Who Remembers Phil Ochs?

Letters at 3AM

illustration by Jason Stout

It isn't likely that any- one much under 40 thinks often of Phil Ochs. His music didn't sell, and he was most famous for songs that protested a war everyone wants to forget. A folk singer, a "protest" singer, a freedom rider, a suicide. His boyish voice challenged the history of his time, or tried to. Now a CD box set is coming out, Phil Ochs: Farewells & Fantasies, but even as I was asked to write a section of its liner notes I wondered, "Who remembers?"

Phil Ochs recorded for only 11 years (1964-1975), but those years were brutally intense: a sinful war, murderous race riots, soul-numbing assassinations, filthy political struggles, a president resigning in disgrace, and heroic but often childish efforts at liberation rife with tremendous victories (in civil rights) and humiliating defeats (the anti-war movement). Those same years breached ancient social barriers of race, class, and gender. A paradoxical, relentless time, an inconclusive era of extremes -- amidst which Phil Ochs tried to make a difference with only audacity, integrity, and a guitar.

That might seem a hopeless and thankless task, and in many ways that's what it became for Ochs. He left a legacy of songs, but, as an emblem of his generation, he also left a question: How could a smart kid like Phil Ochs ever believe that an effort such as his would be effective? We can't blame it on his youth. Ochs died not long before the Sex Pistols hit. They, and those they spoke for, were young too -- but shared none of his beliefs. Rather they reveled in the disillusionment that killed him. So if his ideals, and his generation's, can't be ascribed to the follies of youth, then what was their source?

Ochs was born in 1940. He chose to die in 1976. It's not possible to understand his life or his generation without realizing that those dates stand for drastically different worlds: 1940, both mathematically and ideologically, was closer to 1897 than 1997. In 1940 most Americans lived rurally, on or near family-owned farms. Israel and Communist China were not countries yet. Vietnam was a French colony, India was an English colony. Hitler and Stalin were the most powerful men in the world. In America, there was no such thing as suburbia. No one had a TV. Divorce was rare, and so scandalous that no divorcee could enter politics. Except for nurses and teachers, almost the entire work force was male. It would be sixteen years before anything like "rock&roll" hit white AM radio. Most gas stations and almost all eateries were individually owned. There were no fast-food franchises, almost no supermarkets, few chain stores, and no malls. The tallest building west of the Mississippi was only about 20 stories high. One-third of America's population didn't have indoor plumbing. There were no jets, freeways, or computers. Doctors made house calls. Blacks were even more rigidly segregated than today. In the South, they sat at the back of the bus, ate at different lunch counters, peed in different bathrooms, weren't allowed to vote, and black men were lynched by whites at the rate of one every three days. There were no Miranda rights. No paperback books. Heroin, cocaine, and marijuana weren't common street drugs; there were no mind-expanding drugs. Virtually no antibiotics. College was mostly for the privileged, and there were few white-collar jobs -- most workers were manual laborers. To be homosexual was a crime (literally). To perform or undergo an abortion was a crime. Birth control was primitive -- no pill, no cervical caps, and condoms were made of materials much rougher than latex. To be an illegitimate child was to go through life with a horrible stigma. "Decent" girls never wore slacks nor smoked in public. Any man who wasn't married by the age of 25 was considered a "bachelor" and not quite to be trusted.

Something else, all but forgotten now: Newspapers took what the government said as fact, not to be questioned. Commentators hounded particular politicians, but the state's official word was gospel. To question government publicly and repeatedly was considered "un-American." (Comments that then would have gotten you hounded out of the simplest job are now heard routinely at every lunch counter.)

And then there was Ochs' education -- an education that said America was always right. Euro-Americans were right to wrest this continent from "savages." Every war we fought was right -- the proof was that we'd won. Our great men were flawless, and absolutely to be believed. (Our great women were few, and they mostly sewed flags and such.) There wasn't any such thing as "Western" civilization, there was just civilization -- by definition, it was Western. What wasn't Western wasn't civilized. So American whites had a perfect and (to them) self-evident right to tell everyone else how to live, not to mention a right to the largest share of the pie. It is impossible to overestimate how deeply all this was taken for granted educationally.

But there was something contradictory in this education: It defined American heroism as the moment the hero (always a he-ro) questioned authority. Of course, it always portrayed such heroism as being ultimately in the service of the government. Still, that sense of rebellion was the icing on the cake of what we were asked to believe. Our teachers had no way of knowing that this icing was the only part of their education that the likes of Phil Ochs would take to heart.

So while on the one hand he and his generation were taught that might, white, and the USA were always right, on the other, they were taught that the purest of heroes was a rebel guided by conscience. And, what is more: that such lone heroism could and did move mountains, challenge and defeat evil, and change history. They were taught this in school, and they saw it in the movies. Most took that lesson as mere entertainment; but some, like Phil Ochs, took it seriously. If they made a mistake, it was to believe in something that they'd been taught throughout childhood.

It is only when you remember this that you can understand the origins and full force of the songs and the stance of Phil Ochs and the comparatively small number of people who made his generation memorable. It is also the only way to understand their overwhelming discouragement and rage when their songs and demonstrations for justice inspired only contempt and hostility from both their government and their people. Rather than changing history, they enraged it -- and its rage was directed straight at them.

Ochs' songs like "I Ain't A-Marchin'" and "I Declare the War Is Over" (my favorite, with its ringing line, "even treason might be worth a try") -- those songs may sound like bravado, or wishful thinking, now. In the context of their time, they were fierce, buoyant anthems made of equal parts of defiance and faith, based on a demand that the American ideal of rebellious heroism be taken to heart. And many did: A lot of people weren't marching anymore -- or, if they marched, it was in demonstrations, not in the armed forces. They weren't enough to stop that war, but they changed the context in which wars have happened ever since.

Both the cynical and the complacent like to say that this Sixties generation, of which Phil Ochs was a prime example, didn't really influence anything. But women are numerous in every profession now; blacks are still in horrible straits, but they are far more widespread in positions of influence; the veracity of the government is no longer taken for granted; the environment is now of prime concern; in our major cities, at least, being gay is no big deal anymore; society may not have many standards these days, but is also has few stigmas, and (in terms of style and preferences) people can live pretty much as they please; and we've had no protracted ground war. These are all fundamental changes, too often underestimated.

Ochs' songs were not only part of those changes -- in his clear, young, innocent voice, you can hear the kind of energy that instigated such change. You can hear what it felt like to believe that a song could change the world.

Phil Ochs didn't see the far-reaching results of those struggles. He died by his own hand, thinking that his life, his songs, and his generation, had been futile. His talent had been to stand up to history with captivating melodies and telling lyrics. He wrote other kinds of songs, some of them very fine, but his passion was history -- to instigate changes in history. The very history that was his passion passed him by, and, like many of his generation, he apparently couldn't get over that.

Some would rather die than live in a world they've come to despise. In Greek tragedy and Christian legend, that's considered heroism, but we consider it a waste. The paradox of Phil Ochs was that his death was probably some of both.

What his other demons were, I wouldn't venture to say. But it's clear that he identified with his era so fully, and felt so defeated and abandoned by it, that he couldn't bear to live. Many simply became yuppies, politicians, media commentators. Phil Ochs had too much integrity for that. And he clearly didn't know what else to do. If he had lived and matured, he might have seen that his efforts, and those of his generation, weren't entirely fruitless. In any case, his songs remain to witness for him, and for history.

A version of this piece is included in the CD box set Phil Ochs: Farewells & Fantasies

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