Tuesday Review: Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune

Tuesday Review: Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune
2010 NR 97 minutes

Another 60’s icon that my brother turned me on to. When I was in radio we called it the “Music of your older brothers record collection.” It’s a viable format even today.

The song that hooked me on Ochs was his take on the classic Poe Poem “The Bells”.

I LOVED the repetition and especially liked way he sang “the tintinnabulation of the bells”. Tintinnabulation! What a great word.

Kenneth Bowser credited as director, producer and writer of the documentary does a straightforward job of rounding up Ochs’ contemporaries and stays out of the way of the story. If I have a complaint it’s that the later, troubled years of Ochs are glossed over in the film.

Phil Ochs had the misfortune of being a protest singer at the same time that Bob Dylan’s career was flourishing. It would have to be some talent to overshadow Dylan and Phil was not up to the task, something that seemed to haunt him his entire life. Really, who could have taken on Dylan?

Ochs chose to remain true to the protest genre even when others in the folk field had moved on. He never stopped trying to poke a stick in the eye of the powers that be and in the end he paid for it. He was convinced that the FBI was watching him, tapping his phone and it later turned out that he was right,

Kenneth Bowser got great interviews with Joan Baez, Tom Hayden (!), for some reason Sean Penn and a very interesting (to me, at least) one with Jac Holzman, the then president of Elektra records for whom Ochs recorded much of his material.

Commercial success eluded Ochs and he eventually succumbed to mental illness, from all reports quite severe.

He hung himself in 1976. He was 35.


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About James Rising

A recovering radio addict wrestles with the written word.
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