Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune

History Music

I’ve never really liked Phil Ochs all that much, mostly because I always found his songs hard to cover. His music was always too idiosyncratic; the chord changes simultaneously too labored and too unpredictable, the melodies unmemorable, the lyrics too specific and pedantic.

I’m just back from watching Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune at the IFC Center, and thought I’d post a few thoughts while they’re still fresh in my mind. It’s one of the more depressing films I’ve seen in a while, not because it’s epically tragic, but because the tragedy it describes is so human. That said, it’s a good film, and certainly added to my knowledge of Ochs’ life, which has previously been entirely based on Marc Eliot’s Death of a Rebel. There are certain omissions (very little mention is made of Ochs’ failed marriage, among other less attractive parts of his personal life), but I suppose that’s to be expected in a film co-produced by his brother, Michael.

Most of the people I know who are Ochs fans are so because of his political beliefs. He’s seen as the folk singer who didn’t compromise, and who paid a high price for his refusal to yield. This is partly true but, as this film reveals, it’s only a part of the story, and not the largest part by far.

The tragedy of Ochs’ life is that, when his life failed to live up to his expectations, he was unable to adjust his expectations to meet reality. Part of that certainly was political; teh disintegration of 60s optimism and meaningful political speech certainly was a part of this reality, but it was also a part of reality for millions of others. What was unique to Ochs was his desire to be, as the film says, “the best songwriter in America;” to be famous, to be cool, to be a star. He was never any of those things, and you see him making excuses (the supposed CIA attack in Africa that damaged his vocal chords), and then seeking refuge in booze and the recesses of his mind. As Billy Bragg so succinctly puts it in the film, when you realize that the activism you believed would change the world doesn’t, you either chose to reevaluate what is possible, or you refuse to compromise. Ochs, he says, “didn’t fancy the compromise.”

Another valuable aspect of this film is that it shows Ochs to be far more politically conflicted and inconsistent than I’d previously understood him to be. As Cora Weiss so adeptly puts it, he took on whatever he thought was ridiculous, even though he was ridiculous himself. This version of Ochs rubs up hard against some of his more biting political material, where he sounds so self-righteous; so damn sure of himself. Apparently he wasn’t, which makes me like him more as a person, and dislike some of his songs even more.

So what do we do when our expectations are shown to be way out of proportion? How do we cope? How do we re-understand ourselves and our place in the world? These seem to me to be fundamental human questions, bigger than politics, bigger than art; the size of a human life. People and their problems will always trump politics, whether you put them in a song, on a banner or in a movie.