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DVD Review: Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

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Kenneth Bowser’s Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is a fascinating documentary overview of the largely unheralded, overlooked sixties protest singer who spent the bulk of his career in the shadow of his more famous, critically acclaimed friend and inspiration Bob Dylan. However, as this film so often poignantly illustrates, where Dylan chose to shroud his persona in a cloud of vagueness and mystery, Ochs wore his political values much more visibly on his sleeve.

While Dylan’s protest songs may have led the political charge of the sixties progressive “movement,” they were just as often measured by the sort of lyrical ambiguity that was such an essential element of the mystique he was creating even back then.

By contrast, Phil Ochs took a far more direct approach in songs like “There But For Fortune” (a song most often identified with fellow protest icon Joan Baez), the antiwar anthem “I Aint’ Marching Anymore,” and “Love Me, I’m A Liberal,” a biting satirical commentary directed more cynically towards his own. Songs like these and others left little room for doubt of Phil Ochs’ lefty politics.

Arriving on the burgeoning New York folk scene at roughly the same time as Dylan, Ochs quickly befriended the future “voice of a generation” and adjusted his own ambitions accordingly — deciding he would need to settle on being merely “the second best songwriter in the world.”

But as Dylan set out to conquer the music world, Ochs set his own sights on the larger goal of actually changing it, organizing benefit concerts for the causes of union workers and civil rights. Eventually he would take the equivalent of a self inflicted bullet for these beliefs.

Although Ochs artistic and commercial fortunes would take many twists and turns over the years, he never strayed far from his original political idealism. As this film so vividly points out (backing it up with rare, original footage from the period), even as Ochs was enjoying a minor commercial radio hit with “Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends” (from the A&M records album Pleasures Of The Harbor), he was organizing the Yippie Party with fellow radicals Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Paul Krassner. When the Yippies famously disrupted the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, Phil Ochs was right there in the middle of the tear gas and the pepper spray.

But the cracks in Ochs’ fragile, idealistic hopes for progressive change were beginning to show even then. By the time of the political assassinations of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., and especially his friend Chilean protest singer Victor Jana (murdered by soldiers in a football stadium in the coup which toppled the government of President Allende), they had grown into an insurmountable chasm. This was followed in short order by alcoholism, mental illness and Ochs’ eventual suicide in 1975.

All of this — accompanied by footage that is quite riveting, yet often painful to watch — is documented in Kenneth Bowser’s Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune.

Made with the blessing and participation of family members like brother and former manager Micheal Ochs, the film combines rare concert and newsreel footage and new interviews with Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Pete Seeger, Sean Penn, Peter Yarrow, Billy Bragg and other contemporaries. The result is a fascinating, sympathetic and long overdue career study of this criminally overlooked artist, activist and American.

The DVD extras — which include a photo gallery and a director’s bio — aren’t all that great. But the rare concert and historical archive footage makes this a film that is more than worth your attention.

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About Glen Boyd

Glen Boyd is the author of Neil Young FAQ, released in May 2012 by Backbeat Books/Hal Leonard Publishing. He is a former BC Music Editor and current contributor, whose work has also appeared in SPIN, The Rocket, The Source and other publications. You can read more of Glen's work at The Rockologist, and at the official Neil Young FAQ site. Follow Glen on Twitter and on Facebook.
  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    I wonder which early 21st century singers with an antiwar message will be remembered.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Good question Irene. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of too many candidates either. But it’s certainly fodder for a spirited discussion. Any takers out there?

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    ochs’ story is truly sad. i had a little obsessive thing with his music about a year ago. tape from california and gunfight at carengie hall are two favorites. they’re just so willful, i guess, which is a strange word to use about music. songs like “outside a small circle of friends,” which got banned because of a marijuana reference instead of its opening gang rape, were wonderfully uncommon.

    as for early 20th century antiwar songs, you have to look to country music: jimmie rodgers, ernest tubb and gene autry all had famous anti-war songs, although excluding rodgers (1927), they were mostly from the 40s, which might not qualify as “early 20th century.”

    also irving berlin wasn’t too fond of the army, at least.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    Yeah, but I said “early twenty FIRST century.”
    Extra credit if it was written 2009 or later.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I think Irene said early 21st Century zing (not 20th), which makes this a little harder.

    I tried to think of people and all I could really come with was somebody like Tom Morello (which is really kinda more nineties, hence it would be late 20th,rather than early 21st). I know there are probably some topical hip hop songs out there right now. But for the life of me, I can’t think of any of the artists.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    And U2 shouldn’t count…. ;>p

  • zingzing

    jigga wha?

    i guess you did. that list would be far larger, although i guess you really couldn’t tell if they’ll be remembered yet.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Yeah I know, hip hop right? I know guys like Mos Def and Shabazz Palaces write some pretty topical stuff. But how many of these artists write stuff is antiwar specific. And even when they do, how much of it is actually heard by a mass audience (the way guys like Lennon and Dylan were during the Vietnam era)?

    Seriously, if anybody wants to start a list here though, go for it. I could use the education.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    it’s almost comical to assume that a musical artist is pro-war these days. radiohead (especially thom yorke) have made a bit of about it, but it almost goes without saying.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    The key to being remembered starts with being heard by enough people to register an historical blip.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Yorke talks about it, but his lyrics are often so vague that you can’t really call him a protest singer, at least not in the traditional sense.

  • http://www.chicago68.com Dean

    Steve Earle (the Jerusalem album), Bruce Springsteen (the Magic album, esp. “Last to Die”)

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    antiwar specific

    The Chemical Brothers’ “Left Right” comes immediately to mind. Can’t think of others right now, but I know they’re out there.

    But certainly the anti-war song is nowhere near as pervasive as it was during the 80s (the time of my youth), the height of the Cold War when everyone was terrified they could be nuked at any moment.

  • zingzing

    hrm. the “a stink” got left out of that last sentence by my brain. damn you, my brain.

    but you’re right in that the anti-war thing might not be too specific. the taste for direct protest singing isn’t really with this generation of musicians. there’s a level of distance between contemporary events and what artists say these days.

    where’s the public enemy “cnn for black america” group? where’s the john lennon and bob dylan? (even lennon and dylan got sick of lennon and dylan.) hell, even back in the 80s, reagan was dumb enough to mistake “born in the usa” as patriotic. there’s been a distance growing, and that may have to do as much with the public as with the artists. people don’t like being preached at these days, i guess.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    Steve Earle and Springsteen’s Magic are both great examples. “Living In The Future” is another good one with an antiwar lyric from that album.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    Oh, and Eddie Vedder had one that he did during a solo set at the Kokua Festival in Hawaii three or four years ago. No idea what it was called, though.

  • zingzing

    neil young certainly made an anti-war album.

    apparently, green day’s “american idiot” is anti-war. i have not listened to it.

    nine inch nails supposedly went down that path as well, but i stopped paying attention to them when they made me feel like stapling my cheeks to the ground.

  • zingzing

    and hey, skinny puppy made an anti-war album! not that you’d ever know, ogre!

  • zingzing

    and pj harvey’s latest is supposedly anti-war, although i haven’t really listened to the lyrics. i do remember liking it. mick harvey is the shit. i do hope they make a lasting collaboration.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    I think Neil’s Living With War was the last really balls to the wall antiwar album by a major artist (Bruce’s Magic notwithstanding). I’m familiar with Skinny Puppy, but you are right, they’re not really my thing (more Barbrick’s or maybe Jordan’s department amongst BC music writers). Anyway, the key to being remembered…again…is being heard by enough people to insure a place in the history books.

    -Glen

  • zingzing

    well, i think pj harvey will be remembered.

    (and “ogre” refers to skinny puppy’s singer, nivek ogre, who rants through so many effects devices that his lyrics become somewhat unintelligible.)

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    All of 60s music was antiwar. But those were the days of the draft.

  • http://theglenblog.blogspot.com Glen Boyd

    PJ will definitely be remembered.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/irene-athena/ Irene Athena

    Thanks Glenn, et al, for helping to answer my question. Time will tell.