Tonight, in New York City at the IFC theater, a new documentary about folk singer/political activist will open. Directed by Kenneth Bowser, it’s titled, after one of his greatest songs, "Phil Ochs: There But For Forture," and it will debut in at last nine other cities between now and March. I’ve screened it, and it’s quite excellent, with commentary by, among others, Sean Penn, Tom Hayden, Joan Baez, Christopher Hitchens, Bill Bragg, Paul Krassner and Peter Yarrow.
There’s plenty of music, of course, from "I Ain’t A-Marchin’ Anymore" to one of my favorites, "Tape From California," but it is also relentlessly political, like Phil. It also does not shy away from the drinking and bi-polar horrors of his final years, culminating in his death by hanging at the age of 35 in 1976.
Thursday morning, Democracy Now! will feature interviews with the director and with Phil’s brother Michael Ochs. The New York Times reviewed the film today.
When I previewed all of this here a few days ago, I promised I would later write about my own experiences with Phil. As senior editor at Crawdaddy magazine, I happened to meet and hang out a bit with Phil for a couple of years in the early to mid-1970s, mainly during his less manic periods. Before that, in August of 1968, I had rubbed shoulders with him at the infamous Democratic convention protests in Chicago. Like me, he had campaigned for Eugene McCarthy and ended up in the streets (as the movie makes clear), and sang for the bloodied protestors after the ultimate "police riot," a night I’ll never forget.
When Phil went to Chile to get a look at the Allende reforms, one of my best friends, Stew Albert, went with him, and Stew later wrote a major piece for Crawdaddy on the trip and getting close to the Chilean folk singer Victor Jara. Of course, Jara was later seized during the Pinochet coup, tortured, and killed, and this had a devastating impact on Phil (again, nicely shown in the film).
Whenever I chatted with Phil, he was courteous, fun and still quoting liberally, so to speak, from the day’s newspapers. Unfortunately, he had severe writer’s block and was drinking heavily, which somehow did not top him from organizing a very successful benefit for Chile and the "War Is Over" rally in Central Park. I also spent some time with him when he was singing for Ramsey Clark in his race for the U.S. Senate. The one time I saw him during his "Phil Ochs is dead, I am John Train" period he was getting tossed out of a party at William Kunster’s home after he started swinging a golf club over his head.
When Crawdaddy expired in 1979, Michael Ochs, a noted photo archivist, bought our complete collection.
Well, I had intended to write more, but I think I should leave it there, it’s a bit painful, and I plan to interview director Bowser about the film later this week.