When I was in high school some friends dragged me to see Phil Ochs in concert at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. I had never heard of him and had no idea what he was about. That concert proved to be a turning point in my life.
I remember the ushers at the Academy, mostly retired men, yelling, booing and cursing as Ochs performed his songs, alone on stage, and I thought: "This is interesting. This guy must be onto something." He was. I thought then and still think that Phil Ochs was the purest, most honest and most talented of the protest singers of the Sixties and Seventies. His impact on me was profound; in a word, he radicalized me that night at the old Academy of Music.
He sang about the war in Vietnam, America's imperialism, economic injustice,the hypocrisy of liberals, the numbing effects of mass media and the individual's alienation from society in a voice that was clear, delicate and, to my ears, pristine and powerful in its warbling timbre. The consciousness his singing and his earnestness engendered in me remained a part of my psyche and my identity for decades.
Phil Ochs set me on a journey into political activism, social consciousness and radical thought that helped define me as a person in my young years. I joined the student protest movement, inspired by his song, "I'm Gonna Say It Now," I enlisted in the Civil Rights struggle under the influence of his "Mississippi," and I threw myself headlong into the anti-war movement, singing his "Draft Dodger Rag" and "I Ain't Marchin Anymore." Having heard him sing "Small Circle of Friends," I wrote a play about the disease of detachment which was plaguing society in those days. The play was put on television, launching my career as a dramatist, which I follow to this day. And I still find myself singing his lovely ballad, "Changes," and his haunting signature song, with which he closed that concert, "While I'm Here," to my little boy.
I saw Phil Ochs once more in person, at the Vietnam Moratorium protest rally in Washington D.C. A fully committed student radical by that time, I caravanned with friends down to the capital and camped out by the Reflecting Pond. There was a big elevated stage on which speakers harangued the crowd and bands performed. I can still see Phil Ochs in a capacious plaid Jeff cap singing "Mississippi," the refrain modified to make it a condemnation of President Nixon: "Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of." As he sang, I glanced up past the Lincoln Memorial to see a regiment of National Guardsmen marching towards us in perfect alignment. We were soon surrounded, hemmed in by bayonets and tear-gassed by taunting D.C cops. Hundreds of kids were rounded up and crowded into RFK Stadium. I narrowly escaped arrest - I was on the back side of the stage hoping to meet Phil Ochs as he exited.
The other night I saw the new documentary about Phil Ochs, and it was both an informative and emotional experience for me. I went in order to learn more about this young man who played such a large part in my life, and I was not disappointed. I did not know, for example, that he was a Jew, that his father was a failed physician and manic depressive, that Phil Ochs never intended to be a musician and acquired his first guitar by winning a bet with his college roommate who taught him to play. I did not know how he hungered for fame, about his intense rivalry with Bob Dylan, and the details of his untimely death.
The last time I saw Phil Ochs perform was on a children's television program about poetry. He sang his version of Poe's "The Bells," which had been a favorite poem of my childhood, and "The Highwayman," a maudlin little saga, but one that lent itself well to his musical setting of it. It must have been near the end of his life, and I thought as I watched him that his career must be in sorry shape. However, the film made it clear that Ochs was always available to sing for a good cause, no matter how humble, and I suppose he could not resist the opportunity to bring his music to a new generation of children.
I lost track of him as I graduated from college, lived in Europe, volunteered in Africa and returned to Paris to attend grad school. It was then, while I was studying at the Paris Film Conservatory and working part-time in a grocery store, that, on my way to work I picked up the International Herald Tribune, and read of his suicide at the age of thirty-five. I was deeply struck by the news, and I could not help but mention it, as I held the paper, to my boss, the owner of the store. "Quelle idée," he remarked, genuinely unable to understand why such a talented young man should kill himself. I supposed, as many people did, that Ochs had found himself increasingly irrelevant, a rebel without a cause. And while that is undeniably true, the film made it clear that there was more to it than that. Though I am far removed from the politics of my youth now, I found this rediscovery of Phil Ochs oddly moving. Indeed, I choked up as the film recounted his gradual descent into manic depression, drunkenness and despair. He was, as he says in his song, "the victim of the vine of changes." As I myself have been.
In a real sense, Phil Ochs' music was my youth, my vocal vibrancy, my political consciousness, my social conscience, and my conviction that all that was wrong about America had to and could be put right if only enough of us joined together in a spirit of righteousness and hope. I suppose it was for the memory of that belief that my throat tightened and I had to fight back tears during the film. Those days, that spirit, are gone, but my re-encounter with Phil Ochs makes me realize that I, and my country, were permanently changed by the experience which he sang and we lived. Changed for the better I think; at least I hope, for the better.