13 April 2016

On the 40th Anniversary of Phil Ochs Death

Joan Baez and Phil Ochs at The War Is Over rally

April 9 marked the 40th anniversary of the suicide of Phil Ochs, the crusading singer/songwriter who penned many of the 1960s’ smartest and most memorable protest anthems. His 1976 suicide devastated the folk community. Pete Seeger, a mentor to Ochs during his early years, was haunted until his final days by the thought that he hadn’t done more to help the troubled artist.
I heard my first Phil Ochs song in the spring of 1971, when alt-radio host Alex Bennett played “Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends” on WPLJ-FM. Ochs’s sharp satire about the lures of complacency, inspired by the Kitty Genovese murder, was perfect for my 12-year-old, already-radical cynicism.

By 7th grade, I was a veteran of one presidential campaign (I aggressively leafleted my neighborhood for Gene McCarthy in ’68) and the October 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. My childhood love for Israel, which came from my synagogue, was by then fraying. Influenced by — by who? my fellow tweens at a prep school in the Bronx? Alex Bennett? WBAI? –I told my distraught Hebrew school principal that “because of the occupied territories,” I wasn’t marching anymore in the April 25 Salute To Israel Parade. The educator, Rahel F. Bloch, countered my concerns: “Peter, they’re just a bargaining chip for peace!” Lol. A bargaining chip for peace. That phrase still rings in my head, 45 years later.

For the first time ever, the entire New York area’s Jewish schools were closing for the parade, which shows how compulsory Zionism was displacing actual religion for Jewish institutions post-’67. Organizers “urged all school personnel, pupils, and parents to participate in the parade both as marchers and spectators.” Afterwards, there would be a groovy-sounding “Folk-Rock Be-In” called “Jubilee 1971” in Central Park, “expected to attract over 50,000 college students.” This is how young Jewish children were conscripted into the enterprise. I marched.

Two months later, I was off to Camp Na’aleh in Elizaville, NY (which still exists in a different location), run by the Labor Zionist organization Habonim (not yet Habonim-Dror). My parents’ choice of an Israel-focused camp didn’t thrill me; I expected to encounter kids who thought Jews needed to support President Nixon because he was “good for Israel.”

Instead, I found myself at the closest analog to a radical hippie commune any suburban pre-teen with sensible parents could hope for. Meals were followed by nonstop singing, with the material ranging from Hebrew choral songs to silly camp songs (and some raunchy ones) to “The Internationale” and “Bandiera Rossa.” We would chant off the names of each age division, then swap in names of heroes like Ho Chi Minh. The camp was socialist and kibbutz-oriented, emphasizing labor, sharing (all the goodies our parents sent were pooled), and endless education in Labor Zionist theory. Our counselors were young — the director no more than 22 — and would have looked more at home at Wavy Gravy’s Hog Farm than at most other Jewish camps. For us, the early ’70s were more ’60s than the actual ’60s had been.

If Bob Dylan was the Sun God for young Jewish summer-camp lefties, Phil Ochs was like a beloved local deity. Every morning but Shabbat, we would sing his subversively patriotic “Power And The Glory” (“but she’s only as rich as the poorest of the poor, only as free as the padlocked prison door”) to our very conflicted raising of the U.S. flag. At the weekly kumsitz (singalong), counselors regaled us with “Draft Dodger Rag,” Ochs’s wry spoof on avoiding Selective Service. I had brought my guitar and learned to bang out the songs.

The next summer, the enlightened 19-year-olds in charge of our kiddie commune declared Friday nights “Free Sleep,” permitting the older divisions (and themselves) to spend the Shabbat in any bed, with anyone agreeable.

I was 13, a little young for anything too serious; my Friday nights that summer were spent chastely, atop a bunk bed with an adorable, slightly older Brooklyn girl. On an endless loop, we played a cassette of “Phil Ochs In Concert,” the 1966 live album that introduced fans to new songs and Ochs’s distinctive stage patter. “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” was perfect for me — “liberal” was a term of deep derision at camp as well as for my political friends at school, and the takedown in Ochs’s intro — “ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally” — was right on the money.

I should have listened more closely; with lines like “I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes — as long as they don’t move next door,” or “if you ask me to bus my children, I hope the cops take down your name,” the song could have been transformed into “Love Me, I’m A Liberal Zionist.” Guess what: Israel is segregated, even (and especially) the socialist kibbutzim. The schools are too. This is why I’m so harsh on myself now: the signs were there if I had looked for them. (Nowadays, Zionist groups are pushing through state laws to “take down your name” if you support the Israel boycott.)
Instead, amidst all the rah-rah radicalism, Israel now seemed entirely compatible with leftism. We were often defiant toward our anti-Palestinian sponsors from Israeli Labor, and tangled with right-wing Zionist movements like Betar. When Golda Meir (who’d helped found our camp’s predecessor in the ’30s) said there were “no Palestinians,” North American Habonim told her off, supposedly risking our funding. We picketed Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League. In 1973, I attended our national convention, where we voted to reject all connections with our Israeli sponsor movement’s kibbutzim in the ’67-occupied territories, and also to require each local chapter to spend one afternoon per month picketing A&P supermarkets selling non-union lettuce. (I made sure we really did this in Westchester.)

Israel was presented as the solution to our anti-Americanism. “Goodbye, America, goodbye Yankee fashions, let’s go to Palestine, the hell with your depressions!” our forebears like Meir had sung in the ’30s, to the Yiddish tune “Zum Gali Gali.” We changed “Yankee fashions” to “Yankee fascists” (and “Palestine” to “Israel”). Zionism was “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people” so we were like the Vietcong or Black Panthers — as if privileged suburban kids like me were in any need of national liberation. (There were also many city kids; the camp’s Israeli-subsidized low cost made for unusual economic diversity.)

Back home, I began checking out Ochs’s albums from my local library and learning the songs. By summer 1974 I could play quite a few, some of the nonpolitical ones, and performed them at the Saturday night campfire talent shows. “Flower Lady,” “Changes,” and “When I’m Gone” – almost too heartbreaking to listen to now, knowing what became of Ochs. “I can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone, so I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.” I recruited a friend, another Brooklyn girl, to sing harmony.

Between summers, we craved every chance to see camp friends at activities in the city. One such occasion was the Salute To Israel parade, which I no longer found problematic. We were boosting the parade’s lefty presence! On May 11, 1975, I marched again, and as the parade petered out along Fifth Avenue, my friends and I saw huge festive crowds streaming into Central Park. We tagged along, my campfire duet partner and I.
Poster for War is Over rally in Central Park 1975
What we discovered at the Sheep Meadow was a giant rally, “The War Is Over,” called (by Phil Ochs, but we didn’t know that) to celebrate the final defeat of America’s aggression against the people of Vietnam on April 30. It was an epic lineup, with superstars like Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, Paul Simon, Pete Seeger, Patti Smith, Peter Yarrow, Barbara Dane and Tom Paxton. (Here’s the setlist, be jealous.)

My friend and I found a VW van on the perimeter to climb on top of, and watched the show from over the crowd. But when Phil Ochs himself took the stage we clambered down in a hurry and pushed into the 100,000-strong crowd for a closer look. He opened with “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” his most iconic protest song. Then, something special: Joan Baez joined him on stage, the one time they performed together. Her 1966 cover of Ochs’s “There But For Fortune” had been (in England) her first Top Ten hit. Hear them together:

He finished with “The War Is Over,” the song that named the rally, apologizing that he couldn’t hit the high notes. We didn’t know, but he’d been attacked in Africa, nearly strangled, and lost his upper vocal register, worsening his depression.

The following year, on Friday April 9, I made another trip to the public library. It had been a while since I’d listened to Ochs’s albums and I had a sudden craving to reconnect with him. On Saturday morning — 40 years ago today — I sat by our living room stereo listening to “Pleasures Of The Harbor.” My father looked up from the New York Times obituary page. “You know, that folksinger died.” Who!?? Oh.

There was no Twitter to check, but the community that loved Phil Ochs came together quickly. On WBAI it was like the JFK assassination: they ripped out all their regular programming in favor of Ochs — interviews, performances, and call-ins. Mainstream rock stations WNEW-FM and WPLJ also played and mourned Phil. Malachy McCourt opened his WMCA show with “When I’m Gone,” then softly announced, “Phil Ochs, singing louder than the guns.”

In years to follow, I learned more of Ochs’s sad story. Battling bipolar disorder and alcohol, he had rallied impressively to put on the previous year’s Central Park event on hearing the war was finally over, then slid into a worse decline.

It took unacceptably long decades for me to set aside my liberal Zionism and become a vocal Palestine supporter. A story for another time. Sometime in the mid-’00s I attended a gathering to support Habonim. A few friends from back then now had a band and were set up to perform with mics and amplifiers. After their set, they invited me to take up a guitar and play something. I’m no performer and rarely touch a guitar now. But I took the one they gave me and powered through “Draft Dodger Rag” in non-embarrassing style. All my old friends sang along. It was my last Habonim event.

And during that awful summer of 2014, June’s West Bank pogroms and the Gaza carnage of July-August, I attended every protest rally I could. Who knows how much it helped, but being there was the least I could do.

When the crowd chanted “Gaza, Gaza, don’t you cry / Palestine will never die,” the words would catch in my throat. How can I tell Gaza not to cry when their children and whole families are being slaughtered? By the apartheid regime I once thought I was so woke for supporting?
Sometimes as I marched, Phil Ochs songs would pop into my head. “There But For Fortune” matched the horrific pictures filling my social media feed:

Show me the country where the bombs had to fall
Show me the ruins of the buildings once so tall

Then I’d remember Ochs’s Mississippi songs. Israel is Mississippi now, with lynchings, abductions, arson and hate mobs; the songs would need little changing. “Here’s To The State Of Mississippi” easily fits the Jewish State of Israel, where “the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes” – the forests planted by the Jewish National Fund to hide the hundreds of Palestinian villages destroyed by Ben-Gurion and Yitzhak Rabin in the 1947-48 Nakba. Where “the calendar is lyin’ when it reads the present time.” Where the people “smile and shrug their shoulders at the murder of a man.” Where the schools “are teaching all the children that they don’t have to care… and there’s nobody learning such a foreign word as ‘fair.'” Where the speeches of the Prime Minister are “the ravings of a clown” — not to mention the Justice Minister.

Another song, “Going Down To Mississippi,” recorded by Ochs between labels and not released until 1986, was about the Freedom Summer volunteers who traveled south to register African-American voters at considerable risk. “If you never see me again, remember that I had to go.” That one made me think of Rachel Corrie.

Days Of Decision” was the most hopeful. “In the face of the people who know they’re gonna win, there’s a strength that’s greater than the power of the wind.” But also a warning: “The far-reaching rockets say you can’t wait anymore… The mobs of anger are roamin’ the street… There’s many a cross that burns in the night, and the fingers of the fire are pointing as they bite.” In Gaza, it was populated houses and hospitals instead of crosses, burning in the night.

I’m Gonna Say It Now” — that one could go out to Students for Justice in Palestine and everyone on any campus where academic freedom is threatened by the “Palestine exception to free speech.”
As I marched, I would wonder to myself: If Phil Ochs were alive, would he be here? He rarely turned down the chance to sing at protests. But how could I know what he thought about Israel? Maybe he had the same blind spot for the Jewish state as so many of his contemporaries like Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, and Pete Seeger? I was afraid to search.

But last December, I unexpectedly got my answer, straight from Phil himself.
In the days leading up to what would have been his 75th birthday on Dec. 19, Ochs fans filled the Internet with links to newly surfaced or neglected material. I came across a “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” clip on YouTube promising updated lyrics, from a February 1971 benefit for a Houston alternate newspaper called Space City News.

Ochs’s first substantial rewrite at that show was to a verse originally about the hypocrisy of those who condemned “the people of old Mississippi” who “should all hang their heads in shame…” but refused to bus their own children. Updated, it now called out Vietnam protesters who looked down on right-wing construction workers:

The people who wear all the hard hats should all hang their heads in shame
Now I can’t understand how their minds work, they must have believed John Wayne
And I guess we’re gonna have to beat them, as soon as we sniff some cocaine
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a radical!

Ha ha. Ha! A sick burn, we’d say now. By 1971, radical chic was as mockable as liberalism had been in 1966. It wasn’t the first time Ochs voiced “criticism of the apathy that drugs tend to induce,” in the words of Grady McAllister, who recorded the Houston show “by dangling a microphone over the rail of the balcony.” Ochs had done much the same in “Small Circle” (“demonstrations are a drag, besides we’re much too high”). The crowd of Houston lefties whooped and clapped at the substitution of “radical.”

The next verse wouldn’t need much tweaking to work even in 2016. In the original:

Yes I read New Republic and Nation, I’ve learned to take every view
You know, I’ve memorized Lerner and Golden, I feel like I’m almost a Jew
But when it comes to times like Korea, there’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

Change the names to Friedman and Goldberg, and swap in 9/11 for Korea, and you’re good to go.
But Ochs made a much sharper change to the verse:

I read underground papers and Newsweek, I’ve learned to take every view
Ah, the war in Vietnam is atrocious, I wish to God that the fighting was through
But when it comes to the arming of Israel, there’s no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

“When it comes to the arming of Israel”! (Or, as we chant at rallies: “Not another nickel, not another dime. No more money for Israel’s crimes!”) Again, the Houston crowd cheered the fresh lyrics.
Did I just hear Phil Ochs use “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” to call out “Progressive Except Palestine“? In 1971?? I had to stop the song and play the verse again. Ochs teasing that liberals thought it was “red, white and blue” to support Israel? Oh boy.

And then, I felt I knew. (I don’t really, of course.) For sure he would have wanted to come to those Gaza rallies, he couldn’t have sat silent. He would have sung “There But For Fortune,” updated his songs and written new ones in horror at Israel’s mass murder of children and whole families. If he worried about “the arming of Israel” in 1971, what would he think of the billions in U.S. military aid to Israel today?

Later, I came across a recording of another Ochs show from a few months later, April 17 at Hunter College. “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” was on the setlist. Ochs included the verse about cocaine-sniffing radicals, but he dropped the Israel verse for NYC. Self-censorship is a thing. Who could blame him? Certainly not me: it was literally the same week I caved to my Hebrew school over the Israel parade.
“The arming of Israel” was clearly a concern to the left in 1971, as the occupation grew roots. That year, Bernie Sanders ran for local Vermont office on a platform that included “no guns for Israel,” which he announced at a synagogue campaign stop. If only his base would hold him to that now, as Israel (a.k.a. The Mouse That Schnorred) ups its shakedown of the US Treasury. Cutting off all US  Israel would be popular across the spectrum, since Americans hate all forms of foreign aid. Apart from ending US protection for Israel at the UN, a total military aid cutoff would be the most useful thing any president could do.
Phil Ochs knew that in 1971.

Remembering Phil Ochs, the Other Great Jewish Folksinger of the ’60s

It was 40 years ago this weekend, on April 9, 1976, that Phil Ochs was found dead at his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, Queens. He was one of the best-loved of the generation of young singer-songwriters of the 1960s, but he was much more than that. He was the most eloquent, wittiest, most piercing political bard of the era. For many of us he was the Other Great Jewish Folksinger of the 1960s. In many ways he was the truest voice of that generation. He was just 35 when he died by his own hand.

When I posted a note about the anniversary on Facebook last night, having been reminded by my friend Hank Albert — who knows more than most about loss — I was surprised to see how many others remembered just where they were when they heard of his death. For me the moment is as clear as if it were yesterday. I was wiping down tables after lunch in the dining room at Kibbutz Gezer when the news came on Galei Tzahal, Army Radio. I put down my sponge, found a chair in the corner and wept.

Ochs came on the folk scene in 1962, part of the wave that included Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Joan Baez, among many others. His first album, “All the News That’s Fit To Sing,” didn’t come out until 1964, but by then he was becoming a fixture in the folk community. He’d sung at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and his songs appeared regularly in Broadside, the mimeographed protest-song journal. When the Vietnam War began escalating in 1964 and 1965, he became the spokesman for the Opposition. His second album, released in 1965, was titled “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” The title song became the anthem of the Movement.

In the early years people often spoke of Ochs and Dylan in the same breath. They were both writing songs about events in the headlines — racial murders in the South, the war in Vietnam, hopes for a better world. The comparisons weren’t always kind to Ochs: Dylan, it was said, was a songwriter-cum-poet, while Ochs was a songwriter-cum-journalist. Dylan’s best songs could make you sit down and look at things in a new way. Ochs’s best songs would make yu jump to your feet, grab a picket sign and start a protest march chanting the song in defiance. Dylan at his best could dig beneath the headlines to bring out a larger historical or even philosophical truth, like his critique of Southern racism’s class exploitation in “ Only a Pawn in Their Game .” Ochs, on the other hand, would capture the feeling in the events that were happening around us with an angry, driving, urgent passion.
In June 1964, three civil rights workers, two New York Jews named Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner and a local black Mississippian named James Chaney, disappeared on a country road near Philadelphia, Mississippi, while traveling from one country town to another to register voters. Their beaten, tortured bodies were later found beneath an earthen embankment. ‘In August the FBI arrested 18 members of the local Ku Klux Klan, including several Neshoba County officials, for involvement in the murders, but a local court dismissed the charges for lack of evidence. The men were then tried in federal courts on lesser charges of civil rights violation that brought charges averaging seven years. No one served more than six.

The incident wasn’t terribly unusual as Southern justice went during the civii rights era and even before. Black men and white troublemakers often disappeared quietly at night, and if their killers were caught they were released or got a slap on the wrist. But this case involved white college students from the North with families and communities and networks of people that were horrified. It became a turning point in Northern white and especially Jewish responses to the civil rights struggle. And it inspired what could be Phil Ochs’s angriest ballad, recorded at the end of 1964 and released in 1965: “Here’s To the State of Mississippi.” Much has changed in Mississippi and its neighboring states since those bloody years. What’s remarkable, listening to Ochs’s words and music, is how much hasn’t changed, how little black lives still matter and how fresh the song sounds a half-century later.

At times Ochs’s songs achieved a lyric humanism that could match any poet line for line, as in his “There But For Fortune”

and even a stunning patriotism that was rare for those divided times, as in his “Power and Glory”

… to say nothing of the biting, sarcastic wit that Ochs brought to songs like “Draft Dodger Rag” 

and “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”

True, Dylan had a gargantuan talent for lifting your spirit by describing the world in ways that you’d never imagined. Ochs’s talent was to give voice to the very things that you were seeing and feeling and to set them to music, creating anthems of a generation.

Another difference was that in 1965 Dylan gave up his brief career as a protest singer and moved on to surrealism, love and the inner dimensions of the soul. This was just as the war was heating up and America’s cities were going up in flames, and many of us felt abandoned. Phil Ochs was just hitting his stride. For the next few years he was the voice of youth protest. As time went on he added a very adult, universal power of observation. “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” was a bitterly sarcastic comment on the public apathy that was on display in 1964 when Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death on the street outside her apartment building in Queens, N.Y., while dozens of people nearby reportedly heard her screams and did nothing — failing even to call the police.

He also created a collection of deeply personal ballads that became standards of the American songbook, especially the now-classic “Changes” and the haunting “When I’m Gone,” which eerily foreshadowed his own death a decade later.

Then something happened. It was said that he was stung by the success and wealth that other, less political singers were enjoying. He began releasing songs with lush, Sinatra-style orchestrations. His fans didn’t know what to make of it.

Some were lyric masterpieces, like “Pleasures of the Harbor”

and “The Flower Lady.”

Others simply fell flat. I remember the embarrassment I felt when I went to an Ochs concert in late 1969 or 1970 and saw him come out on stage in an Elvis-style gold lame suit to sing those gushy new songs. On the other hand, I’d joined a mass walkout at a Dylan concert in 1965 when he came out with his electric band, and by 1970 I’d like to think I’d learned something about suspending judgment.

But Ochs was actually entering a long decline. Some say he was suffering from writer’s block. He’d been increasingly depressed over the state of American politics ever since the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. He was beginning to succumb to bipolar disorder, aggravated by a serious drinking problem. In 1971 he was arrested in Uruguay after singing at a political rally, then arrested again in Argentina. Then in 1973, while visiting Africa, he was attacked in Tanzania by a robber who strangled him and damaged his vocal cords.

Returning home he became increasingly erratic. He alarmed his friends with paranoid rants about plots against him by the CIA. He slipped into an alternate identity for months at a time, calling himself John Butler Train, often living on the street, saying he’d killed Phil Ochs and taken over his identity. Finally, in 1976, he did: He killed Phil Ochs.

Finally, here’s a video of a live performance of “When I’m Gone,” interwoven with a video montage of Ochs’s life and times and the call to our generation from President Kennedy that, in a way, got us all moving:

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