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There but for Dylan
A new documentary explores the tragic life and times of folksinger Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs was a passionate musical activist

I went to New York to become the best songwriter in the country. And then I met Dylan. And I decided I'd be the second-best.

- Phil Ochs

There But for Fortune, Kenneth Bowser’s documentary about 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs, is like the man himself – fascinating and frustrating. Ochs was driven by both a burning need to poeticize the struggles of the downtrodden, which he did as a gifted lyricist and guitarist, and an equally strong desire to become a well–known star.

But the times, they were a–changin.’

In the end, he wasn’t able to transition away from the former, and the latter consumed him.

The comparisons with Dylan are everywhere – both were students of the Woody Guthrie/Weavers school of journalizing civil rights, political oppression and the apparent suffocation of the American Dream. Both were wordsmiths of the highest caliber, the bright shining lights of the folk revival of the John F. Kennedy era.

In There But For Fortune, Pete Seeger says that when he was introduced to Dylan and Ochs – on the same day – he was convinced he’d just met the two best songwriters of the generation.

In his prime, Ochs was a passionate activist who believed in change. “He organized rallies from the get–go,” Bowser told Green Cine. “I have to say that was part of the folk movement.  If you wanted to put on a concert, if you wanted 20 people to show up... it was always a pass the hat, print pamphlets, put up your own fliers thing. He grew up in a musical world that encouraged that.

“The progression, as he became a known artist, was to use the power he had as a known artist to push his political causes, things that he believed in. So from very early on that was part of his life, and to the very end.”

So what went wrong?

Unlike Dylan, Ochs stayed too long at the party. He was still writing and singing protest music in 1966, when Dylan had long since “gone electric” and was coming up with “Visions of Johanna” and “Sad–Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” – songs of such universal beauty (and appeal) that no one would ever attach the limiting phrase “protest singer” to his name again.

The folk revival had run out of steam.

Ochs’ 1967 Pleasures of the Harbor album was a 180–degree turn, heavily orchestrated balladry that bore little resemblance to his earlier material. It bombed, as did everything else he attempted in his later years, including the ironically–titled Phil Ochs Greatest Hits.

The documentary includes new interviews with many of Ochs’ folk music contemporaries (Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter Yarrow), members of his family, and his left–wing political associates Tom Hayden, the late Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, Paul Krassner and even Sean Penn (who didn’t know Ochs, but who speaks eloquently about the folksinger’s politics).

It was, most agree, the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago — and the savage beating protesters received at the batons of Mayor Daly’s police — that soured Ochs on the idea that young America was going to affect righteous and moral change.

Then came Richard Nixon. And the escalation of the war in Vietnam. And Watergate.

Ochs all but gave up.

In 1973, during a worldwide trip (in which he routinely visited local bordellos, the film tells us) Ochs was robbed and beaten on an African beach. His attackers, among other things, crushed his vocal chords.

He made the acquaintance of Victor Jara, “the Bob Dylan of Chile,” and they became fast friends. Not long afterwards, Chilean president Salvador Allende was overthrown in a political coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Both Allende and Jara were assassinated. Ochs hosted one last concert to raise money for the country’s refugees.

Said Bowser: “It was just one thing after another, Phil couldn’t get out from under what was happening. As someone very smart says in the film, Phil had a big enough ego to take it all personally.”

Ravaged by alcoholism, depression and schizophrenia, Phil Ochs committed suicide on April 9, 1976.

The film includes numerous live performance clips, including Ochs’ landmark appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival and sequences from political rallies and television programs.

And his songs – “Love Me I’m a Liberal,” “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Cannons of Christianity,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” “The War is Over” and “Crucifixion” – tell Ochs’ story more poignantly than all the talking heads put together.

Now they sing out his praises on every distant shore

But so few remember what he was fightin’ for

Oh why sing the songs and forget about the aim?

He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?

– Phil Ochs, “Bound For Glory”

Movies Savannah Missed

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Where: Muse Arts Warehouse, 703D Louisville Road

When: At 2, 5 and 8 p.m. Sunday, May 1

Admission: $8