Here we are in what must be the most entertaining political season in my lifetime and one certainly pungent with artistic inspiration for bold, imaginative and canny musical artists. At the same time I watched the documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune.
In the great bloom of the political/topical song of the early 1960s, there were two acknowledged masters of the form: Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. No surprise that one of the hinges of this film as well as Ochs life was the relationship between the two men. Ochs wrote some of the most resonant political songs of that era or any: the enduring protest anthem I Aint Marching Anymore, the trenchant satire Love Me, Im a Liberal, and the docs title track, rich with veins of meaning, to single out some.
He was a strong singer whose voice was blessed with loveliness, and he could thrum a crowd into energetic attention and spirit all by his lonesome thanks to a songster style of fully rhythmic and harmonic guitar playing that still serves the best folk-based singer-songwriters very well out there in the small clubs of America. He could have and by some assessments should have been a star, almost was.
The film talks about how almost unspeakably cruel Dylan could be toward Ochs in their young early days. But Dylan and his rapier sarcastic banter and wit were cruel to many back then. (And to show that such personal style is often a young mans game and people do change, the Dylan confidante of that era who is such a bastard in Dont Look Back, I refer to him in that film as Dylans attack dog, Bob Neuwirth, is today one of the nicest, most humble people I know).
One could say that Dylan evened out the karmic score by signing on to Ochs 1973 post-junta Chile benefit and being a major factor in packing Madison Square Garden. Yet theres also the talk of how not being included on Dylans Rolling Thunder Revue the closet thing to a Greenwich Village folk boom reunion ever was a precipitating factor in his suicide. (I prefer the thinking that the potential for suicide is endemic in some people, and where any blame should lie).
But the difference in human and artistic qualities is instructive. I can safely say that Dylan is ruthless, to people in his youth as he fervently pursued success, but in a more revealing way all along, about his art (which is to say that ruthlessness, when not directed at people, can be a useful and powerful personal tool). There But For Fortune shows Ochs to be far differently characterized as an earnest man, maybe too much so.
Yes, Ochs wrote some truly monumental political songs. The film also shows he wrote many one can simply say are solid and whose impact died with the times they were written in. His later efforts to show he wasnt a one-trick pony have their fine musical moments. But Ochs seemed to go from sailing on the winds of the zeitgeist in the early to mid 1960s to being sadly out of sync with it as an artist.
And that may represent a lack of the artistic ruthlessness that Dylan mastered, which includes a canny knack for drawing from many zeitgeists to create music that works and sells in its day as well as, in his case, a large catalog of timeless songs. And the wisdom to know that being the best popular artist and entertainer as one can be is the prime directive that comes before anything else. Or in short, being a ruthless musical survivor.
Significantly, Ochs was also plagued by alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and it seems, in his final days, the onset of schizophrenia. Then again, I have at times fancied a theory that Dylan is an ambulatory paranoid schizophrenic. Great artistry comes with its burdens, quirks and baggage. And obligations, especially when artists that have been ruthless enough to succeed in the long term at their art and being entertainers. Those who might have some impact today, in times that all but scream for trenchant political music, are all but silent and/or cant create the art will connect on the political topics.
It wasnt fortune that felled Phil Ochs but so many other things, and though he had the goods to possibly be a lasting star of some sort, mastering the musical artistic mission requires some sharp personal qualities, ruthlessness of some sort among them. The man we meet in the film seems in fact (and admirably) naïve. We can never be sure in theory whether Ochs could have sustained as an artist or not if maybe his life had taken a few different turns.
I cant help but wonder what he might have to sing about all thats in the air today. Because when Ochs was a man of the moment, he did nail what had to be said with warmth, accuracy, at times keenly aimed humor, and a knack for composing the rousing song. In the final analysis, at his best Ochs was one of the most gifted writers and singers of political songs in the folk music scene of the 1960s.
Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2012
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