Tuesday, 18 March 2008

There But for Fortune

Twenty years ago, after a long battle with writer's block and manic depression, internationally acclaimed folksinger-activist Phil Ochs took his own life. His music had been a spark firing 1960s political idealism, and his death signaled the end of an era.

There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs is both an in-depth biography and a significant musical history, focusing on the importance of Ochs' topical songs addressing the civil rights, anti-war, and labor movements. With the full cooperation of the Ochs family, and with unprecedented access to Phil Ochs' diaries and notebooks, noted biographer Michael Schumacher tells the full story of this gifted artist - from his early years as a musical prodigy and aspiring journalist in Ohio, where he earned his first guitar after betting on a Presidential election, to his initial performances in Greenwich Village's coffeehouses and folk clubs; from his headline-making appearances at Carnegie Hall to his ambitious consciousness-raising political rallies. Rich in its anecdotal detail, this biography recounts Ochs' travels around the globe, including his involuntary prison tour of South America, as well as his associations with some of the most notable figures of his generation, including Bob Dylan, Robert F. Kennedy, and John Lennon. The story of Phil Ochs is ultimately the chronicle not only of a man but of the singular times in which he lived.

With precision and compassion, There But for Fortune explores the rise and fall of an artist who believed in the power of music as a catalyst for change. Unfortunately this faith led to his downfall. When the visionary heat and momentum of '60s activism burned away, Ochs grew unstable and turned inward, fueling his self-destructive tendencies. Instead of confronting the apathy that he saw in the world around him, he was driven to create a frightening alter-ego - a frenetic and occasionally violent personality named John Train, who abused drugs and alcohol as well as the people around him. The Train persona eventually disappeared but Ochs was left to confront the damage his creation had inflicted on himself and others. Mired in the darkest depression imaginable, Ochs fell from the heights of his earlier success to the depths of despair, leaving him totally disillusioned and suicidal.

Still, the life of Phil Ochs cannot be characterized as tragic. As one of Ochs' close friends remarked to Schumacher, "Phil managed to put eighty-five years of living into his thirty-five years on earth." Regardless of his end, Phil Ochs left a priceless legacy in the ideals that he championed and the music he created.

Michael Schumacher is a respected journalist whose other books include Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg and Crossroads: The Life and Music of Eric Clapton. He lives with his family in Wisconsin.

"The millions of people who know and love the songs of Phil Ochs should read this book."
-Pete Seeger

"I am still weeping for Phil Ochs - for his friendship, for his singing, and for his social vision. Michael Schumacher's There But for Fortune has helped me understand more about Phil. I wish I had a time machine."
-Edward Sanders

"Michael Schumacher's accomplished a serious biography of Phil Ochs - prophetic, social conscience minstrel, lineage of Woody Guthrie, precursor to Bob Dylan's radical songwriting phase, tragicomic folksong renaissance pioneer from the '60s to the '70s."
-Allen Ginsberg


Phil had always believed that he would die at a young age, and he now began to contemplate his death, especially by suicide. It was not yet the obsession that it would become, but it was something that he could easily call up and consider, often in an eerily detached way. The tombstone on the cover of Rehearsals for Retirement had been no exaggeration: he constantly spoke of how he had died with America in Chicago. He elaborated on it at the Carnegie Hall shows, where he announced the death of Phil Ochs, speaking of himself in the third person as if he could stand back and look at his life with a totally objective view.

He swore he would never perform again. He saw no reason to rehash the same old material, and in his latest prolonged bout of depression, he could hardly write a single line, let alone an entire song, in his notebooks. With enough money in the bank to carry him indefinitely, Phil reasoned that he could stay away from the stage and recording studio for as long as he wanted.

The big plan, he told friends, was to travel and see the world. He had seen a large portion of Europe when he was performing, but his professional obligations had kept him from exploring the countries in any depth. Now, with time and money at his disposal, he vowed to check out every country in the world before he died.

He began his quest at the end of the year , when he visited France, Holland, England, and Ireland with friends Jerry Rubin and Stew Albert. Leaving the United States lifted his spirits. As Albert recalled, Phil was an ideal tourist, whose enthusiasm rubbed off on everyone around him.

Rubin and Albert had their own agenda on the trip-to bring the Youth International party to Europe-and they held press conferences and met with leftist organizers and activists wherever they went. Phil. still burned out from politics in general, turned down numerous invitations to become involved, either through television appearances or by giving benefit concerts. In Paris, he passed up the chance to appear with Rubin and Albert on television. going instead to the movies while his friends taped the show. In Holland, the group connected with members of the Kraubauterzen, a radical Dutch organization similar to the Yippies. Phil was amazed and pleased to learn that one of their members had been elected to a local city council.

Ironically, the Americans' politics were considered mild in com- parison to their European counterparts. In England, a group of British and Australian activists accused Rubin and Albert of selling out by agreeing to appear on The David Frost Show, which was currently broadcasting live in London. Rubin, Albert, and Brian Flanagan, a British activist also scheduled to appear as a guest on the show. struck up a deal with the radicals: the three of them would do a por- tion of the show as if they were serious guests, and then, after about fifteen minutes, they would allow the radicals to "take over" the program. Phil was asked if he wanted to participate in the overthrow, but he declined to have anything to do with it. He still felt loyal to Frost for giving him a shot on his program only a few months earlier, and he was not about to do anything that might embarrass him.

The takeover went off as planned. At the appointed moment, the English and Australians stormed the stage, shouting obscenities and political slogans, and creating bedlam in the studio. One activist kissed Frost on the mouth, proclaiming it a moment for gay liberation. Hashish joints were broken out and smoked. As Rubin had hoped, the cameras caught all of the action, including one funny mo ment that found David Frost watching the whole affair from the front row of the studio. The police were finally called and the troublemakers chased from the studio, but not before all involved had become local heroes.

“We were like the Beatles,” remembered Albert, noting that the story had run on the front page of a number of local papers. 'We couldn't go anywhere without being recognized."

While in London, the group, including Phil, met with Bernadette Devlin at a local tavern. The entourage hoped to spend some time in Belfast, but before heading into Ireland they wanted to speak to Devlin about the country’s volatile climate. The trip itself was uneventful, the group spending a week in Ireland and maintaining a low profile until Rubin and Albert’s limited visas expired and they had to leave.

No comments: