Friday, 13 February 2009

A Freewheelin' Time

By Suze Rotolo

When Phil Ochs arrived at Broadside he made a notable difference. He had a fine tenor voice with a Joan Baez-like vibrato. His songs were good and he was already a polished performer. Phil's songs were journalistic, restricted to a specified subject or event. To write topical songs is risky because as time passes the songs lose their relevance: they have a built-in expiration date. But that doesn't lessen the validity of a well-written song; it serves its purpose within its designated shelf life. Phil was good at what he did.

Bobby and Phil had respect for each other as writers; they shared an affinity and a rivalry they both reveled in for a time. But their friendship was complicated. Phil Ochs came to know his limitations as a songwriter in the context of his admiration for what he believed were the unlimited abilities of Bob Dylan. At first they challenged each other, but as time went by, Phil was in awe of each new song Bob wrote. As Bob's fame grew, he in turn would chide Phil for confining himself within a genre. Phil, like Baez, was politically active; he used his talent and popularity to promote his political beliefs. Dylan worked outside the border.

Phil was living with his girlfriend, Alice, in a roomy apartment on Bleecker Street at the corner of Thompson. It was another Village hangout, and the four of us spent a lot of time together. Alice never seemed to mind people showing up whenever and staying until all hours of the night, even into the morning. She was relaxed and easygoing. The location of the apartment, in the midst of all the music clubs, became problematic as Bobby became more well known. He took to leaving via the fire escape in the back of the building to avoid being recognized by the people wandering from club to club along Bleecker Street.

When Phil and Alice got married I was a witness at their wedding. By then Alice was visibly pregnant, and both of them were very nervous and giddy. During the ceremony at City Hall, we tried to stifle our giggles. The justice of the peace had to interrupt the proceedings to chastise us for not taking the situation seriously. No one was more serious about what they were doing than Alice and Phil. But that is precisely why it struck all of us as so funny.

I last saw Phil toward the end of 1966, when I ran into him at the Limelight one night before I left New York for Italy again. He was drinking a lot by then and he was bloated and disheveled, volatile and dark.

Phil began telling me a long, convoluted tale that made no sense. He laughed and cried and his manner frightened me. I tried to act as if nothing was wrong with his behavior or appearance. I gave him my address in Italy and half begged him to get away, take a long break, and come visit me. Phil Ochs had a good career and people who loved him but the demons he struggled with eventually engulfed and overpowered him. He committed suicide in 1976 at the age of thirty-six.

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