had created). So Ochs' only national television appearance lasted approximately two seconds before the screen went dark, the viewers confusingly echoed the words they had just heard, and turned their short attention spans to sports - the reality shows of the time.
Demonstrations and decline
Since Ochs was just the right age to experience the social shocks and movements of the '60s, he got drunk. And then he experienced them. During Ochs' activist years he initiated the "War is Over" demonstrations, where hippies just took it upon themselves to declare the Vietnam War over and organize related cannibis-induced celebrations. He also helped develop and organize the Festival of Life at the 1968 Democratic National convention in Chicago. Hippies came from far and high and from all over the world for this Festival, and a couple of them and Ochs held a press conference announcing that they were running a pig for president. In the midst of an unjust war being fought by draftees and poor people, Och's answer to the injustices was to declare the war over, run a pig for president, and create a Festival of Life. Couldn't hurt.
Near the end of his own festival of life, in the mid-1970s, Ochs had stopped almost all perfoming and recording after having his vocal chords stomped silly in a mugging while he was visiting Africa. Losing the better part of his voice, he grew quiet and disillusioned, and fell into several interesting years which included a chronic case of the cooties, lots of "the woes", acute unrestained bipolar disorder, and, of course, alcoholism. He started calling himself "John Train" and wore a locomotive hat. Some fans claimed to have seen him in this or that gutter, drifting in or out of consciousness while covered with his own vomit. Others say these events never happened, but were purposely staged by Ochs as he masterfully pulled off a long-running AndyKaufman-like guerilla comedy sketch years ahead of its time.
Ochs, being too drunk and crazy to understand or communicate to his fellow man, never did tell anyone if it was an act or not. Apparantly his war was over as soon as that last bottle of Boone's Farm and/or cooking sherry was drained.
Ochs died, hanging from the bathroom door of his sister's home, still clutching in his hand the lyrics of his last song "If Only I'd Gotten Some Airplay". This song later sold over two hundred million copies and has been covered by such recording artists as The White Stripes, Bruce Springsteen (separately by the other members of the E-Street Band), Lady GaGa, Robot Y-2, and the internationally-known Phil Ochs cover-band, "Basket in the Pool".
Ochs, against his expressed wishes, was cremated and, with four and twenty black men, baked into a pie - which can now be seen in the Rotunda of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Love him, love him, love him, he's a lib-er-al
Ochs cut through many layers of bull, oxen, and spit-out corn scrapings with his well-known song "Love Me, Love Me, Love Me, I'm a Liberal". Unknown to most people at the time, but widely publicized decades after his death, Ochs plagerized the song's lyrics from an unpublished manuscript authored by Lefty Grove, a lefty major league pitcher and Baseball Hall of Fame member who, in 1931, led his Philadelphia Athletics to the World Series.
"Ochs came by one day," Grove related in a 1974 interview in his small hometown newspaper, "while I happened to be putzing and puttering around in the garage. I had some of my notes for that year's family Christmas card laying around - the wife and I always send one of those letters telling people how the hell the kids are doing and what colds we had and whatnot - and some of those notes described how I would like to be loved simply because I'm a liberal. When Ochs left, those pages were missing."
Albums and CD's
- Ochs' best known anti-war album, I've Got Something To Say Sir, And If You're Not Careful I'm Thinking of Saying It Soon (1967) was recorded in the jungles of Vietnam. Ochs, surrounded by tigers (reflected in his ad-libbed song "I Got Off the Boat"), punji sticks, and used gas masks, sang of man's inhumanity to man and man's longed-for immunity to tigers. This album includes his duet with Jane Fonda, "Just A Day in the Life of Charlie", his own playful "Die Gook DIE", and the now famous operatic echo-and-response exchange between Ochs and a troop of monkeys.
- Tape From Baja, California (1969) A tape recorded during a protest rally decrying the fact that Ochs wasn't invited to perform at Woodstock.
- Mao, Mayor Daley, Pigasus, and Me (1970) Twelve new songs covering the gamut from Mao of China, to Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, to the pig who ran for president, to himself.
- Songs and Sentiment (1971) During Ochs' lifetime nearly three hundred copies of this collection of rants, societal criticism, and spot-on descriptions of the human condition set to soaring symphonic music were sold in one languages. The only known autographed copy recently was auctioned for $7.4 million dollars, a record for a folk music-related item.
- WTF? (1972) The live recording of Ochs' Carnegie Hall show where, dressed in an Elvis-imitator gold suit, Ochs sang the songs of his musical idols Buddy Holly, Bing Crosby, Shirley Temple, Robert Johnson, and Elvis himself, pretending throughout that the artists were performing five-part harmony renditions of each others songs as well as Ochs' infamous title song.
- I've Still Got Something to Say Sir, And I'm Gettin' My Back Straight and My Courage Up To Say it Soon! (1975) Ochs' farewell album. The cover photo pictured Grant's Tomb with Ochs' name carved onto it (ironically, the pie containing Ochs' ashes was later buried in Grants Tomb for several months before being airlifted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Songs included "Twelve Ants Marching in a Foreign Land", "Another Crucifixion To Attend", a newly remastered "8-Track From California", and the legendary all-Gospel rendition of the previously released "Here's to the State of North Dakota".
Phil Ochs in Culture
During Ochs' Lifetime
After Ochs' Death
- The first cultural references came from the immediate popularity of Ochs' two suicide notes, generally considered the best things he ever wrote. The first note contained the scribbled lyrics of a song entitled "If Only I'd Gotten Some Airplay". Known for such poignant lines as "They saw my soul but couldn't spare their dough, boys", and the immortal "Can you sense what I see? Can you dwell in the depths of me? If I had lived and twas you who'd died, I would have cried, O lord, I would have cried" - lyrics now imprinted on mugs, towels, popular bobbleheads, and other items sold by the "Ochs Licensing Corporation" whose profits go to protect baby seals, the ban the bum brigade, and to fund the annual "Ochs Peace Prize" given to the most interesting, productive, unknown folk artist/social activist of the time. The words have also been chisled onto the Tomb of the Unknown Singer (Paul Anka) in Arlington National Cemetery (which stands near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier - the final resting place of Private First Class Thomas Gunderson of Knox, Indiana - and just down the road a piece from the Kennedy/Monroe plots.
- The second suicide note, which simply read "To All Mankind, My Love and My Mind" has become a defacto national slogan for the UnUnited Kingdom, Holland, Egypt, Ecuador, and a few of those volcanic islands in the Pacific. Usually shown with a photoshopped portrayal of Ochs singing to the crowd at Woodstock and surrounded by the words "The Voice of His Generation", the famous words have graced the cover of major magazines, appear in deep and everchanging colors and designs on the Google search page, and at least one singer, Bob Dylan, wears them on his tee-shirt which he vows never to take off while performing or recording.
- Over a dozen films, miniseries, plays, and a short-lived Reality Game show have been made about Ochs' life. They've won many Oscars, Golden Globes, Tony's, Grammys, and a few of those hippie Independent Spirit Awards. Played in film by such luminaries as k.d. lang and Christian Bale, the "definitive" Phil Ochs story entitled Small Circle of Friends will star two-time Academy Award winner Justin Bieber and is scheduled for release to a shocked and thankful world in 2019.
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- Chicago Seven
- UnNews:John McCain dazzles fundraiser with "Tribute to Phil Ochs"