Attitude of Gratitude For Great Phil Ochs, Forgotten Un-Dylan

I know there’s a lot of Dylan in the air these days, and I’m happy about that. But after seeing

I know there’s a lot of Dylan in the air these days, and I’m happy about that. But after seeing Scorsese’s No Direction Home, I found myself thinking about someone else, an almost-forgotten contemporary of Dylan: Phil Ochs.

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Let me explain. For some reason, I had the good fortune to watch a screening of the Scorsese documentary up at PBS with one of my lit-crit faves, John Leonard. I’d been a fan of his ever since college, when I read his underappreciated black-comic novel, Crybaby of the Western World (somebody should reissue it), and I’ve come to admire the way that his prose in The Nation and The New York Review of Books has become, to use a Dylan analogy, critical language gone electric. There was one stretch a while back when his remarkable reviews of Pynchon, Roth and Bellow made them suddenly new for me by the sheer force of his will and wit.

And when it comes to Dylan matters, I even admire his support for the pro-folkie, Joan Baez wing of the culture that Dylan left behind (expressed in Mr. Leonard’s beautiful NYRB essay on David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street)—even though I’m a pro-electric-Dylan guy myself and don’t see the need to disparage one to appreciate the other. But it matters that someone like Mr. Leonard cares about such things.

In any case, in the course of watching the three-and-a-half-hour, two-part Scorsese Dylan documentary in the PBS screening room, it occurred to me that I should express the gratitude I felt to John Leonard and tell him how much his work—especially the way he opened up non-academic lit-crit writing to a kind of inspired, allusive, pun-intensive playfulness—meant to me over the years. Not that it should matter to him, but it mattered to me.

And I felt gratitude to Dylan, too. Even though the story’s been told over and over (and over) again, Scorsese’s focus on how much Dylan persisted in his electric vision despite its bitter unpopularity among his folkie base was inspiring. He was onto something, he knew it, and he wasn’t going to let go of it because of some envious carpers.

So there I was: leaving PBS, thanking John Leonard, walking down Ninth Avenue, grateful to Dylan. In an “attitude of gratitude” mode, as some friends of mine might say. And I found myself thinking about someone else who deserves my gratitude, props from us all. Someone on the folkie scene who was probably burned for good by being too close to the wheel on fire that was Dylan.

I was thinking of Phil Ochs. I was thinking of his beautiful, perfect song, “There But for Fortune,” and how much gratitude I had for it. How it probably changed my life, or my way of thinking about life. And I was thinking about what I might have said to Phil at that dinner we’d had in L.A. not long before he killed himself.

You all remember Phil Ochs, right? Anyone … ? Bueller? (About half the people I asked recently didn’t.) Back when Dylan was just becoming Dylan, Phil Ochs was a rising star on the folkie protest-song scene before Dylan eclipsed all other stars. His anti-war anthems like “I Ain’t Marching Any More” galvanized people at Vietnam-era rallies. He also did quieter, more personal folkie ballads that showed considerable singer-songwriter talent—“Changes” and “Pleasures of the Harbor,” for instance.

And then there was this one beautiful, perfect song which was, perhaps on the surface, political—but on a deeper, far more primal and powerful level, a song that was pre-political, even spiritual: “There But for Fortune.”

“There But for Fortune”: It was a kind of ur-politics with a killer melody, one of those songs that forever inscribed itself, melody and meaning, on some deep level of the self—well, of my self when I first heard Joan Baez sing it. But Phil’s version is, if possible, even more haunting.

I know that in some ways it shaped the way I think about politics more than any written document, it carried such a powerful emotional truth.

By all rights, that song should have been enough to immortalize him and make him feel fulfilled forever, but things didn’t work that way, what with the “star-making machinery” of the nascent celeb culture that came to bohemia looking for the “next Dylan.”

One of the things that Scorsese’s documentary dramatizes, as well as one of the best parts of Dylan’s Chronicles and what’s most appealing about David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street, is the cumulative picture you get of the bubbling ferment of oddballs and geniuses that was the early 60’s Greenwich Village. When everyone was unconventional, but not in conventionally unconventional ways. You know the song “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”? (I was, by the way.) The early bohemians were unconventional before unconventional was cool. They were just inventing what would later become conventionally unconventional lives and works—commodified New York bohemia. And you have the feeling from Scorsese’s film, and from Dylan’s Chronicles, that no one really knew who was going to turn out to be a genius and who was an imitator, who was a clown, who was Tiny Tim.

But then, suddenly, Dylan broke out and broke though with “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and a whole new typology emerged. There was Dylan, and then there were what we might now call the alt-Dylans (Dylan contemporaries and rivals like Phil Ochs and Eric Anderson), and then the “New Dylans” like John Prine, the future Dylans, the un-Dylans. Suddenly everything in that once-fractal world had a Copernican center. There was Dylan and there were the planets rotating around him, judged, identified—defined—by their distance from the sun.

Phil Ochs inevitably, against his will, became one of those planets. There but for fortune, perhaps, a star. Instead, he had the misfortune to be a “Dylanesque figure” without being Dylan, always defined by, in the shadow of, Mr. D.

And then when Dylan turned his back on the folkie world, when he “went electric” and abandoned politics for irony and surrealism, Phil Ochs became the anti-Dylan, the one who stayed true to acoustic folkie lefty politics, you might say, still writing protest songs, seeming to those of us who liked the sneering punkiness of the electric Dylan a little—I’m ashamed to say it—uncool.

For a while, I was part of a small circle of friends or friends of friends that included Phil, and when we ran into each other in the Village now and then, we’d sometimes hang out. I liked the guy, but his bitterness at being the not-Dylan clearly rankled him, and his critical attitude toward Dylan turning his back on the folkie world—not just by taking up the electric guitar, but by putting down those who played acoustic and stuck to politics (see “My Back Pages” with its ecstatic preaching against preaching)—was rarely absent when the subject came up, and it often did.

Still, I respected the guy, and when I was out in L.A. one time, I gave Phil a call and we got together for a meal in the hotel dining room. As things turned out, it was the last time I saw him.

Oh yeah, he was out there in L.A. because he was almost persona non grata in New York for a misconceived—or misunderstood—Dylan-goes-electric type of move. He’d given a concert dressed in a gold lamé suit, playing electric guitar and sort of posing as Elvis. And giving a quote that “if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.” (He’d actually gotten Nudie, Elvis’ tailor, to make him the suit.) Either way, it didn’t seem like a compelling argument to many, although, looking back, it spoke to the Left’s difficulty in connecting with popular culture.

Well, to be kind, let’s say it was a miscalculation. Perhaps it’s true, and it was pretty much a way of saying that this country is never going to have a revolution, because Elvis is never going to become Che Guevara. Rock may be revolutionary, but rock stars are not—let’s face it.

Anyway, almost everybody hated it. Pro-Dylan types hated it because they thought it was a hostile parody of Dylan going electric. And anti-Dylan types hated it because they thought Phil was “selling out” by making a Dylan-type rock-star move. Political types rejected its “analysis” of the revolutionary situation. It was universally proclaimed a fiasco.

So that’s why, the last time we met, Phil was in L.A. He was, in a way, hiding out, doing a lot of drinking, claiming not to be able to write. As I recall, I was kind of hiding out, too: I was supposed to tape an interview with a fugitive on the run, one Abbott Hoffman, so in a way I was on the run, trying to keep a low profile while awaiting secret phone-booth rendezvous messages.

Actually—and this is not the digression it might seem to you—in one of the big arguments I had with Abbott Hoffman (whom I’d come to like while covering him for The Village Voice), I invoked Phil’s song, “There But for Fortune.”

You know it at all? Maybe—and this is not a digression within a digression—I should give you a feeling for it. Here’s the second verse:

Show me an alley, show me a train,

Show me a hobo who sleeps out in the rain,

And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why,

And there but for fortune may go you or I ….

You have to hear it, of course; you have to hear its aching Blakean simplicity and urgency. In a way, it has a classical purity—and when I say “classical,” I mean a going back to basics, back to Sophocles and the role that fortune and character play in man’s fate. As a song, it’s a sentiment that serves as a kind of Rorschach test, a defining revelation about how one views the unfortunate of the world. And the panhandler in front of you.

It’s a big subject, fortune. No wonder the post-Sophoclean debate about it consumed not just classical and medieval thinkers: Are we where we are because of who we are, and thus “deserve” to be there? Or are we where we are because of the cruel whim of fortune, fate?

So back to this argument I had with Abbie Hoffman: We were walking around Soho, and we passed this panhandler who’d kind of adopted me, because I almost always gave him a dollar bill when our paths crossed. He seemed like a nice guy down on his luck—there but for fortune ….

But Abbie launched into this lengthy denunciation of giving money to panhandlers—because, he said, it only postponed the confrontation with “the system,” which needed to be changed entirely so that there would be no more panhandlers. For him, it was “There but for the system goes that guy.”

Now I have to say this surprised me, because I’d often found Abbie a generous guy, one of those Falstaff types whose excesses could be forgiven because he was both witty and the cause in wit in others. (Read Murray Kempton on Abbie some time.)

But I somehow felt that this panhandler probably could use a cup of coffee and a roll or something the dollar would buy him now. And to make him bear the weight (and the wait) until the overthrow of “the system” was unfair: Why also deny him the comfort of the moment?

“There but for fortune.” If it separated me from some radicals, it has also separated me from some conservatives, who tend to react against the idea that one’s position in life is the result of mere good or bad luck, or anything but hard work and proper values or lack of same. That bum is not there because of fortune, but because he deserves to be where he is, and they deserve to be where they are.

It’s not true of all conservatives, of course, but just recently I was telling one of my more conservatively inclined friends about the sort of gut-level pre-political effect “There But for Fortune” has on me (and, I imagine, others). And we ended up in an argument.

I think it’s the line that precedes “There but for fortune,” the one that goes “I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why.” It seems to strike conservatives as some excuse for people’s stupid and immoral choices. That, under a meritocracy, the guy merits being out on the streets.

It implies explanations, excuses, the “evils of dependency,” and before five minutes of our argument had passed my friend had raised the subject of “school vouchers.” If only the education system were better suited to inculcating better values, the guy wouldn’t be a panhandler.

But maybe some people, even with good education and the right attitude about the system, fall down on their luck: There but for fortune …. Perhaps it’s my own low self-esteem speaking, but I always feel I’ve been a couple of lucky breaks away from being the other guy. (I know: “Once upon a time you dressed so fine / You threw the bums a dime in your prime, didn’t you?”—B. Dylan.)

I suppose I could have told Phil Ochs about how much his song meant to me at that last dinner we had together. How powerful that single, simple song was and how it would last. But, knowing Phil, he might have been thinking of another song of his: “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” He spared no one. And knowing him, there was one thing I knew I couldn’t do: make him Dylan.

He was certainly depressed that evening we had dinner. He drank a lot and seemed obsessed with boxing. He was determined to go to some old Hollywood arena for the fights that night. Don’t ask me why a pacifist folkie loved boxing, but he was, as they say, a man of contradictions. Or maybe he was still angry about a lot of things. But not being Dylan was at the bottom of it all. The subject of Rodney Crowell’s recent song, “Beautiful Despair,” is the despair every songwriter feels at not being Dylan. I think that on some level it afflicts us all.

Anyway, as it turned out, I turned down Phil’s invitation to accompany him to the fights that night. I had my secret contacts to worry about, and I never liked boxing anyway, so I declined, and he went off into the night.

And then, less than a year later, he hung himself in his sister’s house.

So it’s too late. And not that it would have made any difference even then, but: Phil, I’ll always be grateful for “There But for Fortune.” And it won’t be forgotten, and it will change people’s hearts for a long time to come.

Attitude of Gratitude For Great Phil Ochs, Forgotten Un-Dylan