The death of Phil Ochs was not news because, in part, Phil himself had not been newsworthy for several years. His internal demons, some from his mind and others from a bottle, helped to isolate Phil from friends and fans. By the last days, most who were left were related by blood. I guess that the loneliness, like for many suicides, made life too hard. I'm guessing because I hadn't seen Phil Ochs for years. My last memories are imprinted differently than for those who were with him at the end.
I met Phil Ochs in 1962 in Greenwich Village. I was still in high school. He had dropped out of college in Ohio and was not long in New York. Phil played the early opening set at one of those pass-the-hat coffee houses where a high-school buddy and I, new to the folk scene, constituted the entire audience. We forced him to perform forty minutes of Woodie Guthrie tunes. Later, when the house was full and the man returned for his second time on stage, we heard the genius of this singer-songwriter. We sat with our mouths open, listening to a full-set of his own topical-political music. Some songs were laugh-out-loud funny and others were coated with the anger that would eventually make the decade more than memorable. For me, that was the day the Sixties started.
Afterward, I went backstage to apologize for making him sing anything other than his own music. It was the best apology I ever made because the act became the starting point of our friendship. And, as a friend and a fan, I witnessed some significant moments in his career. He rode to his first AM New York radio performance in my 1950 Plymouth, an appearance that I had personally arranged. I listened as he rehearsed the songs that became the demo that became the first album. And I ferried him up Sixth Avenue and down Fifth, over and over, when he found the front seat of my car to be an inspirational song-writing environment. I was with him for a few of his early career highlights and he repaid me by being with me for most of my major life events.
Being a Jewish boy from a middle class, middle-of-the-road family, Phil Ochs was a new experience for me. I'd met my first genuine radical before I even knew the word "radical" had a political meaning. To Ochs, music was a means to carry a message. And he had friends that felt the same way. Over the next few months, I found myself in the presence of Tom Paxton, Pete Seeger, Patrick Sky, Peter LaFarge and even, on two separate occasions, Bob Dylan himself. I was too young and naive to even know how impressed I should be.
Phil and his friends looked at things through different eyes. Established opinion was challenged because it was established opinion... no further criteria required. Examinations of marathon issues often took place late at night, when the clubs and coffee houses were closed and the debate, mixed with an occasional new song, was the centerpiece until dawn. Though many discussions took place in bars, no one drank much in those days. There were many cigarettes but no other drugs beyond small amounts of alcohol and lots of caffeine. Those conversations were filled with an unending optimism that claimed young men and women could change the world for the better if only they were willing. In those dialogues, this child started to grow up.
Because of Phil Ochs, I did things I would not have done without him. I defied my father and took the 1950 Plymouth to the great Civil Rights March on Washington where I heard and saw, for the one time in my life, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. In one of those twists of living, Phil couldn't go with me. His first (and only) child was about to be born and he said his wife would kill him if he was away when that happened. Almost a year later, I babysat for that child in Phil's room in the Cliff Walk Manor during the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. She wouldn't go to sleep until I picked up a guitar and played some of her father's music.
Phil Ochs radicalized me. He took the liberal Jewish teen and transformed him into a real political person. He didn't change me through brain-washing or constant polemic. Phil Ochs made my partisan feet march through the simple, straightforward sense of his music. He did this for me and for tens of thousands of others back in those good times when the focus of the national crusade still was caring for others.
When I got to college, I gravitated toward the activists and married one of them... because of Phil Ochs. I invested myself in the "Movement," first for Civil Rights and then for Peace, because of Phil Ochs. I would never have ended up in the commune had I not met Phil, nor in Mississippi, nor in Chicago. These were the places his path carried me. Those two civil rights arrests would not have appeared in my FBI file, the same arrests I will point to proudly when my someday grandchild asks me what I did in those times. In the coincidences of radical life, one of those arrests centered around Tom Hayden who later became a Chicago Seven defendant and sat in Judge Hoffman's court as Phil Ochs testified for our side.
Even now, having moved to rural Minnesota where I am often an advocate for issues unique to this farmer's world... when I write an article or call my congressman, I am coming from where Phil sent me.
I lost personal touch with Phil Ochs when he moved to California. I bought his records, listened as his "I Ain't a'Marchin' Anymore" became a signature song of the anti-war movement and his "There But for Fortune" became a top-forty hit recorded by Joan Baez. I watched his occasional television appearances, went to a few concerts but never backstage. Having been a friend and a confidant, I just couldn't bring myself to be one more fan trying to get an autograph. So I chose to stay in the crowd and enjoy the memory close up and the man from far away.
An article in the October, 1976 edition of Esquire, by John Berendt was headlined with "While the Movement died a natural death, the music died by hanging." He was only half right. The Movement did not die, it evolved. Despite what those on the right say, even now, there are lots of us who remain true believers and live those beliefs most days of our lives. But Phil Ochs did die, twenty-years ago, on damp April morning and I still miss him.
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