Some young suicides and early deaths of artists result in enduring and even outsized reputations after death: James Dean, Sylvia Plath.
But Phil Ochs is a tragic case of someone who had it and lost it – and then succumbed to demons that were bigger than he was. As “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” shows, he was a mover and a shaker who went his own way, even as he lost his way.
His suicide at 35 in 1976 came at a point when his musical relevance had long since dissipated. But there was a period in the mid-1960s when his name was often mentioned in the same breath as Bob Dylan’s, as an avatar of a new wave of the folk-music revival.
He was called a “protest singer” – but, then, so was Dylan for a while. His songs – dealing with the civil-rights movement and then the Vietnam war – had wit and bite and edge. As this documentary by Ken Bowser shows, Ochs didn’t just sing about the issues that concerned him – he organized and acted, working as part of the organizing group behind the Yippie protests in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic National Convention and performing in Lincoln Park, then later organizing a major concert after the CIA-enabled coup that toppled Salvador Allende in Chile.
Bowser’s documentary calls on a variety of witnesses to Ochs’ life, including contemporaries such as Joan Baez and Tom Hayden, fans such as Sean Penn and Christopher Hitchens – and his family, particularly brother Michael.
The portrait they sketch is of a man driven by his political beliefs, shattered by the deaths of John F. Kennedy and disillusioned by the ineffectiveness of protest against the Vietnam War. A prolific writer, he suffered commercial decline when he tried to expand his musical profile beyond the topical into more personal songs.
But he also suffered a legacy of mental illness: specifically, bipolar disorder, which also afflicted his father. As his musical fortunes declined, his mental problems were exacerbated by heavy drinking. Eventually, broke and depressed, he hung himself.
“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” probably won’t start a Phil Ochs revival; there have been tribute album compilations in the past. Yet it resurrects a vibrant, spirited talent from a period that is regularly besooted by culture warriors, seeking to cast the 1960s and early 1970s as one long pot-smoking binge, instead of the period of awakening and upheaval in social consciousness that it was.
If you were an Ochs fan, it will remind you of why you were. And if you’re new to Phil Ochs, it will reveal a voice silenced too early and, just maybe, send you scurrying to iTunes for a sampling of his work.