May 28, 2006

Michael Ochs and Phil Ochs.

Here's an article about The Michael Ochs Archives of rock and roll photographs, with not enough photos at the link. (There's a nice one of Sonny and Cher with Bob Dylan, but you can't see the picture that's in the paper NYT of Gladys Knight as a child singing on "The Amateur Hour.")

Michael Ochs is the brother of Phil Ochs:
A contemporary of Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Phil Ochs was one of the primary topical songwriters and folksingers of the 60's, protesting the escalating Vietnam conflict ("I Ain't Marching Anymore") and the struggle for civil rights in the South ("Here's to the State of Mississippi"). As his causes lost relevance in the 70's, his chronic depression became unbearable. He hanged himself in 1976.

A longtime friend, the publicist Bobbi Cowan, thinks Michael Ochs collects his photographs, primarily of 1950's and 60's musicians, as a way of "preserving time so that people don't forget what that time was about, what Phil was about." Michelle Phillips is more direct: "I think it's part of keeping his brother alive."
As his causes lost relevance in the 70's, his chronic depression became unbearable. That's a lot of causality to package up in one sentence. Does a songwriter gravitate toward protest songs because he is depressed or is he depressed because of the things that move him to protest? If he gains an audience protesting a political situation that then changes, will he become more depressed or less depressed? A human being is too complicated to subject to general questions like that.

Back in the 1960s, I used to listen to Phil Ochs. I especially remember this one:
So do your duty, boys, and join with pride
Serve your country in her suicide
Find the flags so you can wave goodbye
But just before the end even treason might be worth a try
This country is too young to die

I declare the war is over
It's over, it's over

One-legged veterans will greet the dawn
And they're whistling marches as they mow the lawn
And the gargoyles only sit and grieve
The gypsy fortune teller told me that we'd been deceived
You only are what you believe

I believe the war is over
It's over, it's over
Serve your country in her suicide.

This was from one of his later albums, which, I think I remember correctly, turned away from hardcore protest music. Notice how those lyrics give predominance to his inner life. You can go on with your involvement in the war, but I'm saying that beliefs are everything, and I'm going to believe in what I want to be true, that the war is over. This was a theme in the late 60s and early 70s, when artists got weary of political engagement and began to indulge in a naive form of politics that was really more about personal psychology. I hear that theme in John Lennon's "War is over/If you want it/War is over/Now."

RIP, Phil Ochs.

8 comments:

Hamsun56 said...

Nice photo, but shouldn't Cher be towering over Bob and Sonny?

Joan said...

The gypsy fortune teller told me that we'd been deceived

...and we all know how reliable fortune tellers are.

What a sad story.

Jeff said...

I've been struck by the lack of personal life among many "activists" that I know. The real hardcore ones for whom "the personal is political" is a way of life. I mistrust their convictions because they seem so much about exorcising personal demons in the form of larger political causes.

James said...

Phil Ochs tried writing popular songs, as well; he was a big fan of Elvis Presley (and John Wayne). I always thought--with little basis, I admit--that what hurt him the most in the end was the realization that his fans liked his music only for his politics, and that his politics were rapidly becoming unpopular.

"The War is Over" reveals an interesting look at how someone immersed in the leftist politics of that era saw things. "...Even treason might be worth a try / This country is too young to die" is an extreme reaction, and it is that phrase that I think is most illuminating (and not "I believe the war is over...").

bearbee said...

A human being is too complicated to subject to general questions like that.

Agree. If the things that he saw and protested against as wrong gradually righted themselves to whatever degree and in whatever manner, brought on depression and ultimate suicide, could not one conclude that he could only be happy in a state of war or living in a bigoted society? There are no shortages of other wrongs to be set right with which he could have become involved. Something deeper was causing his distress.

NeeSmart said...

one thing for sure;~it aint right~

P. Froward said...

I love that picture of Bob Dylan grinning impishly. He looks like somebody I know.

mattbleyle said...

Phil Ochs was bipolar and after the chicago dnc protests in 68 he lost a lot of faith in America... both the right and the left. He saw the right turning more and more fascist and the left moving way out in left field and far from what the working class could relate to. Have any of you heard of John Train? The alter ego that Phil took on during the 70s? He was a big mess. Depression is hereditary and his father was bipolar as well... All I know is... Ochs' was more of a hero than Dylan in the political sense and just as complex... To me Phil Ochs' death was the final nail in the coffin. A dying era had ended.