Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune is a 97-minute documentary about the sweet-voiced folksinger who committed suicide in 1976. Ochs arrived in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960s with the goal to become the world’s greatest songwriter, an ambition he realized was beyond him once he met the chipmunk-cheeked college dropout who changed his name from Robert Zimmerman to Bob Dylan. A vulnerable sort who wore his heart on his sleeve, Ochs idolized the more career savvy Dylan, but whatever Dylan thought of Ochs, he publicly dismissed him and his songs. “You’re no folksinger,” Dylan once told him, “you’re a journalist.” And so, in a sense, he was.
While Dylan abandoned the protest movement in favor of more introspective personal songs, Ochs continued to offer musical commentary on the world at large in songs such as “Love Me, I’m a Liberal, “ a satiric ditty that dared to question the sincerity of those on the political left who felt that they were above reproach. Ochs craved the kind of popular success that Dylan enjoyed, but never achieved it, remaining a cult performer with a niche audience. Among those interviewed to sing his praises are Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow, Sean Penn, and Christopher Hitchens. Dylan is conspicuous by his absence. One of those interviewed calls Dylan a “prick,” and having read quite a few Dylan biographies, I would conclude that he often was. In 1974, Dylan did come through for Ochs when he agreed to perform at a benefit that Ochs organized for refugees from Chile where the government was ousted in a CIA led coup. Tickets were selling poorly and it looked as if the concert would cost more to stage than it could ever take in. Crossing paths with Dylan on the streets of New York, Ochs convinced his one time rival to appear. Dylan had just come off a successful tour with The Band and earlier that year had his first number one album with Planet Waves. He was riding the crest of a comeback that would see his next two albums, Blood on the Tracks and Desire, also hit number one. He would never be as “hot” again as he was in this period, and his appearance at the Friends of Chile concert ensured it would be a sellout.
The documentary doesn’t mention that Dylan’s 1975-76 Rolling Thunder Revue originated in conversations he had with Ochs, or that Ochs’ erratic behavior, due to a combination of depression and alcoholism, meant that Dylan did not invite him to participate, a severe blow that author Bob Spitz believes played a part in Ochs’ decision to hang himself as the revue traveled across the country. In Spitz’s account, Dylan’s guilt may have influenced his later embrace of Christianity.
Kenneth Bowser’s film is worth seeing, but I found it a little slight, especially when covering Ochs’ sad last days. I may not have been giving the film my full attention and missed any reference to “John Train,” the persona that the singer adopted after insisting that Phil Ochs had died. The CIA is mentioned as perpetuating the overthrow of the democratically elected government of Chile, but did they also help drive Ochs to an early grave? Did they mark him for elimination as they later did John Lennon? To make such an accusation may lead to the filmmaker being targeted, so we can excuse Mr. Bowser for his reluctance to dig a little deeper.
© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks
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