Aspiring to Musical Power and Glory
Published: January 4, 2011
To say that the 1960s folk singer Phil Ochs dreamed big is to understate the huge scope of his ambition. As recalled in Kenneth Bowser’s respectful, nonmaudlin documentary portrait, “Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune,” Ochs moved to New York in the early ’60s intending to be the best songwriter in the country. After meeting Bob Dylan, Ochs was forced to revise his opinion of his own potential to “second best.”
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Even before Ochs discovered folk music and left-wing politics through Jim Glover, his fellow student at Ohio State University, he was in the thrall of larger-than-life cultural symbols, from Elvis Presley to western movie stars like John Wayne and Gary Cooper, who embodied the concept of a world-saving hero. Not coincidentally, the folk music movement in its early days had the same messianic sense of its own importance.
The Dylan-Ochs connection, however friendly, had its tormenting underside. While Ochs worshipped Mr. Dylan (who is not interviewed in the film), his idol refused to pay him much respect. Ochs’s typical songs were specific topical commentaries gleaned from poring over newspapers and magazines. Even when Mr. Dylan was addressing current events, he remained suspicious of politics as a songwriting platform and soon moved on to become the superstar that Ochs wanted desperately to be.
Ochs, who committed suicide in 1976 at 35, never understood that there was a limited audience for brainy musical editorials composed in a rigid singsong mode and sung in a droning, nasal voice with a modest range and faltering intonation. If his verses were finely wrought, his singing conveyed an emotional distance from the words.
Ochs’s involvement with the civil rights and antiwar movements and his presence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention make “There but for Fortune” not only a biography but also a running history of the period’s left-wing activism, replete with film clips of that decade’s tragic events; the assassination of John F. Kennedy hit Ochs especially hard.
Besides family members — his younger brother and sometimes manager, Michael; his older sister, Sonny; his wife, Alice Skinner; and his daughter, Meegan, all appear in the film — the documentary’s talking heads include Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Judy Henske, Billy Bragg, Ed Sanders, Christopher Hitchens and Sean Penn.