Forty years ago on April 9, 1976, Phil Ochs silenced one of America’s sharpest, wittiest, angriest, most melodious voices by killing himself. In his life, at his best, Ochs captured the 1960s’ exuberance, its zaniness, its mischievousness, its rebelliousness. In his death, Ochs embodied the wariness, the weariness, the hopelessness that dimmed many of “the movement’s” stars—even as they triumphed.
Born in 1940 to a middle-class immigrant Jewish family, Ochs and his siblings bounced around America as their physician-father battled manic depression. After attending military school for two years, Ochs enrolled in Ohio State University in 1958. New cultural forms like rock ’n’ roll, the Beats, and folk music were starting to shake, then shatter Dwight Eisenhower’s and Ozzie ’n’ Harriet’s conformist consensus.
Inspired by John Kennedy’s election in 1960, by 1962, Ochs was singing his way into the Greenwich Village folk scene. That year, the legendary folkie Peter Seeger warned that Ochs’s song mocking the far right John Birch Society, merrily singing, “I like Hitler, jolly, jolly Hitler,” was “sophomoric.” “Dear Phil,” Seeger wrote, playing the role of the wise and honest mentor courageous enough to challenge and even offend, “I wish I had 1/10th your talent as a songwriter. My comments here are harsh, but I thought they’d be useless to you if not frank.”
Considering himself a “topical singer” or a “singing journalist,” Ochs considered every headline a potential song. His friend Gordon Friesen, the fifty-something-year-old publisher of Broadside, the mimeographed political music magazine, recalled how the twenty-something Ochs “would dig into his jacket pocket and bring out scraps of paper on which he had scribbled new songs on the subway ride up to our place. When I asked him where he got the idea for his lyrics, he would respond ‘from Newsweek, of course.’” Friesen asked where his tunes came from, Ochs replied, chuckling, “from Mozart.”
Ochs began as an optimist, celebrating this land with “beauty that words cannot recall.” Echoing Woody Guthrie’s “This land is your land,” in his first big hit, Power and Glory, Ochs took his listeners on a tour from sea to sea, proclaiming: “her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom/Glory shall rest on us all.”
Despite his upbeat melodies, the sardonic Ochs often felt he didn’t measure up. “I realize that I can’t feel any nobility for what I write,” he confessed, “because I know my life could never be as moral as my songs.’
John Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 crushed Ochs. His songs became more biting, less buoyant, more cynical than liberal. Songs like Here’s to the State of Mississippi, showed his radical bitterness starting to eclipse his patriotic sweetness. He mocked the “speeches of the governor” as the “raging of a clown,” and sneered, “corruption can be classic in the Mississippi way.” He finished: “Oh, here’s to the land, you’ve torn out the heart of/Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of.” Clearly, Ochs worried about America’s heart—and soul—but still believed some singing surgery could help.
In 1965, as concerns shifted from Civil Rights to Vietnam War wrongs, Ochs recorded two of his most famous songs. I Ain’t Marching Anymore tracks the all-American soldier who first “marched in the Battle of New Orleans,” in 1814, working forward pointless war after pointless war. The chorus is devastating: “It’s always the old who lead us to the war, always the young to fall,” doubting that “it is worth it all.” In his liner notes, Ochs said the song “borders between pacifism and treason, combining the best qualities of both.”
Introducing the song, echoing the movement’s growing vulgarity, er, openness, Ochs said: “A protest song is a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit.” His friend and rival, Bob Dylan, who alternated between envying Ochs’s genius and dismissing Ochs’s earnestness as “bullshit,” once threw Ochs out of his limousine, yelling, “You’re not a folk singer, you’re a journalist!”
Most purists sided with Ochs. The music critic Paul Wolfe of Broadside would say the Ochs-Dylan clash pitted “meaning vs. innocuousness, sincerity vs. utter disregard for the tastes of the audience, idealistic principle vs. self-conscious egotism.” Not surprisingly, Dylan’s less engaged, more self-involved approach proved more popular and more lasting.
A second Ochs hit from 1965, The Draft-Dodger Rag, may be history’s best anti-draft satire. A “typical American boy” says he would love to fight, except, he tells the “sarge… I’m only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen and I always carry a purse/ I got eyes like a bat, and my feet are flat, and my asthma’s getting worse.” I Ain’t Marching and Draft Dodger in particular provided the soundtrack to America’s descent, from World War IIs’ patriotic zeal to Vietnam’s wrenching divisions—and America’s ascent, from the 1950s’ blind conformity to the 1960s’ dazzling creativity.
Ochs wondered whether the life of the artist or the political activist was purer. “I want to be destroyed by art,” he said in 1965. “I want to hear work that is so good poetically, so exciting musically, so original in arrangement and execution that it can turn me inside out with the communication of feeling.” Choosing art over politics, he claimed: “As bad as it may sound, I’d rather listen to a good song on the side of segregation then a bad song on the side of integration.”
The frustrations of the times radicalized Ochs. He was losing faith in his core audience and JFK’s key constituents, the liberals. Seeing Lyndon Johnson fighting the Cold War more aggressively than the war on poverty, watching Northern Democrats wag their fingers at Southern racism from their lily white neighborhoods and schools, enraged him. He concluded that while “in every American community, there are varying shades of political opinion, one of the shadiest of these is the liberals.” The result was his musical mockery of left-wing hypocrisy, with lines like, “I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes, as long as they don’t move next door/ So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.”
Things were getting uglier, on the streets and within Ochs’s head. For years, he had brooded about the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese. As many as 38 people heard this young woman in Queens, New York, scream as she was slashed, but none responded because each assumed someone else would. When an Ochs friend exclaimed, in a different context, “Oh, I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends,” Ochs found his hook. The song by that name worked brilliantly because it was so darned upbeat, with a banjo giving it an old-fashioned giddiness that enhanced the farce as Ochs imagined people refusing to interrupt their Monopoly game to help a woman being stabbed, let alone inconveniencing themselves to help “the colored and the poor.”
Trying to feel better, Ochs would sigh, “Ah, but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.” He loved the poet Allen Ginsberg’s decision simply to declare the Vietnam War over “from the bottom up”—and organized a Los Angeles rally around that theme. At the rally he sang his elegy, The War Is Over, featuring prickly lines urging, “So do your duty, boys, and join with pride, serve your country in her suicide.”
This edginess intensified during the craziness of 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations, the year of the North Vietnamese Tet Offensive and the hippies’ offense against the Democratic Party, the year of the unfathomable My Lai Massacre and equally incomprehensible, the election of Richard Nixon. Watching the police pummel the protesters he had just entertained in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention, Ochs felt the revolution was over, that he personally had failed: America’s “spiritual decline” was now inevitable. The cover of his 1969 album, Rehearsals for Retirement, had a tombstone with the words: PHIL OCHS (AMERICAN) BORN: EL PASO, TEXAS 1940, DIED: CHICAGO, ILLINOIS 1968.
Ochs—like many others—crashed from the highs of the 1960s into lows of cynicism and nihilism. He felt harassed by FBI surveillance. Rehearsals for Retirement bombed. Lyrics like
“I am the masculine American man, I kill therefore I am,” lacked his usual lethal lightness. Ochs imploded, suffering from writer’s block, drinking too much, doing too many drugs. George McGovern’s wipeout in 1972 depressed him further. A beating he suffered while traveling in Dar es Salaam damaged his vocal chords so badly he could no longer sing in that upper range he had also used to lighten his lyrics. This folk singer started dabbling in punk rock, but mostly he was spiraling downward.
Many Americans idolized Ochs. Sean Penn would observe: “There was something in his voice, so sad—something in his humor, so knowing—something in his words, so optimistic …. his contradictions were unending.” Penn believed that “When the Sixties basically failed, so did Phil Ochs.”
In 1975, often drunk, frequently bloated, buffeted by bipolar episodes, Ochs wondered why he suffered so. Continuing to blur his personal life with America’s destiny, he speculated: “It could be the alcohol, it could be the deterioration of the politics I was involved in, it could be the general deterioration of the country. Basically, me and the country were deteriorating simultaneously and that’s probably why it [the songs] stopped coming.”
On April 9, 1976, a year after the fall of Saigon, staying with his sister Sonny in Far Rockaway, Queens, the 1960s’ clown prince took one of her kitchen chairs into the bathroom. He made a noose with a belt, attached it to the top of the doorway, stood on the chair, put the belt around his neck, and kicked the chair away. Phil Ochs’ war now was over.
A decade earlier, in 1966, Ochs had anticipated his demise, singing, “There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone, and I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone. And you won’t find me singing this song when I’m gone. So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”
Ochs had written those eternally wise but prematurely fatigued words, when he was only 25 years old. And he had tried to do it all. When he died in 1976, he was only 35. Phil Ochs, like his beloved protest movement, had gone from exuberant patriotism to loving protest to bitter cynicism to a nihilistic flameout in 15 years. He is long gone. But his insights, his melodies, and the world he helped spawn have not disappeared, so I guess he did do at least some of it while he was here.