Phil Ochs was the singer-songwriter who could have been Dylan, had Dylan not already occupied that position. If Dylan had never been born, Ochs would have been the major musical spokesman for the Sixties. Since Dylan did exist, Ochs always felt somewhat like the little brother tagging along.

Perhaps to prove his authenticity, or perhaps because it was just his way, Ochs put his life and body on the line in ways that Dylan never did. He joined demonstrations and got into fistfights. He went to Chile with counterculture icon Jerry Rubin to check out the progress of the revolution. He adventured in Australia and journeyed to Kenya, where his vocal chords were permanently damaged when he was mugged.

Phil Ochs was born on December 19, 1940. A journalism student in college, Ochs became one of the strongest voices in the civil rights and anti-war movements. He wrote “The Draft Dodger’s Rag”

I’m only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen,
and I always carry a purse…

During the Sixties, Ochs was certain he would be assassinated because of his radicalism. It wasn’t such a crazy idea, in view of the fate of Latin American poet and musician Victor Jara, whose hands were cut off before his execution. (Added later: This turns out to be a legend. They only shot him 43 times.) One writer says that when the Chicago Seven were charged, Ochs was insulted not to be included, which meant he was only important enough to be an un-indicted co-conspirator. He needed to feel relevant. His former manager said, “He thought he was risking his life by singing.” One school of thought says, when he finally realized that nobody wanted to shut him up that badly, he became terminally depressed.

Ochs could be a real pain in the ass, which was why he often didn’t receive from the world the consideration and respect that his genius deserved. As the political climate changed and songs of social injustice went out of fashion, he felt redundant, drank more, acted worse, and perceived enemies everywhere. In the fall of 1975 he turned up at New York’s legendary Chelsea Hotel, registered under a false name, and was arrested for drunkenness and assault on a woman friend.

His last real public performance was at a party for the owner of a folk club. It was practically a dress rehearsal for the Rolling Thunder Revue, and Ochs had “understood” that he’d go along, but he wasn’t invited on the tour because of the drinking and unpredictable behavior. He stayed in Manhattan until December, drifted from one hotel to another, drank, crashed with friends or even slept in the street. He finally bottomed out and went to stay with his sister, where he quit drinking and played a lot of cards with her three kids.

Back in the good times, Ochs wrote a wonderful song that outlines some of the reasons why life is painful, but returns always to the refrain

I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give,
cross my heart and I hope to live.

At 35, Phil Ochs had given all that he had to give. On April 9, 1976, he hanged himself. “He had often talked about suicide,” said Jerry Rubin, who had seen him four days earlier. “He was so tied to political changes that when that spirit went down he went down with it.”


An earlier version of this appeared in Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics

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