Jeff Kravitz, FilmMagic Although they represent two different musical decades,…
- Posted on Sep 10th 2010 4:30PM by James Sullivan
Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images
But there wasn't much good news during Ochs' brief lifetime. He wrote songs about the death of JFK, the violent backlash against the civil rights movement and the escalation of the Vietnam War. Ochs' wishful song 'The War Is Over' lent John Lennon and Yoko Ono a political slogan.
By the end of the '60s, the singer fretted that he was just preaching to the converted, and his fears multiplied after the ill-fated Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968. Together with Jerry Rubin and other members of the radical Yippies, Ochs brought a pig into the city and declared it a candidate for president. But the fun and games didn't last: While singing for the crowds in Lincoln Park, he witnessed the event's infamous outbreak of police brutality. The episode sent him into a spiral of despair.
Ochs' next two albums would prove to be his last. 'Rehearsals for Retirement' (1969) featured a cover image of a tombstone for the singer -- "Died: Chicago, Illinois 1968."
For its follow-up, the singer, who was growing increasingly dependent on pills and booze, decided that the only way he could reach the middle class would be to start a revolution posing as a combination of Elvis Presley and Che Guevara. With a photo of Ochs in a gold lamé Nudie suit on the cover, the album was facetiously titled 'Phil Ochs' Greatest Hits.' Featuring several honky-tonk songs and some baroque production flourishes from onetime Brian Wilson collaborator Van Dyke Parks, the album effectively drove away what remained of Ochs' dwindling following.
And he knew it. '50 Phil Ochs Fans Can't Be Wrong,' he joked bitterly on the cover, satirizing Elvis and his 50 million. The album ended with a Celtic funeral dirge called 'No More Songs.'
In fact, Ochs was fighting an epic battle with writer's block. He bounced around aimlessly for the next few years. A thwarted effort to tour with old friend Dylan eventually grew into the Dylan roadshow known as the Rolling Thunder Revue. Traveling in Tanzania, Ochs was choked during a robbery, which left him unable to sing as he had before. Ochs' brother, the photographer and archivist Michael Ochs, tried to urge his brother into the care of doctors; their father had suffered from bipolar disorder.
When the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Ochs had one last triumph, singing 'The War Is Over' in Central Park alongside several of the biggest names of the old folk movement. By then, however, he'd become paranoid about the FBI and the CIA (his FBI file would amount to more than 400 pages), and he'd invented an alter-ego for himself named John Butler Train, who'd supposedly killed off the real Ochs.
The following year, while living with his sister and her family in Queens, New York, Ochs was officially diagnosed as bipolar. After a few months of inactivity, he hanged himself in the bathroom. He was 35.
When Jim Carroll's memoir 'The Basketball Diaries' was published in 1978, the author dedicated it to the singer's memory. Years later, Ochs' daughter worked as an assistant to Sean Penn, who still talks of one day making a film about this troubled performer.