Monday, February 21, 2011

Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune: Talkin' heads remember unjustly forgotten singer-songwriter who sang 'bout injustice blues

Phil Ochs went to New York in 1962 to become the world’s greatest songwriter, but he met Bob Dylan and thereafter amended his ambition: he’d settle for second greatest. Dylan, who unfortunately does not appear in Kenneth Bowser’s
Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune, was reportedly unkind to Ochs, despite a friendship that would last until Ochs’ death in 1976. Yet Dylan’s advice to Ochs, his insistence that songs be grounded in the personal as much as if not more than the political, tells us a great deal about the difference between these mutually single-minded, era-defining artists.

Unlike Dylan, whose best work often plays as memoir, Ochs was committed to the song as editorial, ripping material directly from the
New York Times—his first LP was titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing—addressing injustice through a lens of black humour rendered more ironic still through the nasal boyishness of his vocal delivery. So long as the dream of social change through music-as-reportage seemed plausible, Ochs was on top of the world. When the world proved less capable of change than Ochs and his more idealistic peers had hoped, Ochs’ music began to recede from the charts, while Ochs himself slid into a slow downward spiral marked by alcoholism and despair over Vietnam and the deaths of the Kennedys, Martin Luther King, and Victor Jara. He was later strangled by thieves in Africa. They spared his life but wrecked his vocal chords. He finally hung himself in his sister’s home. He was 35.

There but for Fortune brims with talking heads, including many who knew Ochs intimately, such as Joan Baez, Ed Sanders, and Ochs’ brother Michael, who served as the film’s co-producer, and others who take inspiration from Ochs’ legacy, such as Billy Bragg, Christopher Hitchens, and Sean Penn. These commentators collectively chronicle the significant episodes in Ochs’ life, while Bowser and editor Pamela Scott Arnold emphasize the political events that shaped Ochs’ art and psyche. Blessed with an immense trove of archival material, which Bowser carefully weaves in, There but for Fortune can’t be faulted with neglecting to relay the facts.

Where the film does seem to fall short is in its exploration of the truths behind the facts. Bowser, probably best known for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, is too respectful to be more precise about Ochs’ bad habits and failings as a family man. More importantly, Bowser refrains from delving below the surface of his subjects’ testimonies, from rigorously questioning why such a giant failed to secure an enduring place in the popular culture of his lifetime or maintain a posthumous renown as vibrant as many of his contemporaries. Ochs was nothing if not opinionated and daring. Ochs had a perspective, which is something you can’t really say about Bowser’s work here. Still, see the film, and be grateful to Bowser for going as far as he did to remind us of this very special talent whose contributions arguably have no equivalent in today’s music.

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