In the 1960s, singer/songwriter/revolutionary Phil Ochs was sometimes described as “Tom Paine with a guitar.” Without regard for political correctness, both Paine and Ochs confronted all illegitimate authorities and hypocrisy. America paid them both back by marginalizing them at the end of their lives and ignoring them for decades following their deaths. With Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, documentary filmmaker Kenneth Bowser has helped America take a step toward redeeming itself in terms of its treatment of Phil Ochs, hopefully in the same manner that America eventually redeemed itself with respect to its treatment of Tom Paine.
In their respective eras, Paine and Ochs were the guys churning out the sure-fired material that inspired the troops. No publication did more to spark the American Revolution than Paine’s Common Sense, and his American Crisis helped keep George Washington’s troops from quitting on him. During the 1960s, Ochs supplied major energy for the anti-war movement. Ochs’s performance of his “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” during a protest concert outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention inspired hundreds of young men to burn their draft cards.
Bowser’s movie is true to the Phil Ochs whom I remember as a teenager. That Ochs had a special talent for giving truths power. He knew that liars such as Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson required mockery and laughter, and Och’s humor was far more energizing for teenagers such as myself than the tired harangues of his anti-war contemporaries. But Ochs did not stop with easy targets.
Ochs had a special contempt for gutless hypocrites on the left — even though some of them went to his concerts and bought his albums; he mocked them, most famously in “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” And once Ochs grasped that his Yippie friends were being used to divide and conquer the People, he confronted that reality. But what made Phil Ochs especially lovable was that he reserved some of his most pointed barbs for himself.
Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune also captures other aspects of Ochs that made him so endearing to cynical teenagers such as myself and my friends. I remember when I was fourteen and fifteen listening repeatedly to “When I’m Gone,” Ochs’s song about the value of staying alive despite the pain of life; somehow, I just knew that one day he was going to commit suicide. It was clear that he was a fragile guy trying his best to face life courageously. While Ochs’s songs inspired many of us fragile teenagers to have the courage to do the same thing, Ochs hanged himself in 1976 at age 35.
Why did Ochs commit suicide? Bowser explores Och’s life with his surviving family members, as well as with his friends and fellow musicians (including Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, and Peter Yarrow) and some of his more famous fans (including Sean Penn). Och’s alcohol abuse was lethal. While Tom Paine was unfairly labeled by detractors as a drunk, Ochs’s alcohol abuse came to be frightening for those who loved him. What, however, created so much pain for Ochs that he drowned himself in alcohol? While Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune provides Och’s surviving siblings an opportunity to express their belief that Ochs was a victim of a psychiatric illness, Bowser also examines the very real interpersonal, societal, and political pains that overwhelmed Phil. We hear from Phil’s brother and sister about their decidedly dysfunctional parents, but the film makes clear that Och’s pain did not end there.
Among Ochs’s pains were music critics who focused on the range of his voice rather than its beauty, while at the same time giving Dylan a free pass on almost everything; and many of these same critics failed to recognize that Phil’s lyrics had their own kind of powerful poetry, even if they were political and more of an in-your-face variety than Dylan’s. This criticism occurred at the same time Ochs’s desire for Bob Dylan’s friendship made Ochs vulnerable to Dylan’s cruelty toward him. And in 1973, Ochs was devastated by the torture and assassination of his friend and hero Víctor Jara, the Chilean protest singer who lost his life rather than submit to U.S. backed thugs who had overthrown the democratically elected Salvador Allende government. Ultimately, Phil was pained by an America that not only failed to recognize his talents but which was also pissing away its own potential for greatness.
The afterlife of “Tom Paine with a guitar” has, for the last thirty years, paralleled that of Tom Paine himself. Both Ochs and Paine were discarded by their respective mainstream worlds.
Today, many Americans do not know that in the last few years of Tom Paine’s life and for many years after his death, the American elite ignored or excoriated the man who was once considered America’s — and the world’s — most important revolutionary (John Adams, Paine’s democracy-fearing foe, admitted in 1803, “I know not whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine”). Paine scholar Harvey Kaye (Thomas Paine and the Promise of America) explains that Paine went too far for the elite. Paine didn’t stop himself with attacking the politically-correct target of his era, the British Parliament. Paine was the first of the later so-called “Founders” to reject the authority of the British monarchy and its constitution and to utter the taboo word of independence. Then, he went back to Europe to try to start a democratic revolution there, which frightened the elite around the world, who were not at all enamored by Paine’s The Rights of Man. And Paine later followed that up by confronting the authority of organized religion in The Age of Reason, which his fellow Founder deists agreed with but were politically astute enough not to agree with publicly. And in Letters to George Washington, Paine even had the guts to criticize Washington (who even then was an “American idol”), utilizing language such as “treacherous in friendship. . . and a hypocrite in public life.” Why? Despite Paine’s successful effort to provide much needed morale to Washington’s troops as well as Paine’s having contributed money to the colonial army, Washington let Paine down in more ways than one. Washington failed to push for Paine’s release from a French prison (when Paine, in the midst of the French Revolution, got caught in the middle of the Jacobins-Girondins gang war), and this nearly led to Paine’s death; and Paine also saw Washington’s support for Jay’s Treaty of 1794 as a betrayal of France, America’s original ally.
Noteworthy for many Phil Ochs fans is that in 1809, a then obscure Tom Paine died in a rooming house in Greenwich Village, New York City, the same neighborhood where Phil Ochs lived in the 1960s, and where Ochs had some of his greatest triumphs and tribulations. Noteworthy only for Ochs fans such as my friends and myself who grew up in Rockaway, New York City, is that Ochs committed suicide in Far Rockaway (a couple of miles from where I spent my childhood).
For years after his death, Paine was either ignored or attacked by many in the American political and cultural elite. In the 1880s, Theodore Roosevelt called Paine a “filthy little atheist” (Kaye assures us that Paine was none of those). However, eventually Tom Paine made a comeback, and he is now widely admired. Can America also redeem itself in its treatment of Phil Ochs? I hope so for the sake of Ochs’s daughter, whose affection for what her mostly absent father was able to give her will make even cynics tear up a little. I hope so for teenagers such as myself of this and future generations. And I hope so for America.
Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and author of Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite (Chelsea Green Publishing, April 2011).