Thursday, January 6, 2011

There But for Fortune: Gift of Phil Ochs to the Future

Tina, Simon, and I saw There But for Fortune last night at the IFC Center - formerly the Waverly Theater - in the heart of Greenwich Village in NYC.  It was the second time for Tina and Simon - they were at a a preview screening in December (Simon reviewed it for Entertainment Weekly; Tina has been one of the lead editors of Phil Ochs' Wikipedia page since 2006).   This documentary about the life and times of Phil Ochs merits repeated viewing.

If you don't know who Phil Ochs was, here's what you missed: a folk singer who wrote and sang topical songs - one of his albums was entitled "All the News that's Fit to Sing" - with a warmly evocative voice, a trenchant logic and commentary, and a zest and precision in lyrics that rivals Bob Dylan and Cole Porter.   Ochs' songs critiquing the Vietnam War ("White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land"), war in general ("I Ain't a Marchin' Anymore"), the wishy-washy "liberal" political philosophy of the 1960s (that is, Hubert Humphrey rather than Eugene McCarthy, in his song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal") and many more are still among the best "protest" - political commentary - ever written in any medium.   And when you add to this "The Crucification" (the public's thirst for the fall of heroes they create, ranging from Christ to John F. Kennedy), "The Floods of Florence" (artists struggling to communicate through own their media), "Flower Lady" (the eternal witness to cultural decline), and more like that, you get some of the best songs and cultural commentary ever written, period.

Ochs was loved and admired, but he got nothing like the recognition he deserved in his own time.  Robert Christgau, long the dyspeptic music critic of The Village Voice, complained about Ochs' guitar strumming in a concert in which Ochs' words, melodies, and voice were heart-rending and extraordinary (Tina and I were likely in that audience -  we heard Ochs at concerts and rallies at least a dozen times).  Dylan dissed Ochs, didn't include him in his Rolling Thunder tour, though the two had often performed together, including just the two of them for Broadside Magazine with Pete Seeger listening at the beginning of their careers (Pete talks about this in the movie).    In 1976, Ochs took his own life - succumbing to the pits of a manic depression that had also helped propel him to greatness.

So There But for Fortume - written and directed by Kenneth Bowser, produced by Michael Cole, Bowser, and Ochs' brother Michael - had a lot to take care of, a steep road to climb, and it did this just masterfully, with clips and photos of Ochs and friends seldom if ever seen before,  and sage and instructive interviews with people in a position to know, from Joan Baez to Abby Hoffman to Sean Penn and Christopher Hitchens.  Some of these interviews were clearly done years ago (as Kenneth Bowser and Michael Ochs discussed in their q&a after the movie - a perfect cap for a splendid night - There But for Fortune was 19 years in the making).

Among my favorite parts (in no particular order, because it was all great) was Ochs explaining why he went to orchestration rather than folk rock with his Pleasures of the Harbor album,  the revelation that Ochs saw himself as a John Wayne patriot (the Vietnam War that Ochs so implacably and aptly opposed was, after all, unconstitutional, as has been every war since World War II, the last time Congress adhered to the Constitutional requirement of a declaration of war by both houses of Congress), photos of "Bobby" Dylan at Ochs' place in the Village in the early days,  Dylan and Ochs performing at the concert on behalf of Chilean refugees in the 1970s, and much, much more.

I think everyone whose souls were captured, ratified, and lifted by Phil Ochs wanted to do something to keep his words and music alive when we learned of his death back in 1976.  I was teaching at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, NJ, then, and did a radio show for the campus station - broadcast and heard all over the New York area - called "Seminar on the Air".  I asked the program director if I could do a special on Ochs.  He said ok, but keep it to an hour.  I invited my friend and fellow-Ochs lover Josh Meywrowitz to join me, but by the time we were finished talking about Ochs and playing his records, the clock said our taping had gone three hours.   I called the program director - he said, hey, I know it will be hard, but kindly cut the tape down to the one hour.  I had a decision to make ...  I was sending a press release about our show to the New York Times, and my hand must have "slipped" when I put in the length of the show, because it said three hours ...  On the Saturday the show was to air, I got a call from the program director early in the morning, telling me the Times had listed our show - great news - but by mistake or misprint [smile] indicated its length as three hours.  He asked me if there was any chance I still had the three-hour version of the show on hand.  Of course I did.  I went out to Teaneck, put the three hour tape in the queue, and it was indeed played in its entirety that night.  Hey, even three hours of radio doesn't do Ochs justice.  You gotta do what you can ...

But Ken Bowser, Michael Ochs, and Michael Cole have done with There But for Fortune more than any who loved Ochs could have asked for.   The documentary is a gift to the future, and I'm guessing it will finally put the works of Phil Ochs in the eternal hall of great works, right along with Dylan's, that will be listened to for centuries or longer to come.

Further listeningDennis Elsas recently interviewed Ken Bowser on WFUV-FM Radio, with fine Ochs songs as accompaniment ... One of the songs Elsas and Bowser discuss is Ochs' "Small Circle of Friends," which, as Elsas notes, "almost became a hit record".

I've long been vexed by perhaps the main reason this song did not become a hit.  Shortly after it was released in 1967, the FCC issued a warning to radio stations, that their licenses could be in jeopardy when they came up for renewal if they played songs that endorsed drug use.   "Small Circle of Friends," which is about public apathy, has a verse about "smoking marijuana" and getting high detaching people from their responsibilities as citizens and human beings.  It is obviously an attack on drug use, not an endorsement, but that distinction was lost on radio stations afraid of the FCC.   Many of them promptly dropped "Small Circle of Friends" from their play lists.  Just one of many reasons I'd like to see the FCC declared unconstitutional - put out of its miserable, censorious business - as a blatant violation of the First Amendment.
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