Undercover: Phil Ochs—the Long Breakdown (05/03/79)

The typical biography, naturally enough, focuses on the life of its subject, but Marc Eliot’s Death of a Rebel—Starring Phil Ochs and a Small Circle of Friends (Anchor, 316 pp, $4.95 paperback, illustrated) is honestly titled: omens of a final crackup begin in Ochs’ childhood and let up only with his suicide in 1976. The book is one long breakdown, the story of a manic-depressive, paranoid schizophrenic, and in it Ochs’ life seems more than anything a lurch toward its end.

It was always hard to take Phil Ochs seriously. As a Sixties protest singer, he had great heart but only haphazard inspiration and no genius; as an explicit political commentator (All the News That’s Fit to Sing was the title of his first album), Ochs fell back on clichés or he coined phrases so one-dimensional they turned into clichés. What set him apart was a strong sense of humor, an impulse toward melodrama that was right for very melodramatic times and an obsessiveness—a refusal of cool that was impossible to miss.

Marc Eliot’s story is much more interesting than the one that emerged from Ochs’ albums; the book suggests that Ochs finally failed because he was unable to make sense of his obsessions in his music, or find some cultural-political synthesis that would make sense of his life. The public Phil Ochs was committed to social justice; in Eliot’s convincing portrait, Ochs’ admiration for Castro and Che is both sophisticated and adolescent, inseparable from the erotic charge Ochs felt in both men and from his perception of them as versions of John Wayne and Elvis. Ochs’ Evening with Salvador Allende, a memorial concert he organized in New York in 1974, was a heroic political act, but also an act of crazed, instinctive, apolitical hero-worship.

Ochs was unable to get his multiplicity into his songs because he never had the sanity or because he never had the talent; when he tried, in his last years, sometimes singing rock & roll in a gold suit, people would stand up in the audience and shout, “Phil Ochs is dead.” In Death of a Rebel that cry becomes a stupid litany: the credo of counter-culture intolerance.

Eliot’s book often works as a series of non sequiturs: incident follows incident, and many have no narrative point save to detail hopelessness, rootlessness, psychosis, a mad grasp at salvation, a soon-buried sign of life. There are foolish factual errors (the Free Speech Movement took place in Berkeley in 1964, not at UCLA—!—in 1962). But the book escapes pigeonholing as just one more sorry epitaph for the Sixties, and does not really promote Ochs as a great representative figure, a martyr of lost dreams and failed hopes. Instead, it makes Ochs’ life compelling on its own terms, as the story of a man who lived in a time of great ferment, understood the possibilities the time offered and blew them, one by one.


Rolling Stone, May 3, 1979


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11 thoughts on “Undercover: Phil Ochs—the Long Breakdown (05/03/79)

  1. Interested to see Marcus’s take on Marc Eliot’s “Death of a Rebel” biography of Phil Ochs, which I read some years ago. I was never really a fan of Ochs, yet I felt an odd kind of affinity for him, as he spent much of his youth living in Columbus, Ohio (my parents’ home town and my birthplace), and as I actually saw him in concert once, when he happened to play Earlham College in the fall of 1966, my first term there. The incident I’ve forever remembered from “Death of a Rebel” occurred around 1966 also, when Bob Dylan got into a snit with Phil, and ordered him out of his limousine (q.v.), with the curse, “You’re not a folksinger. You’re a journalist.” Yeah, Bob, I liked your songs better too, but since you were likely well into your electric-folkrock phase by the time you snarled that out, Ochs was probably more of a “folksinger” (as such) than you were by then. That, I think, was part of Ochs’ tragedy, that he didn’t really seem to “get” the mid-’60s takeover of folk by r’n’r, though he made sporadic attempts at it. Greil’s assessment of Ochs in this review seems unduly harsh, directed at someone who was bipolar and who eventually committed suicide, though I’m glad he recognized Ochs’s sense of humor and good heart.

  2. “Love Me I’m a Liberal” is no cliche at all, but a topical song saying something I’ve never seen anywhere else, and as true now as it was then. Somebody should have covered this every decade or so, and updated all the topical references for the Clinton era, for the Obama era.

    The live version of “Tape from California” on the posthumous double record is great, with electrified country guitar behind Ochs.

    Phil Ochs did one straight up piece of awesome punk folk: “Pretty Smart on My Part.” Savage, tuneful, funny. Definitely the only 60s protest song to work closeted homophobia in as one of the symptoms. First song on the creepy Rehearsals for Retirement, which has its boring parts like any Ochs album, but is deeply felt.

    Marc Eliot’s book is good and I’ve kept it all these years, since an improbable early-80s teenage interest in Ochs (at the time, he was the only uncommercial recording artist I even listened to). My best friend had an older friend who was obsessed with the 60s, which of course shadowed those of us who were born that decade and barely missed it, and we all went through a Phil Ochs phase immediately after the Beatles Stones Who & mid-60s Dylan phases. Never thought he was as good mind you, but I have a residual affection for him and still listen to the songs I mentioned above.

    I’ve always wondered if Eliot made up some of the better dialogue in the book. The scene where Jerry Rubin says he has a list of people he’s going to get when the revolution comes, and Phil’s friend Andy sneers “#1 on the Jerry Rubin Hit Parade, I guess I should be flattered” or something equally cinematic.

  3. To R.R>-Great points in your comments.I’ve always thought the incident when Ochs was tossed out of the limo reflected very badly on Dylan -and your comment that at that time Ochs was more of a folkie than Dylan was is something I’ve never heard anyone else ever say ,and something I never realized myself. I also though G.M. was unduly harsh… I’d like to read a book about the Dylan-Ochs dynamic- Would Ochs have killed himself if Dylan had taken him on the Rolling Thunder tour? …Does Dylan in some corner of his heart feel implicated in Och’s suicide…Not to sound like A.J. Weberman ,but is Ochs one of the reasons Dylan needed to turn to Jesus ?..What was the time frame on those two events ?(Dylan’s conversion & Och’s suicide)…

  4. Vic — Thanks for alerting me to “Pretty Smart on My Part”, which I didn’t know before. I found it on YouTube, and it’s everything you say it is, almost worthy of the Godfather of punk-folk, Arthur Lee himself. That in turn inspired me to borrow the Phil Ochs “20th Century Masters” CD from the library, to get reacquainted, and I’ve enjoyed listening to it and thinking about Phil.

    Dave — Phil Ochs’ suicide was in 1976; I don’t know exactly when Bob Dylan underwent a “conversion,” but his peak period of promoting Christianity was in 1979 and 1980, as reflected in his respective albums from those years, “Slow Train Coming” and then “Saved”. If Dylan felt any guilt over Ochs’ death, that’s an acknowledgment he’ll never give us in any form, directly or artistically. As much as I love Dylan for his mind and music, I know he could be a nasty little customer, and that he’d used and discarded some other performers (as with Joan Baez, initially a bigger name than he was) to advance his own career, so he may have considered Phil Ochs expendable by 1966.

  5. Glad you like the song, Richard.

    The way my teen friend told the tale, Bob Dylan threw Phil Ochs out of a MOVING car.

    In the booklet that came with the “Forever Changing” Elektra survey box set a few years back lies buried an interesting quote:

    “Phil Ochs was a paragon of virtue when it came to exercising courage; he was conspicuously courageous. I remember sitting in John Sebastian’s apartment in New York, with Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs, and Phil was railing at Bob for ‘going electric.’ I really think that it’s shameful that Phil was not mentioned in Dylan’s self-serving biography.” — Van Dyke Parks

  6. To Vic Perry: That is a really interesting quote from Van Dyke Parks that you unearthed..I always thought Dylan was unjustified in hurling the journalist sneer-but if Ochs was attacking Dylan for going electric ,that changes things as far as I’m concerned ………..

  7. “Chronicles ” to the best of my memory never discussed 2 key psychological incidents-the Ochs situation-and Dylan’s born again conversion.The book was evasive in that regard,and more than justifies Van Dykes Parks’ put down of the book. Will the promised second volume of Chronicles ever materialize,and remedy those faults ? …

  8. I have a recommendation for you Dave: Joe Boyd’s book “White Bicycles”. I recommend this book for every possible reason, but to narrow it down: the writing quality, and the historical interest. Specifically in regards to this discussion: an astonishing chapter on the famous “Dylan goes electric at Newport” event.

    The whole anti-electric thing is about as hard to get into the mindset of as the Free Silver movement at this point, but it was sincere. I’m not from that time period so I can only abstractly sympathize with the fears of the more pure at heart of that time period. I grew up automatically sympathetic to & immersed in mass culture in a way that would not have been possible for a lot of artistically-interested people of that era; you probably did too. We might not be able to even get into their heads.

    Honestly, I doubt Dylan is ever going to write anything about the sections of his career that have created the most lasting interest. “Chronicles” was a good book but the title was a ruse: he’s not going to chronicle the big stuff, ever.

    (That’s my guess, and you should take it with a big dose of salt because full disclosure: I don’t qualify as a Dylan fan by the standards of many rock listeners: the only stuff I ever listen to regularly is the Basement Tapes era material, which I do really enjoy. He’s a trailblazer, so I can’t call him overrated, but a lot of people cut his music & lyrics excessive slack in my view, and I don’t spend a lot of time with his music because I am irritated about as much as I am entertained.)

  9. Vic: Thanks for that recommendation.I’lll look for the book…I agree that there most likely will not be a second volume of Chronicles -and if there is it won’t be revealing… The politicoes of that era didn’t want Dylan to go electric because it was a political betrayal-folk was left wing -Rock was non political party music…..Musically, because of Rock’s connection to commercial culture ,it was beyond the leftist pale.So Ochs was condemning Dylan as a political sell-out with no regard for an artist’s freedom in a free society,and so was doing the bidding of the left wing totalitarians .As a musician himself,Ochs should have known better I think. Ochs ‘ put down of Dylan’s electricity gives added weight to Dylan’s journalist jibe.Ochs,on that reading,was acting as much a political commissar as a musical commissar.That’s how I see the background to those times now -before I hunt down the Joe Boyd book. Good “talking” to you.

  10. Good talking to you too. I wouldn’t say it was only leftist politics that produced that attitude Dave, a lot of folk music fans thought rock music was in bad taste. (So did most people, I’d guess, before the Beatles made it respectable…..& Woody Allen was still speaking for more than a few with that gibe in 1977: “they give awards for that music? I thought just ear plugs.” Such statements used to scandalize me, since I was a pop music fiend from age 10 on).

    My dad, in his 20s throughout the 1960s, wasn’t left wing politically at all, but he loved Joan Baez, Peter Paul & Mary, Judy Collins, The Kingston Trio, Simon & Garfunkel. He also liked the more countrypolitan stuff, especially Glen Campbell and Bobbie Gentry. He generally preferred anyone else sing Dylan’s songs, because he didn’t like the sound of his voice. (He eventually liked some rock, including The Band). But Dad still thinks of Dylan’s going electric as a traitorous move!

  11. Vic; You’re right -at one point hatred of rock united just about everyone -preachers,and jazz musicians -a rare combination,for example . Dylan’s voice was a difficult adjustment for fans of early rock & roll -I didn’t start really appreciating and listening to him until he went electric…but there also was a politically based animus to some in the “Judas” crowd,which I think Och’s shared…..The good stuff that you mention your dad listened to ,sounds even better to me today than it did back then …

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