I remember Phil Ochs well, but not many people who are not of my generation do. Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune on PBS' American Masters January 23rd will give those who remember the 60's and 70's a chance to recall this often underrated folk singer. For those who do not, the episode offers a real glimpse into not only Ochs' life but what it was like to live in those turbulent times, especially the late 60's and very beginning of the 70's, when the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the long, ugly fighting of the Vietnam War caused many an earnest and dedicated fighter for peace and justice to drop out in despair.
Phil Ochs wanted to be famous. He wanted to be Bob Dylan, and if he couldn't be Dylan, he wanted to be Elvis. The problem was that he also wanted to change the world, and he wanted his songs to make a difference. He was never willing to compromise. Also, while some of his songs, like "I Ain't Marching Anymore," did become anthems of the anti-war movement and deservedly so, his songwriting — like his life — was uneven.
In addition, Ochs was Bi-Polar (referred to in the documentary as "manic-depressive.") Bi-Polar Disorder is unfortunately common among musicians and other creative people and causes wild mood swings which, if not controlled, can lead to enormous highs and tremendous lows. Without proper medication and treatment, people who suffer from this disorder often turn to drugs and alcohol. In Ochs' case, alcohol was especially destructive.
Through the words of friends, family, and record company associates, this documentary tells of Ochs' rise and fall in the folk community, and his gradual decline into drunkenness and desolation, leading to his suicide in 1975. This is not a happy story, but it is an important one — with a lot to tell us about America at a major crossroads in its history as well as about a musician who deserves to be remembered much more than he is.