Nearly 50 years on, the relegation of folk-pop recording artist Phil Ochs to the turgid second rung of 1960s protest singers seems more an act of twisted fate than an informed critical judgment. “Fifteen years ago in the old folky show, you were just one voice in the crowd,” eulogized Harry Chapin in song shortly after Ochs’s suicide, thereby perpetuating the myth of the singer’s genericism while still attempting to canonize his passion. It’s hard to say whether that well-intentioned paean, “The Parade’s Still Passing By,” helped to skew the singer’s posthumous reputation or if it was merely a barometer of existing misconception, but it’s an apt summary of what in his legacy requires challenging. Implicit in the track’s faint praise, even, is the rumor that Ochs’s death was in part inspired by his inability to compete with Bob Dylan’s appointment as generational spokesperson.
Kenneth Bowser’s vintage photo-laden documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune immediately if subtly debunks this assumption. Tracing the genesis of Ochs’s musicianship, the film illuminations distinctions in influence between the presumed folk victor and subordinate; Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village a well-oiled Woody Guthrie jukebox, but Ochs was an aspiring composer who idolized Elvis, Hank Williams, and Bob Gibson well before he reached New York City. Commenting on the brief period that both enjoyed under the tutelage of Pete Seeger, who saw no disparity in quality between them, talking head Christopher Hitchens further elucidates that Ochs’s impersonal nature made him the anti-Dylan. “Anyone could like Bob Dylan,” he offers, “but [Ochs’s songs were] far more political and tough-minded.”
Ironically, Ochs’s astringently leftwing tunesmithing recalls Woody Guthrie far more indelibly than Dylan’s lysergic, starry-eyed prophesying; if “The Chimes of Freedom” is an ocean of sincerity, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” is a winking sluice of disapproval. Dylan’s intentions could never quite be definitively discerned, which enabled future generations to interpret his music within their own emotional contexts. Ochs’s hammy, adenoidal delivery, on the other hand, could never be taken seriously; his hopelessly unreliable narrators, whether draft dodgers or witnesses-cum-co-conspirators to acts of abuse, would later influence satirists like Randy Newman. Bowser makes clear with a glut of choice testimonials—Dave Van Ronk (via archival footage), Van Dyke Parks, Abbie Hoffman, and Jello Biafra among them—that Ochs’s error was in associating with and deifying the first popular iteration of Dylan, and gladly suffering its occasional abuses. (Dylan once sneeringly claimed that Ochs wasn’t a folksinger, but a journalist.) Zimmy’s shadow would prove too desultory, too self-warping, to rest within comfortably. And, as There But for Fortune argues, by the time Ochs’s and Dylan’s styles had visibly bifurcated, the former had already resigned himself to the compromise of second fiddle.
The film unfortunately never touches upon Ochs’s reaction to Dylan’s folk apostasy, if he had one, though it briefly explores the surprising rewards of his own departures from the guitar-and-vocal formula. (Pleasures of the Harbor, still his most accomplished album, impishly pairs scathingly antisocial statements with ornate orchestral accompaniment.) But this dearth of personal confession on the part of Ochs himself (he didn’t keep a diary and wasn’t interviewed extensively in his final decade) quickly facilitates Bowser’s surface-skipping narrative rhythm. After the mid ‘60s we bounce from one epochal event to the next as a way of externalizing Ochs’s presumed turmoil, but the turbulent national climate is questionably made to appear more disheartening than the far more personally damning album sales (or lack thereof) Ochs experienced. The assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., in particular, become opportunities for glib, Boomer-centric malaise: “There were so many awful things that happened in the ‘60s,” one interviewee prosaically points out.
Bowser’s “reading” of Ochs’s inner pain through the uncomfortable transitions his era underwent would likely satisfy a man who released a record entitled All the News That’s Fit to Sing. But applying the impersonal, if rousing, stance of songs like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” to biographical examination lends itself to emotional anemia—even the palpable possibility of mental disturbance is mostly elided because it disputes the symbolism of Ochs’s death in the disillusioned ‘70s. Toward the end of the documentary brother and manager Michael suggests a diagnosis of manic depression; this would, at least, logically explain how Ochs could audaciously promise a publishing company hundreds of sales for a protest song in one moment and then grovel at Dylan’s boot heel in the next. Footage of his final days as a raving, overweight street wanderer (he looks like one of Andy Kaufman’s schlubby alter egos) is nearly as tragic as the inaccurate portrait of his heyday that posterity has preserved. There But for Fortune admirably attempts to revise that image, but its fidelity to its key demographic doesn’t allow it to go far enough; the inadvertent message is that Ochs will likely never escape the obligatory prism of his populist outrage.