Tracing the Arc of a Tragic Folk Singer
By BOB BAKER
Published: December 22, 2010
Read more at www.nytimes.com
IF Kenneth Bowser, a New York documentary filmmaker, succeeds in his crusade to rehabilitate the 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs, he’ll have his daughter to thank.
“Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune” is a documentary examining that 1960s folk singer, who committed suicide in 1976.
Zev Greenfield/Milk & Honey Productions.
Kenneth Bowser, director of the Ochs documentary.
Phil Ochs in 1967.
Mr. Bowser was a teenager during the Vietnam War when he discovered Mr. Ochs, a brilliant, quirky and erratic artist who, plagued by mental illness and alcoholism, committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 35.
Mr. Bowser, who has made PBS documentaries about the directors John Ford and Preston Sturges, began thinking about making a film about Mr. Ochs some 20 years ago. In his vision, the documentary would show how Mr. Ochs had been wrongfully “written out of the history books,” unfair treatment for a man whom Mr. Bowser considers the best protest singer who ever lived — and the most relevant recording artist of the 1960s. A mention of Bob Dylan, whose protest songs disappeared early in his career as he turned his gifts to the surrealistically personal, is an easy way to inflame Mr. Bowser. While Mr. Dylan was recording “Maggie’s Farm,” Mr. Ochs was recording a war-resistance anthem called “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.”:
Oh I marched to the battle of New Orleans
At the end of the early British War.
Young land started growing
The young blood started flowing
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore
Mr. Bowser and other voices — Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), Joan Baez and Tom Hayden — pepper the film with praise for Mr. Ochs’s history-driven, pamphlet-style songs: forceful, angry and cleverly absurd lessons about society’s evil and unfair circumstances; Tom Paine with a guitar.
Whether Mr. Bowser can breed another generation of Phil Ochs fanatics will rest on critical and word-of-mouth reaction to “Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune,” a title from an Ochs song people are more likely to associate with Ms. Baez’s cover version. The documentary opens on Jan. 5 in New York at the IFC Center and in nine other American cities through March.
A lack of money for music rights blew out every budget Mr. Bowser drew up during the ’90s, and the project languished. Then, 10 years ago, his daughter Samantha, 4 at the time, heard him playing a tribute to Mr. Ochs by the leftist British singer Billy Bragg.
“I told her about Phil, and she said, ‘Daddy, why don’t you make a film about him?’ ” Mr. Bowser said. “When a little girl asks that question, you take it seriously.”
Mr. Bowser had just finished directing several “Saturday Night Live” greatest-hits episodes for NBC, so money was now less of a hurdle. And he had done business with Mr. Ochs’s younger brother, Michael Ochs, Phil’s sometimes-manager and a photograph broker who was willing to produce.
Telling the beginning was easy. Mr. Ochs’s evolution as a leftist hero started on a patriotic note: his parents sent him to military school, where he showed talent on the clarinet. Later, at Ohio State University, he fancied his roommate’s guitar and won it by betting that John F. Kennedy would beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election. Two years later he followed the roommate to Greenwich Village, where folk singers tried to shed their anonymity. Mr. Ochs filtered a litany of heroes and villains through his songs, with an insistent style determined that every word be heard. Even a tribute to America, “The Power and the Glory,” from his first album, “All the News That’s Fit to Sing,” cautioned:
“Yet she’s only as rich as the poorest of her poor/Only as free as the padlocked prison door.”
From 1965 to mid-1968, when violence swept America’s political landscape, Mr. Ochs was at his peak, writing songs like “Draft Dodger Rag” and “The War Is Over.” “It’s wrong to expect a reward for your struggles,” he told an interviewer. “The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win.”
Mr. Ochs’s bipolar disorder created a heightened sensitivity to events around him, friends say in the film. Mr. Ochs demanded that he and his brother, who suffers from a different form of the same condition, take a pledge never to incarcerate the other in a mental home.
Phil Ochs’s fragility would weigh heavily on him. He was convinced that the idea of America had died at the violent 1968 Democratic National Convention. The cover of his 1969 album, “Rehearsals for Retirement,” had a picture of his grave with the partial inscription: “Died in Chicago, Illinois, 1968.”
Mr. Bowser captures how Mr. Ochs’s style began to reflect a bit less certainty and more vulnerability. Now the hero was not so sure in his righteousness. He sounded paranoid. The songs were a sort of protest/baroque, including one of essay length, “Crucifixion,” about how heroes like Jesus and John F. Kennedy are ritually destroyed by their overworshipful fans. The immortality he craved eluded him; most music fans either loved him or had never heard of him.
He held a 1970 concert at Carnegie Hall, where the audience backlash prompted demands for the “real” Phil Ochs as he played covers of rock and pop songs while wearing a gold lamé suit. In 1973, while touring Africa, he was mugged, suffering irreparable damage to his vocal cords. And then three disappointing years later, he was gone and history closed an eye.
One reason for that, Mr. Bowser said, was that Mr. Ochs reminded many people of their failures. “A lot of us thought we had life by the hair and it got away from us,” he said. “Phil’s story becomes the struggle with the failure of those times.”
Michael Ochs said that another obstacle Mr. Bowser faced was society’s cynicism about mental illness. “People get M.S., people get cancer, but people are manic-depressive,” he said, adding that “it turns people off, it makes us real standoffish.”
Whether a documentary can even out history’s verdict is problematic, said Todd Boyd, who holds a chair in race and culture at the University of Southern California’s film school. Cinema is a subjective medium, he said, because every director walks in with a point of view.
A version of this article appeared in print on December 26, 2010, on page AR10 of the New York edition.