On the 40th Anniversary of Phil Ochs Death

On the 40th Anniversary of Phil Ochs Death

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Joan Baez and Phil Ochs at The War Is Over rally

April
9 marked the 40th anniversary of the suicide of Phil Ochs, the crusading
singer/songwriter who penned many of the 1960s’ smartest and most memorable
protest anthems. His 1976 suicide devastated the folk community. Pete Seeger, a
mentor to Ochs during his early years, was haunted
until his final days
by the thought that he hadn’t done more to help the
troubled artist.
I
heard my first Phil Ochs song in the spring of 1971, when alt-radio host Alex Bennett played “Outside Of A Small Circle Of
Friends
” on WPLJ-FM. Ochs’s sharp satire about the lures of complacency,
inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder, was perfect for my 12-year-old,
already-radical cynicism.

By
7th grade, I was a veteran of one presidential campaign (I aggressively
leafleted my neighborhood for Gene McCarthy in ’68) and the October 1969
Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. My childhood love for Israel, which came
from my synagogue, was by then fraying. Influenced by — by who? my fellow
tweens at a prep school in the Bronx? Alex Bennett? WBAI? –I told my distraught
Hebrew school principal that “because of the occupied territories,” I wasn’t
marching anymore in the April 25 Salute To Israel Parade. The
educator, Rahel F. Bloch, countered my concerns: “Peter, they’re just a
bargaining chip for peace!” Lol. A bargaining chip for peace. That
phrase still rings in my head, 45 years later.

For
the first time ever
, the entire New York area’s Jewish schools were closing
for the parade, which shows how compulsory Zionism was displacing actual
religion for Jewish institutions post-’67. Organizers “urged all school
personnel, pupils, and parents to participate in the parade both as marchers
and spectators.” Afterwards, there would be a groovy-sounding “Folk-Rock Be-In”
called “Jubilee 1971” in Central Park, “expected to attract over 50,000 college
students.” This is how young Jewish children were conscripted into the
enterprise. I marched.
Two
months later, I was off to Camp Na’aleh in Elizaville, NY (which still
exists
in a different location), run by the Labor Zionist organization
Habonim (not yet Habonim-Dror). My parents’ choice of an Israel-focused camp
didn’t thrill me; I expected to encounter kids who thought Jews needed to
support President Nixon because he was “good for Israel.”
Instead,
I found myself at the closest analog to a radical hippie commune any suburban
pre-teen with sensible parents could hope for. Meals were followed by nonstop
singing, with the material ranging from Hebrew choral songs to silly camp songs
(and some raunchy ones) to “The Internationale” and “Bandiera Rossa.” We would
chant off the names of each age division, then swap in names of heroes like Ho
Chi Minh. The camp was socialist and kibbutz-oriented, emphasizing labor, sharing
(all the goodies our parents sent were pooled), and endless education in Labor
Zionist theory. Our counselors were young — the director no more than 22 — and
would have looked more at home at Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm than at most other
Jewish camps. For us, the early ’70s were more ’60s than the actual ’60s had
been.
If
Bob Dylan was the Sun God for young Jewish summer-camp lefties, Phil Ochs was
like a beloved local deity. Every morning but Shabbat, we would sing his
subversively patriotic “Power
And The Glory
” (“but she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor, only as
free as the padlocked prison door”) to our very conflicted raising of the U.S.
flag. At the weekly kumsitz (singalong), counselors regaled us
with “Draft Dodger
Rag
,” Ochs’s wry spoof on avoiding Selective Service. I had brought my
guitar and learned to bang out the songs.
The
next summer, the enlightened 19-year-olds in charge of our kiddie commune
declared Friday nights “Free
Sleep
,” permitting the older divisions (and themselves) to spend the
Shabbat in any bed, with anyone agreeable.
I
was 13, a little young for anything too serious; my Friday nights that summer
were spent chastely, atop a bunk bed with an adorable, slightly older Brooklyn
girl. On an endless loop, we played a cassette of “Phil Ochs In Concert,” the
1966 live album that introduced fans to new songs and Ochs’s distinctive stage
patter. “Love Me, I’m A
Liberal
” was perfect for me — “liberal” was a term of deep derision at camp
as well as for my political friends at school, and the takedown in Ochs’s intro
— “ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of
center if it affects them personally” — was right on the money.
I
should have listened more closely; with lines like “I love Puerto Ricans and
Negroes — as long as they don’t move next door,” or “if you ask me to bus my
children, I hope the cops take down your name,” the song could have been
transformed into “Love Me, I’m A Liberal Zionist.” Guess what: Israel is
segregated, even (and especially) the socialist kibbutzim. The schools are too.
This is why I’m so harsh on myself now: the signs were there if I had looked
for them. (Nowadays, Zionist groups are pushing through state laws to “take
down your name
” if you support the Israel boycott.)
Instead,
amidst all the rah-rah radicalism, Israel now seemed entirely compatible with
leftism. We were often defiant toward our anti-Palestinian sponsors from
Israeli Labor, and tangled with right-wing Zionist movements like Betar. When
Golda Meir (who’d helped found our camp’s predecessor in the ’30s) said there
were “no Palestinians,” North American Habonim told her off, supposedly risking
our funding. We picketed Meir
Kahane’s Jewish Defense League
. In 1973, I attended our national
convention, where we voted to reject all connections with our Israeli sponsor
movement’s kibbutzim in the ’67-occupied territories, and also to require each
local chapter to spend one afternoon per month picketing A&P supermarkets
selling non-union lettuce. (I made sure we really did this in Westchester.)
Israel
was presented as the solution to our anti-Americanism. “Goodbye, America,
goodbye Yankee fashions, let’s go to Palestine, the hell with your
depressions!” our forebears like Meir had sung in the ’30s, to the Yiddish tune
“Zum Gali Gali.” We changed “Yankee fashions” to “Yankee fascists” (and
“Palestine” to “Israel”). Zionism was “the national liberation movement of the
Jewish people” so we were like the Vietcong or Black Panthers — as if
privileged suburban kids like me were in any need of national liberation.
(There were also many city kids; the camp’s Israeli-subsidized low cost made
for unusual economic diversity.)
Back
home, I began checking out Ochs’s albums from my local library and learning the
songs. By summer 1974 I could play quite a few, some of the nonpolitical ones,
and performed them at the Saturday night campfire talent shows. “Flower Lady,” “Changes,” and “When I’m Gone” – almost
too heartbreaking to listen to now, knowing what became of Ochs. “I can’t be
singing louder than the guns when I’m gone, so I guess I’ll have to do it while
I’m here.” I recruited a friend, another Brooklyn girl, to sing harmony.
Between
summers, we craved every chance to see camp friends at activities in the city.
One such occasion was the Salute To Israel parade, which I no longer found
problematic. We were boosting the parade’s lefty presence! On May 11, 1975, I
marched again, and as the parade petered out along Fifth Avenue, my friends and
I saw huge festive crowds streaming into Central Park. We tagged along, my
campfire duet partner and I.
Poster for War is Over rally in Central Park 1975
What
we discovered at the Sheep Meadow was a giant rally, “The War Is Over,” called
(by Phil Ochs, but we didn’t know that) to celebrate the final defeat of
America’s aggression against the people of Vietnam on April 30. It was an epic
lineup, with superstars like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, Pete
Seeger, Patti Smith, Peter Yarrow, Barbara Dane and Tom Paxton. (Here’s the setlist,
be jealous.)
My
friend and I found a VW van on the perimeter to climb on top of, and watched
the show from over the crowd. But when Phil Ochs himself took the stage we
clambered down in a hurry and pushed into the 100,000-strong crowd for a closer
look. He opened with “I
Ain’t Marching Anymore
,” his most iconic protest song. Then, something
special: Joan Baez joined him on stage, the one time they performed together.
Her 1966 cover of Ochs’s “There But For Fortune” had been (in England) her
first Top Ten hit. Hear them together:
He
finished with “The War Is
Over
,” the song that named the rally, apologizing that he couldn’t hit the
high notes. We didn’t know, but he’d been attacked in Africa, nearly strangled,
and lost his upper vocal register, worsening his depression.
The
following year, on Friday April 9, I made another trip to the public library.
It had been a while since I’d listened to Ochs’s albums and I had a sudden
craving to reconnect with him. On Saturday morning — 40 years ago today — I sat
by our living room stereo listening to “Pleasures Of The Harbor.” My father
looked up from the New York Times obituary page. “You know, that folksinger
died.”
Who!?? Oh.
There
was no Twitter to check, but the community that loved Phil Ochs came together
quickly. On WBAI it was like the JFK assassination: they ripped out all their
regular programming in favor of Ochs — interviews, performances, and call-ins.
Mainstream rock stations WNEW-FM and WPLJ also played and mourned Phil. Malachy
McCourt opened his WMCA show with “When I’m Gone,” then softly announced, “Phil
Ochs, singing louder than the guns.”
In
years to follow, I learned more of Ochs’s sad story. Battling bipolar disorder
and alcohol, he had rallied impressively to put on the previous year’s Central
Park event on hearing the war was finally over, then slid into a worse decline.
It
took unacceptably long decades for me to set aside my liberal Zionism and
become a vocal Palestine supporter. A story for another time. Sometime in the
mid-’00s I attended a gathering to support Habonim. A few friends from back
then now had a band and were set up to perform with mics and amplifiers. After
their set, they invited me to take up a guitar and play something. I’m no
performer and rarely touch a guitar now. But I took the one they gave me and
powered through “Draft Dodger Rag” in non-embarrassing style. All my old
friends sang along. It was my last Habonim event.
And
during that awful summer of 2014, June’s West Bank pogroms and the Gaza carnage
of July-August, I attended every protest rally I could. Who knows how much it
helped, but being there was the least I could do.
When
the crowd chanted “Gaza, Gaza, don’t you cry / Palestine will never die,” the
words would catch in my throat. How can I tell Gaza not to cry when their
children and whole families are being slaughtered? By the apartheid regime I
once thought I was so woke for supporting?
Sometimes
as I marched, Phil Ochs songs would pop into my head. “There But For Fortune”
matched the horrific pictures filling my social media feed:

Show
me the country where the bombs had to fall

Show
me the ruins of the buildings once so tall
Then
I’d remember Ochs’s Mississippi songs. Israel is Mississippi now, with
lynchings, abductions, arson and hate mobs; the songs would need little
changing. “Here’s To The State Of
Mississippi
” easily fits the Jewish State of Israel, where “the fat trees
of the forest have hid a thousand crimes” – the forests planted by the Jewish
National Fund to hide the hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed by
Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin in the 1947-48 Nakba. Where “the calendar is lyin’
when it reads the present time.” Where the people “smile and shrug their
shoulders at the murder of a man.” Where the schools “are teaching all the
children that they don’t have to care… and there’s nobody learning such a
foreign word as ‘fair.’” Where the speeches of the Prime Minister are “the
ravings of a clown” — not to mention the Justice Minister.
Another
song, “Going Down To
Mississippi
,” recorded by Ochs between labels and not released until 1986,
was about the Freedom Summer volunteers who traveled south to register
African-American voters at considerable risk. “If you never see me again,
remember that I had to go.” That one made me think of Rachel Corrie.
Days Of Decision” was
the most hopeful. “In the face of the people who know they’re gonna win,
there’s a strength that’s greater than the power of the wind.” But also a
warning: “The far-reaching rockets say you can’t wait anymore… The mobs of
anger are roamin’ the street… There’s many a cross that burns in the night, and
the fingers of the fire are pointing as they bite.” In Gaza, it was populated
houses and hospitals instead of crosses, burning in the night.
I’m Gonna Say It Now” —
that one could go out to Students for Justice in Palestine and everyone on any
campus where academic freedom is threatened by the “Palestine
exception to free speech
.”
As
I marched, I would wonder to myself: If Phil Ochs were alive, would he be here?
He rarely turned down the chance to sing at protests. But how could I know what
he thought about Israel? Maybe he had the same blind spot for the Jewish state
as so many of his contemporaries like Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Pete
Seeger? I was afraid to search.
But
last December, I unexpectedly got my answer, straight from Phil himself.
In
the days leading up to what would have been his 75th birthday on Dec. 19, Ochs
fans filled the Internet with links to newly surfaced or neglected material. I
came across a “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” clip on YouTube promising updated
lyrics, from a February 1971 benefit for a Houston alternate newspaper called Space
City News
.
Ochs’s
first substantial rewrite at that show was to a verse originally about the
hypocrisy of those who condemned “the people of old Mississippi” who “should
all hang their heads in shame…” but refused to bus their own children. Updated,
it now called out Vietnam protesters who looked down on right-wing construction
workers:

The
people who wear all the hard hats should all hang their heads in shame

Now I can’t understand how their minds work, they must have believed John
Wayne

And I guess we’re gonna have to beat them, as soon as we sniff some cocaine
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a radical!
Ha
ha. Ha! A sick burn, we’d say now. By 1971, radical chic was as mockable as
liberalism had been in 1966. It wasn’t the first time Ochs voiced “criticism of
the apathy that drugs tend to induce,” in the words of Grady McAllister, who
recorded the Houston show “by dangling a microphone over the rail of the
balcony.” Ochs had done much the same in “Small Circle” (“demonstrations are a
drag, besides we’re much too high”). The crowd of Houston lefties whooped and
clapped at the substitution of “radical.”
The
next verse wouldn’t need much tweaking to work even in 2016. In the original:

Yes
I read
New Republic and Nation, I’ve learned
to take every view

You know, I’ve memorized Lerner and Golden, I feel like I’m almost a Jew
But when it comes to times like Korea, there’s no one more red, white and
blue

So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
Change
the names to Friedman and Goldberg, and swap in 9/11 for Korea, and you’re good
to go.
But
Ochs made a much sharper change to the verse:

I
read underground papers and
Newsweek,
I’ve learned to take every view

Ah, the war in Vietnam is atrocious, I wish to God that the fighting was
through

But when it comes to the arming of Israel, there’s no one more red, white
and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

“When
it comes to the arming of Israel”!
(Or, as we chant at rallies: “Not another
nickel, not another dime. No more money for Israel’s crimes!”)
Again, the
Houston crowd cheered the fresh lyrics.
Did
I just hear Phil Ochs use “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” to call out “Progressive
Except Palestine
“? In 1971?? I had to stop the song and play the verse
again. Ochs teasing that liberals thought it was “red, white and blue” to
support Israel? Oh boy.
And
then, I felt I knew. (I don’t really, of course.) For sure he would have wanted
to come to those Gaza rallies, he couldn’t have sat silent. He would have sung
“There But For Fortune,” updated his songs and written new ones in horror at
Israel’s mass murder of children and whole families. If he worried about “the
arming of Israel” in 1971, what would he think of the billions in U.S. military
aid to Israel today?
Later,
I came across a recording
of another Ochs show from a few months later, April 17 at Hunter College. “Love
Me, I’m A Liberal” was on the setlist. Ochs included the verse about
cocaine-sniffing radicals, but he dropped the Israel verse for
NYC. Self-censorship is a thing. Who could blame him? Certainly not me: it
was literally the same week I caved to my Hebrew school over the Israel parade.
“The
arming of Israel” was clearly a concern to the left in 1971, as the occupation
grew roots. That year, Bernie Sanders ran for local Vermont office on a
platform that included “no
guns for Israel
,” which he announced at a synagogue campaign stop. If only
his base would hold him to that now, as Israel (a.k.a. The Mouse That
Schnorred) ups its shakedown of the US Treasury. Cutting off all US 
Israel would be popular across the spectrum, since Americans hate all forms of
foreign aid. Apart from ending US protection for Israel at the UN, a total
military aid cutoff would be the most useful thing any president could do.
Phil
Ochs knew that in 1971.


Remembering Phil Ochs, the Other Great Jewish Folksinger of the ’60s

J.J. Goldberg April 10, 2016
It was 40 years ago this weekend, on April 9, 1976, that Phil Ochs was
found dead at his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, Queens. He was one of the
best-loved of the generation of young singer-songwriters of the 1960s, but he
was much more than that. He was the most eloquent, wittiest, most piercing
political bard of the era. For many of us he was the Other Great Jewish
Folksinger of the 1960s. In many ways he was the truest voice of that
generation. He was just 35 when he died by his own hand.
When I posted a note about the anniversary on Facebook last night,
having been reminded by my friend Hank Albert — who knows more than most about
loss — I was surprised to see how many others remembered just where they were
when they heard of his death. For me the moment is as clear as if it were
yesterday. I was wiping down tables after lunch in the dining room at Kibbutz
Gezer when the news came on Galei Tzahal, Army Radio. I put down my sponge,
found a chair in the corner and wept.
Ochs came on the folk scene in 1962, part of the wave that included Bob
Dylan, Tom Paxton and Joan Baez, among many others. His first album, “All the
News That’s Fit To Sing,” didn’t come out until 1964, but by then he was
becoming a fixture in the folk community. He’d sung at the Newport Folk
Festival in 1963 and his songs appeared regularly in Broadside, the
mimeographed protest-song journal. When the Vietnam War began escalating in
1964 and 1965, he became the spokesman for the Opposition. His second album,
released in 1965, was titled “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” The title song became the anthem of the
Movement.
In the early years people often spoke of Ochs and Dylan in the same
breath. They were both writing songs about events in the headlines — racial
murders in the South, the war in Vietnam, hopes for a better world. The
comparisons weren’t always kind to Ochs: Dylan, it was said, was a
songwriter-cum-poet, while Ochs was a songwriter-cum-journalist. Dylan’s best
songs could make you sit down and look at things in a new way. Ochs’s best
songs would make yu jump to your feet, grab a picket sign and start a protest
march chanting the song in defiance. Dylan at his best could dig beneath the
headlines to bring out a larger historical or even philosophical truth, like
his critique of Southern racism’s class exploitation in “ Only a Pawn in Their Game .”
Ochs, on the other hand, would capture the feeling in the events that were
happening around us with an angry, driving, urgent passion.
In June 1964, three civil rights workers, two New York Jews named Andrew
Goodman and Michael Schwerner and a local black Mississippian named James
Chaney, disappeared on a country road near Philadelphia, Mississippi, while
traveling from one country town to another to register voters. Their beaten,
tortured bodies were later found beneath an earthen embankment. ‘In August the
FBI arrested 18 members of the local Ku Klux Klan, including several Neshoba
County officials, for involvement in the murders, but a local court dismissed
the charges for lack of evidence. The men were then tried in federal courts on
lesser charges of civil rights violation that brought charges averaging seven
years. No one served more than six.
The incident wasn’t terribly unusual as Southern justice went during the
civii rights era and even before. Black men and white troublemakers often
disappeared quietly at night, and if their killers were caught they were
released or got a slap on the wrist. But this case involved white college
students from the North with families and communities and networks of people
that were horrified. It became a turning point in Northern white and especially
Jewish responses to the civil rights struggle. And it inspired what could be
Phil Ochs’s angriest ballad, recorded at the end of 1964 and released in 1965: “Here’s To the State
of Mississippi.” Much has
changed in Mississippi and its neighboring states since those bloody years.
What’s remarkable, listening to Ochs’s words and music, is how much hasn’t
changed, how little black lives still matter and how fresh the song sounds a
half-century later.
At times Ochs’s songs achieved a lyric humanism that could match any
poet line for line, as in his “There But For Fortune”
and even a stunning patriotism that was rare for those divided times, as
in his “Power and Glory”
… to say nothing of the biting, sarcastic wit that Ochs brought to songs
like “Draft Dodger Rag” 
and “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”
True, Dylan had a gargantuan talent for lifting your spirit by
describing the world in ways that you’d never imagined. Ochs’s talent was to
give voice to the very things that you were seeing and feeling and to set them
to music, creating anthems of a generation.
Another difference was that in 1965 Dylan gave up his brief career as a
protest singer and moved on to surrealism, love and the inner dimensions of the
soul. This was just as the war was heating up and America’s cities were going
up in flames, and many of us felt abandoned. Phil Ochs was just hitting his
stride. For the next few years he was the voice of youth protest. As time went
on he added a very adult, universal power of observation. “Outside of a Small
Circle of Friends” was a bitterly
sarcastic comment on the public apathy that was on display in 1964 when Kitty
Genovese was stabbed to death on the street outside her apartment building in
Queens, N.Y., while dozens of people nearby reportedly heard her screams and
did nothing — failing even to call the police.
He also created a
collection of deeply personal ballads that became standards of the American
songbook, especially the now-classic “Changes” and the haunting “When I’m Gone,” which eerily foreshadowed his own death a decade later.
Then something happened. It was said that he was stung by the success
and wealth that other, less political singers were enjoying. He began releasing
songs with lush, Sinatra-style orchestrations. His fans didn’t know what to
make of it.
Some were lyric masterpieces, like “Pleasures of the Harbor”
and “The Flower Lady.”
Others simply fell flat. I remember the embarrassment I felt when I went
to an Ochs concert in late 1969 or 1970 and saw him come out on stage in an
Elvis-style gold lame suit to sing those gushy new songs. On the other hand,
I’d joined a mass walkout at a Dylan concert in 1965 when he came out with his
electric band, and by 1970 I’d like to think I’d learned something about
suspending judgment.
But Ochs was actually entering a long decline. Some say he was suffering
from writer’s block. He’d been increasingly depressed over the state of
American politics ever since the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. He was
beginning to succumb to bipolar disorder, aggravated by a serious drinking
problem. In 1971 he was arrested in Uruguay after singing at a political rally,
then arrested again in Argentina. Then in 1973, while visiting Africa, he was
attacked in Tanzania by a robber who strangled him and damaged his vocal cords.
Returning home he became increasingly erratic. He alarmed his friends
with paranoid rants about plots against him by the CIA. He slipped into an
alternate identity for months at a time, calling himself John Butler Train,
often living on the street, saying he’d killed Phil Ochs and taken over his
identity. Finally, in 1976, he did: He killed Phil Ochs.
Finally, here’s a video of a live performance of “When I’m Gone,”
interwoven with a video montage of Ochs’s life and times and the call to our
generation from President Kennedy that, in a way, got us all moving:

 

 

 

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