Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Phil Ochs 1940-1976

I met Phil Ochs under duress on the day Robert Kennedy announced for the presidency in 1968. The duress had to do with a review I had just written of Pleasures of the Harbor, an album that as far I was concerned combined the most disastrous aspects of Sgt. Pepper and Waterloo. I find that to socialize with an artist I admire is compromising enough--admiration is never total, and the most high-flown careers fluctuate in patterns that must be documented. How then was I to deal with liking a person whose musicianship I had summed up by postulating that "his guitar playing would not suffer much were his right hand webbed."

Nevertheless, I suspected I'd like him; what I didn't anticipate was how much. The Elvis Presley collage that graced the living room of his Spring Street apartment impressed me straight off. Then we drove with Phil's brother Mike to Newark Airport. Our destination was the UFO coffee house in Columbia, South Carolina, the first outpost of the GI movement that Fred Gardner was then beginning to organize. My purpose was to spread the word as a journalist, Phil's to regale and edify the troops; both of us considered ourselves committed radicals. Yet we both whooped and hollered when Kennedy's announcement was broadcast on the car radio, and I felt a rush akin to comradeship.

Not since Pete Seeger has there been a folksinger of Ochs's stature who could claim his unswerving opposition to political and economic oppression. But Ochs never fell into the trap of purism. He both loved America and respected Americans, and he always remained aware of the elitist pitfalls awaiting those who would shape its art and its politics. He not only believed RFK would cut short the slaughter in Asia, but admired his common touch. And he told a Carnegie Hall audience in 1970: "If there's any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara." He was wearing a gold lame suit at the time.

The wit of this suggestion was as typical of Ochs as the seriousness of the conundrum that underlies it; humor is after all the classic consolation for thwarted hopes. One reason Ochs, who was the only name performer to show up at Chicago in 1968, could ally himself so freely with the Yippies even though his own political analysis was ultimately more critical than theirs, was simply that he couldn't resist the Abbie and Jerry Show. And in 1973, when he was waylaid in the African port of Dar es Salaam by three thugs who not only took his money but squeezed much of the life out of his larynx, he claimed to have written a song about it: "On the Failure of Socialism in Tanzania." But my own favorite example of his humor was a line in his songbook on a page headed "The Critics Rave": "His guitar playing would not suffer much were his right hand webbed."

Objectively, Ochs's taste for the funny line may not have been at all revolutionary, and the same goes for his fascination with pop. Perhaps he was poorly qualified to answer all the maddening questions about how to effect radical change in a society pervaded by mass communications. But no one else has proven qualified to answer them either, and at least Ochs had the courage and perspicuity to ask. A good many of the fuck-ups in his life--his obsession with his sometime friend Bob Dylan, for instance, as Dylan seemed to forsake Che (and Phil) for Elvis; or his inability to adjust to the comfort of California after he left Elektra for A&M--can be connected in theory to the perplexities that he continued to scrutinize.

That's theory, however. The fact is that he had not written a song in about six years when he hanged himself on April 9, and although he apparently had stopped by the time of his death, he had also been drinking much too heavily for much too long. It would be fatuous to blame his death on Society or Capitalism, and perhaps it is presumptuous for a distant acquaintance like myself to speculate on his death at all. But for the record I'd like to remind everyone of a few reasons why Ochs's last. years weren't as wasted as he himself may have come to believe. One was the "Evening with Salvador Allende" benefit he organized in the spring of 1974--one of the few successful movement events of recent years, scandalously misreported in the press. The other is a worthy young folksinger named Sammy Walker whose career Ochs sponsored last year.

Predictably, I came around to liking Phil Ochs's music, guitar included. My affection no doubt prejudiced me, so it is worth nothing that many observers who care more for folk music than I do I remember both his compositions and his vibrato tenor as close to the peak of the genre. A comment of Bob Dylan's that Ochs often repeated--something fairly sharp to the effect that Ochs should have been a journalist rather than a musician--may have been truer and kinder than either of them realized, for the musicality of Ochs's best songs in no way diminished their impact as news. Ochs studied journalism in college and wrote some interesting essays for the Los Angeles Free Press in the early '70s. We thought occasionally of asking him to try something for The Voice. Right now, I am very, very sorry that we never got around to it.

Village Voice, Apr. 19, 1976