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The Private Side of Pete Seeger: Troubled by Phil Ochs’s Suicide—for Forty Years | The Nation

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Greg Mitchell

Greg Mitchell

Media, politics and culture.

The Private Side of Pete Seeger: Troubled by Phil Ochs’s Suicide—for Forty Years

Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger in concert, 1986 (Courtesy of en.wikipedia)

I paid loving tribute to Pete Seeger here yesterday, as did a few others at this site, and so many elsewhere, of course. But one of the most affecting pieces appears today at The New York Times, and reveals another, private side, of Pete.

When I read it, I knew I’d heard the outline of the story before, but couldn’t place it.

It seems that on a mid-1970s night shortly before my old friend Phil Ochs decided to hang himself, he had been drinking and chatting morosely in New York with Pete Seeger, who had to leave to catch the last train for his home far up the Hudson. Pete knew Phil was utterly depressed, at the bottom of bipolarity. The last time I saw Phil, in contrast, he was in the manic phase, swinging a golf club over his head at a party in the apartment of William Kunstler in the Village (he was soon ushered out).

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For decades Pete carried that final night with Phil with him, feeling he maybe should have stayed in New York for the night. This he told to Neil Young backstage up in Saratoga Springs, where Pete was making a surprise appearance, at age 94, at Neil’s latest FarmAid last year. Apparently, Neil had a somewhat similar experience with Kurt Cobain, before he shot himself. Neil advised Pete to let it go, but Pete could not. Another measure of the man.

Now I’ve realized where I’d heard this story before. A few weeks back I posted a video of Neil from that night at Farm Aid, where his encounter with Pete took place. I posted it because Neil performed a moving version of Phil Ochs’s “Changes.” But in this intro to the song, Neil recounted his chat with Pete, and referred to his own experience with an unnamed great musician who later “blew his brains out.” Here’s the video:

Read Next: Peter Rothberg shares his top ten Pete Seeger songs.

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