A driving force of musical dissent in the 1960s, Phil Ochs (1940-1976) and his musical legacy are ripe for a new audience in the Age of Trump. Though he wrote and passionately sang topical songs (“Talking Vietnam”, “Talking Cuban Crisis,” etc.), many of his songs (“I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”, “I’m Going to Say It Now,” “Power and Glory”) will last as long as music is played. PKM spoke with author Marc Eliot, who befriended Ochs in the early 1960s and wrote the first and still best biography of Ochs in 1979.
“God help the troubadour who tries to be a star” – “Chords of Fame” by Phil Ochs
When the troubled troubadour Phil Ochs (1940-1976) committed suicide in 1976, his death seemed like a final reminder that the hopes, dreams and even the humor of the 1960s were really and truly over. Nobody embodied the passionate intensity of that tumultuous decade quite like Ochs. Not only did his early songs serve as touchstones of protest, he seemed to be everywhere at once, speaking out on college campuses, organizing “War Is Over” rallies, shouting at cops through bullhorns, getting tear gassed in Chicago, testifying in courtrooms, running with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, and even writing articles for the underground press.
He was, as someone said at the time, “Che Guevara with a guitar”, an apt enough description as far as it went (Ochs described himself as a “left social democrat”). It’s true that, between 1962, when he arrived in Greenwich Village from Ohio, until about 1966, his songs captured the tenor of the times: “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “Talking Vietnam,” “Talking Cuban Crisis,” “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” “Cops of the World,” “Bound for Glory,” “The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo.” Many of his songs were written on the fly, inspired by breaking news events, a spirit summed up by the title of his debut album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing (1964, Elektra).
Phil Ochs performing “Talking Vietnam” in concert:
This flurry of words set to manic guitar strumming was counterbalanced by his clear and piercing vocal style. But then, about the same time his friend and fellow troubadour Bob Dylan broke out of the folksinger box at the Newport Folk Festival—when he “went electric” and pissed off the purists—Ochs was also stretching himself musically. Unlike Dylan—who made his rough and ragged vocals sound monumental—Ochs was blessed (and cursed) with a choir boy singing voice that needed a challenge. What followed were four albums of such power and pain that his early fans were not fully prepared to embrace them: Pleasures of the Harbor (1967), Tape from California (1968), Rehearsals for Retirement (1968) and Phil Ochs’ Greatest Hits (1970)—the title of the latter was ironic, since it was an album of all new material.
And then silence.
How could such a voice just suddenly go mute? How could a clean-cut, Elvis- and John Wayne-worshiping Midwesterner and product of a military prep school be transformed into Che Guevara with a guitar and a name on the enemy lists of both J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon?
These are the mysteries that lie at the heart of Phil Ochs.
Thousands of words have been written about Ochs over the years since his death—tributes, recollections, as well as two full biographies, Marc Eliot’s Death of a Rebel (1979) and Michael Shumacher’s There But For Fortune (1996). But his music seems readymade for rediscovery in these terrible days of Trump.
Phil Ochs’ story is as American as apple pie.
His father, Jack, was drafted during World War II and was given a medical discharge in November 1945, suffering from what today would be called PTSD. Because his father, a medical doctor, could not hold down a steady job, the family moved constantly, first to Far Rockaway, on Long Island, then to western New York, then Columbus, Ohio. A gifted clarinet player, Ochs was by 16 the principal soloist for an Ohio orchestra. But then, he heard Elvis, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash, and that was the end of clarinet playing. After two years at Staunton Military Academy (his choice!), Ochs entered Ohio State University as a highly-politicized journalism major, sparked by the recent Cuban Revolution of Fidel Castro.
At college he met Jim Glover, who schooled him in the roots of folk music (Woody Guthrie, The Weavers, etc.) and also taught Ochs to play guitar. They formed a group called the Singing Socialists (later changed to the Sundowners). After Glover left for New York, Ochs began performing as a solo act, opening at a Cleveland club called Farragher’s for the Smothers Brothers and Bob Gibson, the latter becoming an early mentor.
“Too Many Martyrs” – A song co-written with Bob Gibson:
Just months shy of graduating from Ohio State, Ochs quit school, allegedly angry at not being made editor of the campus newspaper. He went to New York to pursue a musical career, just as his friend Glover had done. But by then, Glover had teamed up with his girlfriend Jean Ray and formed the popular folk duo Jim & Jean. This duo released three albums, on which were several Phil Ochs’ songs. [Odd fact: Jim & Jean were the inspirations for characters in two separate films, A Mighty Wind and Inside Llewyn Davis]
Jim & Jean performing Phil Ochs’ song “Changes”:
Again, Ochs was on his own. And he took full advantage of the opportunities in a venue-rich Greenwich Village folk scene. At his peak, few others could touch him for intensity and power.
Around this time, he appeared live in the studio of WBAI, on the legendary Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable show, in 1965 (audio only):
It’s (arguably too) easy to view Phil Ochs as a casualty of the 1960s, but in a way, his despair was understandable. He, and thousands of other Americans, fought so long and hard to end a hated war and advocate for progressive causes, and yet the war in Vietnam continued into the 1970s, Richard Nixon was elected, then reelected, the next generation of young people were all about themselves and making money. Many people felt let down, not just Phil Ochs, when the “revolution” sputtered out and splintered into rival factions and the Me Decade.
Marc Eliot wrote the first and best biography of Phil Ochs, Death of a Rebel, and has gone on to publish biographies of John Wayne (Ochs’ boyhood hero), Walt Disney, Jack Nicholson, Cary Grant and Charlton Heston. PKM spoke with Eliot recently from his home in New York City.
PKM: Where and when did you meet Phil Ochs? Did you ever get a chance to see him perform in concert?
Marc Eliot: I was at the High School of Performing Arts in Manhattan and living with a classmate named Barry and his family in a cavernous apartment on Riverside Drive. I was kind of a nomad then. My parents really never knew where I was. In fact, after living there for a couple of weeks, Barry’s parents asked me, “Do your parents know you’re here?” I said, ‘Uh, no, not really.’ So they got my phone number, called my parents, and asked, “Do you know your son is living here?” and they said, “No…but that’s great, glad he’s doing OK.”
After a while, Barry wanted his own apartment and we found one on West 71st near the park, a tiny place we got for $60 a month. The apartment had no furniture. Rather, the only piece of furniture was a phonograph. No radio, TV, couch, chairs. Nothing but a phonograph. Barry would play the same two albums over and over again, stack them on the player, then turn them over and play the other sides. One was a Bob Dylan album. When I heard Dylan, I asked, ‘Who is this old guy?’ Dylan’s voice made him sound ancient to a teenager. I was into 1950s rock & roll, but Barry had no use for that. He said, ‘No, he’s young and he’s going to be in the Village on Friday. You should go see him.’
I had never been to the Village, and I went by myself to the Kettle of Fish. I was 15 and I was looking for Bob Dylan in order to understand what he was all about.
But in his pot haze, Barry had gotten Dylan confused with Phil Ochs. So when I got to the Kettle of Fish, Phil was one of the featured performers, not Dylan. I sat down and was mesmerized. I had never quite had an experience like that. I was blown away to the point of feeling uncomfortable almost. It was like being electrocuted. I had never heard anyone singing about the things Phil was singing about. The 1950s music was all about boy seeks girl, boy meets girl, boy falls in/out of love, etc. Phil’s performance disturbed me it was so good.
Between sets, Phil would go to the bar and so I went up to him and said, ‘excuse me, I’ve never heard music like that. Where did that come from?’
He bought us a couple of beers and we went to a table and he had that little smile that he always had. He said, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ He wanted to know about me. It was pretty heady stuff for a kid. He’d do another 20-minute set then come back to the table. By the end of the night, we were friends. Not pals, but he knew who I was now.
I had been a child actor, performed in Broadway productions, so I knew about performance and projecting to an audience. But this was something else. He was as fascinated in my life as a child actor as I was fascinated by his music. That was the beginning of our friendship. A mythic beautiful moment.
PKM: It strikes me that the Greenwich Village folk scene was a bit like the punk scene in downtown New York a decade or more later, vibrant and rebellious, with plenty of places to hear music.
Marc Eliot: When Phil arrived in Greenwich Village, there was nothing like it on earth anywhere. It opened a world for him. Jim Glover had taught him to play guitar but he was a quick study on the instrument because he’d already mastered the clarinet and had been playing with an orchestra. He was a musician, first and foremost. He understood melody and chords. And, don’t forget, most of those early songs by a lot of the folkies were two-chord songs. If you learned a third chord and tossed that into the mix you suddenly sounded like Segovia. In those early days, Phil didn’t have that voice and that rap he became famous for. He was more like a journalist with a guitar. He wrote a song about Davey Moore that didn’t quite come up to the level of the one Dylan wrote. Some critic said he played his guitar as if his arm was in a sling, whatever that means. His guitar playing was improving and has always been underrated.
So when I got to the Kettle of Fish, Phil was one of the featured performers, not Dylan. I sat down and was mesmerized. I had never quite had an experience like that. I was blown away to the point of feeling uncomfortable almost. It was like being electrocuted.
PKM: Did it surprise you to learn how much Phil Ochs, this man on Nixon’s and the FBI’s enemies list, really loved America? He chose to go to a military school as a teenager! What teenager does something like that?
Marc Eliot: In the 1950s, Hollywood shoved army movies down our throats. They glorified the military. Phil grew up watching those movies. It was part of the Phil Ochs fantasy of being a hero and being loved by everybody. What movies, classical music, and journalism did for him was to set up bases for him to rebel against.
PKM: His early songs were ripped out of the headlines, which doomed them to a short shelf life (does anyone really remember who Billy Sol Estes was?). Still, some of them have a timeless quality and cadence: “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”, “Bound for Glory” and “Cops of the World”. Do you think he realized at some point that he needed to stretch himself out?
Marc Eliot: I talked to him about all these early songs…I asked him about the song on Billy Sol Estes. I asked him, ‘Why did you write that?’ He said, “Well, Billy Sol Estes was from Texas and I was from Texas” (Phil was born in El Paso). No one remembers Billy Sol Estes now but it’s impossible to convey how big a scandal that was at the time, and Phil’s song about it was great.
[Sample lyrics: And now I’d like to say that crime sure doesn’t pay / But if you want to make some money on the sly / Well, you can always rent The U.S. Government / It’s the best one that money can buy”].
“Ballad of Billy Sol” – Phil Ochs:
I asked him about the “ain’t” in the song title “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”. He said he used “ain’t” to reach the people who were signing up to go to Vietnam. The song proved prophetic. He wasn’t marching anymore against war and wasn’t marching anymore in a uniform. It was more about the inevitability of war and the impossibility of stopping it once it started.
“I Ain’t Marching Anymore” – Phil Ochs, performed live on German television, 1969:
PKM: What about his relationship with Bob Dylan, who was also writing topical songs at the time? They were friends and yet competitors, too, weren’t they?
Marc Eliot: Phil was developing as a journalist while Dylan was developing as a musician. When I finally saw Dylan perform, I was again electrified, just as I had been when I first saw Phil Ochs. It was at a Gerdes hootenanny, which was like an open mike, where one person after another would get up on stage. It was a tough New York college crowd with that ‘show us what you got’ attitude, loud, arrogant know-it-alls. Up comes this scruffy kid, wearing that Woody Guthrie hat and with a string slung around his shoulder. And within thirty seconds, the place was completely silent. All eyes were on Dylan.
Phil was telling me, “This guy is great!” He really idolized Dylan. But it went both ways. Phil was a threat to Dylan. Here was a guy who could compete. He might not contend, but he could compete. They were the top two, Dylan and Phil. After them were people like Eric Anderson and David Blue, my best friend until the day he died. One step below that were the Lovin’ Spoonful, who played regularly around the corner. Those were heady times. You could wander from club to club all night long and then go to breakfast with the performers in the morning. A kid like me, just a teenager, was in awe listening to them talk about politics, music, women, but never raw frat boy talk, women as equals. That all came to an end when the Mamas and the Papas dragged everyone off to California.
Most of those early songs by a lot of the folkies were two-chord songs. If you learned a third chord and tossed that into the mix you suddenly sounded like Segovia.
PKM: He had a complicated relationship with fame, didn’t he? He even warned about it in his song “Chords of Fame.”
Marc Eliot: One of the reasons he was not a star, someone said, was that he didn’t write love songs. And that may be true. Even the songs that appear to be love songs like “Changes” are more about revolutionary change, the “Iron Lady” was about the electric chair.
He couldn’t make his songs mainstream, as hard as he tried. Unlike Dylan, whose songs never lost their power even when they did connect with a mainstream audience. Dylan wrote songs about his own life that were, in turn, universal. Phil couldn’t do that. That’s the difference between a poet and a journalist.
Phil was also a nice guy. And Dylan was not always a nice guy. He was more in the artistic elite. After Dylan left and went into hiding, Dave Van Ronk said something like, “Phil had a chance to inherit all of this.” But instead, the bigger influence on Phil turned out to be the Beatles. It drove Phil crazy. Once on stage in the 1970s, he told the audience, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t be playing any Elton John tonight…’ He envied the stardom these musicians had at the same time that he hated stardom.
PKM: That lack of stardom beyond those early protest songs, was like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, when he turned his back on them, it led to four of his greatest, most timeless albums, but on the other it lost him part of his core fan base, not prepared for 10-minute songs about RFK’s assassination or wandering around on harbor fronts, don’t you think? I still think Pleasures of the Harbor is one of the finest albums of the 1960s.
Marc Eliot: I agree. I was in summer stock in 1968 when I got a copy of Tape from California and played it all the time. Phil called me around that time and said, “Don’t do that acting stuff. Come to Chicago, that’s where all the action is.” Phil was involved in the planning for the protests at the Democratic National Convention in August with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. After Chicago, and the police riot, and the failure of Eugene McCarthy to secure the nomination, Phil had an epiphany and it was all negative. He realized he had been sucked into the orbit of Abbie and Jerry. They wanted to be stars themselves. He thought they just wanted to bring about a revolution, like he did. He felt humiliated for being so naïve. I ran into Jerry Rubin in LA in the 1980s. He told me that he was starting a health food company and was very sure of himself. These guys wanted to be rebels but they also wanted to be rich. They lived on two levels.
You know how Jerry Rubin died, don’t you? He had a game he liked to play. It involved running across Wiltshire Boulevard right at the crest of a hill before it heads down toward the beach. Six lanes of nonstop traffic, and there’s a point where you can’t see what’s coming. Jerry liked to run across and beat the traffic to the other side. Well, one day, he didn’t run fast enough and a car hit him, threw him 30 feet in the air and he never woke up. People were getting killed left and right in LA in the 1980s because everyone drove like it was the Indy 500. It wasn’t like in New York, where people jaywalk all the time, but the cars aren’t going that fast. Jerry thought he could outrun the cars. What a metaphor. He always wanted to go against traffic and be applauded. By then, every trace of the 1960s was gone.
He really idolized Dylan. But it went both ways. Phil was a threat to Dylan. Here was a guy who could compete. He might not contend, but he could compete.
PKM: What did your mother and father think about your obsession with Phil Ochs in those earlier days? You were still just a kid of 20 or so once the Village scene began to fade.
Marc Eliot: I used to play Phil’s albums on a little Korvette stereo at home and my mother would drift in and listen. She had an appreciation for the sound of the music. My father, on the other hand, would say, “Get that Communist off the stereo or I’ll toss you and the stereo out of the house.”
Phil invited me to his concert at the Westbury Music Fair on Long Island in August 1969. My girlfriend at the time didn’t want to go—I’d burnt her out on Phil by playing him too much—so I took my mother. We were waiting out front of the venue for Phil and he arrived by cab. He had rehearsed his show in the back seat of the cab on the way over from Manhattan. As he got out of the car, the cabbie said, ‘You know, you’re really good. You should think about doing this for a living.’ That may seem kind of amusing to us now, but to Phil, now that the salad days were over, it was devastating.
But his show at Westbury was great. Phil was always at his best when the hopelessness was creeping up. He and I went out afterwards, after I dropped my mother off, and we had a steak dinner and were drinking and talking. I said I had to go and he pleaded with me to come back to the Prince Street apartment where he was staying. A real shithole. He didn’t even have a key and we had to get the super to let us in. He sat down on a stool and said, ‘Listen to this’. He played a song he’d just written and not played for anyone until then, called “No More Songs.” It’s a mournful and yet beautiful song. He said, “What did you think?” I said something like, “It’s beautiful but hard to take.’
“No More Songs” – Phil Ochs:
You realize, of course, when I say that there are no more songs I really mean there are many more songs. He laughed a little about that.
After Chicago, and the police riot, and the failure of Eugene McCarthy to secure the nomination, Phil had an epiphany and it was all negative.
PKM: There’s a photograph on the back of Death of a Rebel dated 1974, with you and Phil at some place in upstate New York. Was his downward spiral evident to you then?
Marc Eliot: Toward the end, I was at Columbia University graduate school for writing. I went there because Andrew Sarris, the film critic, was on the faculty. I would meet Phil downtown and he would come with me to class and sit in the back, listen to the lecture and then watch the film. He did this almost every day I had class because he really had nothing else to do. He was energized by that. After class we would go to a bar or a coffee shop and talk about the film we saw.
That’s what led to Death of a Rebel. As he got sicker, I would pick him up on a Friday and take him to our country house for the weekend. I’d see him on Bleecker Street, stop and ask him if he’d like to get out of the city for a few days and he’d think for a second and just say yes, sure. And off we’d go. Once we got up there, the only album he would want to hear was Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. He loved that. And why not? The arrangements, the orchestrations, the classical motifs, the players. Listen to Astral Weeks and then listen to Rehearsals for Retirement. There’s a connection between the two of them.
“The days grow longer with smaller prizes / I feel a stranger to all surprises…”
PKM: What initially inspired you to write the biography? It was, after all, a time when the New York folk scene was all but forgotten, punk rock had already come and gone (1979) and arena rock ruled the waves. Obviously, something about him and his music really touched you.
Marc Eliot: It came as a result of something I wrote called “This, Then, is the Death of the American” that was supposed to be published in New American Review. I wrote the piece about the night of the Westbury concert and going out with Phil and then listening to him play “No More Songs”. I wrote that piece in one sitting, one stint at the typewriter. New American Review decided it was “too lowbrow” for them. Luckily, Jonathan Eisen an editor at the Review at the time, told me he was putting together an anthology for Random House called Age of Rock 2: Sights and Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution. And he wanted it for that. Phil was so thrilled when he saw that article in the book. He loved it.
So when Phil died, I immediately wanted to write about him. I called his sister Sonny and she said it was fine with her but that I should call Michael their younger brother. Michael remembered how much Phil had loved my piece. Then I remembered that toward the end, Phil called me and asked to meet him at O’Henry’s. He knew I was into film. He said he was doing three shows on three nights that he was billing as The Farewell Performance of Phil Ochs. He said, “I want a movie made of this. Will you do it?” The first performance was the next night. I said it was going to cost some money. He said, ‘How much do you need?’ and began pulling $100 bills out of his pocket and handed me $5,000 cash. ‘Is that enough?’ he said. I had friends who were into film and we were able to get equipment, cameras, lights, etc. Miraculously, we filmed it. And after Phil died, I pulled the introduction from those videos. And added that to the article I’d written and that served as my proposal.
I sent the proposal to 36 publishers and got 35 rejections. I was told I needed an agent so I got one, but he had no idea who Phil Ochs was and kept calling him ‘Phil Ox’. I called Michael Ochs in L.A. and he said ‘we can do this’ I ended up living with Michael for five months in Venice. All the great stuff in the book Death of a Rebel came from these lengthy free-form interviews with Michael. He also told me who to talk to and who not to talk to when I was doing other interviews for the book. It was like Citizen Kane. Everybody had a different version of the same story related to Phil Ochs. Many of the people I met in researching the book became good friends. At Doubleday, nobody expected anything of the book. It was published only because the daughter of the publisher liked Phil Ochs. But, by some miracle, the book was reviewed in the Sunday New York Times. They were telling me at Doubleday, “This is going to make your career.” And it did. Phil was resurrected by that book and I became a real writer. They buried him and I brought him back to life, so to speak. I have never lacked for work since that time.
PKM: You’ve since written so many well received biographies of people like Walt Disney, Jack Nicholson, Bruce Springsteen, John Wayne. Where does this humble biography of Phil Ochs fit into your career?
Marc Eliot: Death of a Rebel was what you do in a first book. You pour your blood and soul into it. It was in print for 20 years, became a perennial seller to college students, and would be rebels. The title is a combination of Death of a Salesman and Rebel Without a Cause. After 20 years, the rights reverted to me. I just learned this week that it’s now being published in Russian. Irony of ironies.
PKM: What are you currently working on?
Marc Eliot: A biography of Merle Haggard, who I see as the equal of Dylan as a songwriter. He was an outlaw, a rebel, and he was part of that Bakersfield scene that was so different from Nashville. Buck Owens came out of that scene before Merle. Phil used to do a version of “Okie From Muskogee” in concert. He loved that song.