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Phil Ochs (Boy in Ohio-1976), the major American social movement singer-songwriter of the 1960s and the irritating initiating organizer of the more satiricaly absurd street theater demonstrations of the era, became, long after his semi-tragic alcohol-fueled death-by-hanging, the musical icon of the 21st century.
During his short aggravated lifetime, Ochs was an unknown American folk artist, activist, and, in the end, not a very good brother. He was unknown for such songs as "The War is Surely Almost Over?", "I'm Really Considering Not Marching Anymore", and "Pleasures of Your Momma", heard by hundreds during his lifetime. Favorably mentioned at the time as the folky/protesty/uniony heir to iconic singer/troublemaker Woody Guthrie, Ochs lived in the shadow of his shadowy contemporary, Bob Dylan. During the 1960s Ochs was virtually unknown outside of the movement crowd - which often wasn't a crowd at all as much as a small knitting-circle of friends - and old-timey historians agree that he gained his chords of fame way too late, after he was ashes somewhere, and missed out on some of the better groupies.
In Phil Ochs' prime, when he was a quarter of a century old and a half century drunk, he was kind of happy and fairly sane. During the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements of the era Ochs would attend protest demonstrations across the United States and Chile at the drop of a hat, sight unseen, just itching for a fight, wishin' on a star, and dumpster diving for a dime bag. It's been said that Phil Ochs gave his all to protect the rights of the people, but that the people later sold those rights for a bowl of lentils. Although the ills of the world that Ochs and his hippie companions sang about were swept away like a heavy fog lifting to reveal a sunny new day, they were replaced soon after Ochs' death by more frightful and insidious ills.
We repeat, Boy in Ohio.
Ochs began his immortal singing and immoral songwriting journey in Columbus, Ohio, by starring in the first all-nude "Kindergarten Musical". He was soon playing guitar for his neighborhood friends, many of whom (two) closely followed his rising career. From spying on poor people as they shopped, to his journalistic studies at Ohio State University, capped off by his wandering the land in ash cloth and beret, Ochs' ability to discern gems from the standard garbage in the news gave him a heads up when he was asked "Hey, what's going on man?". Ochs' move to New York, and later to California, irritated his parents and other stay-at-home Ohioians who never forgave Ochs his wanderlust.
Ochs' sthick, his handle, his trademark, his McGuffin, was that he took his training as a journalist and shoved the news into songs as far as it would go. He then politely shoved those songs into people's faces. But Ochs' foremost ability was to write concise songs about current events and then sing them at concerts, demonstrations, and union halls. And then whisper them to farmer's and farmer's daughters in bars and brothels all across this great and growing land.
As Ochs aged like a wooden zephyr he somehow found the time to produce over eight albums full of songs and sentiment (See his 1971 album Songs and Sentiment). The highlight of his uncannily ignored career came when he perfomed at Carnegie Hall in New York before a rapt audience of dozens. There, dressed in a gold suit styled after his idol, Elvis Presley, Ochs recorded an album which was released under the unusual title "WTF?". Ochs perfomed the title song on the "Ed Sullivan Show" when Sullivan somehow thought the initials stood for "We Trap Flamingos". Ochs' only national television appearance lasted approximately four seconds before the screen went dark and the viewers confusingly echoed the title of his song before turning their short attention spans to sports, the reality shows of the time.
Demonstrations and decline
During Ochs' activist years he initiated the "War is Over" demonstrations, where hippies just took it upon themselves to declare the Vietnam war over and organize related cannibis-induced celebrations. He also helped develop and organize the 1968 Festival of Life at the Democratic National convention in Chicago. Hippies came from all over the world for this Festival of Life, and a couple of them and Ochs held a press conference to announce that they were running a pig for president. In the midst of an unjust war being fought by draftees and poor people, Och's answer to the injustices was to declare the war over, run a pig for president, and create a Festival of Life. Couldn't hurt.
Near the end of his own festival of life, in the mid-1970s, Ochs, who had stopped almost all perfoming and recording after having his vocal chords stomped silly while visiting Africa and losing the better part of his voice, grew disillusioned. He fell into several interesting years of alcoholism, a chronic case of cooties, and lots of "the woes". Some fans claimed to have seen him in this or that gutter, drifting in or out of conciousness while covered with his own vomit. Others say these events never really happened, but were purposely staged as Ochs pulled off a long-running AndyKaufman-like guerilla comedy sketch years ahead of its time.
Ochs, being too drunk and crazy to understand or communicate to his fellow man, never did tell anyone if it was an act or not. Apparantly his war was over as soon as that last bottle of Boone's Farm was drained.
Ochs died, hanging from the bathroom door of his sister's home, still clutching in his hand the lyrics of his last song "If Only I'd Gotten Some Airplay". This song later sold over two hundred million copies and has been covered by such recording artists as The White Stripes, Bruce Springsteen (and separately by the other members of the E-Street Band), Lady GaGa, and the internationally-known Phil Ochs cover-band, "Basket in the Pool".
Ochs, against his expressed wishes, was cremated and, with four and twenty black men, baked into a pie which can now be seen in the Rotunda of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an airborne museum with a mailing address in Cleveland, Ohio.
Love him, love him, love him, he's a lib-er-al
Ochs cut through many layers of bull and oxen with his well-known song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal". Unknown to most people at the time, but widely publicized decades after his death, Ochs plagerized the song's lyrics from an unpublished manuscript authored by Lefty Grove, a lefty major league pitcher and Baseball Hall of Fame member who, in 1931, led his Philadelphia Athletics to the World Series.
"Ochs came by one day," Grove related in a 1974 interview in his small hometown newspaper, "while I happened to be putzing around in the garage. I had some of my notes for that year's family Christmas card laying around - the wife and I always send one of those letters telling people what the hell the kids are doing and what colds we had and whatnot - and some of those notes described how I would like to be loved simply because I am a liberal. When Ochs left, those pages were missing."
Albums and CD's
- Ochs' best known anti-war album, I've Got Something To Say Sir, And If You're Not Careful I'm Thinking of Saying It Soon (1967) was recorded in the jungles of Vietnam. Ochs, surrounded by tigers (reflected in his song "I Got Off the Boat") and punji sticks, sang of man's inhumanity to man and man's longed-for immunity to tigers. This album includes his famous duet with Jane Fonda, "A Day in the Life of Charlie".
- Tape From Baja, California (1969) A tape recorded during a protest rally decrying the fact that Ochs wasn't invited to perform at Woodstock.
- Mao, Mayor Daley, Pigasus, and Me (1970) Twelve new songs covering the gamut from Mao of China, to Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, to the pig who ran for president, to himself.
- Songs and Sentiment (1971) During Ochs' lifetime nearly three hundred copies of this collection of rants, societal criticism, and spot-on descriptions of the human condition set to soaring symphonic music were sold in one languages. The only known autographed copy recently was auctioned for $7.4 million dollars, a record for a folk music-related item.
- WTF? (1972) The live recording of Ochs' Carnegie Hall show where, dressed in an Elvis gold suit, he sang the songs of his musical idols Buddy Holly, Bing Crosby, Shirley Temple, Robert Johnson, and Elvis himself, pretending throughout that the artists were performing five-part harmony renditions of each others songs as well as Ochs' infamous title song.
- I've Still Got Something to Say Sir, And I'm Gettin' My Courage Up To Say it Soon (1975) Ochs' farewell album. The cover photo pictured Grant's Tomb with Ochs' name carved onto it (ironically, the pie containing Ochs' ashes was later buried in Grants Tomb for several months before being served in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame). Songs included "Twelve Ants Marching in a Foreign Land", "Another Crucifixtion To Attend", a newly remastered "8-Track From California", and the now-legendary all-Gospel rendition of the previously released "Here's to the State of North Dakota".
Phil Ochs in Culture
During Ochs' Lifetime
After Ochs' Death
- The first cultural references came from the immediate popularity of his two suicide notes, generally considered the best things Ochs ever wrote. The first note, mentioned above, contained the scribbled lyrics of a song entitled "If I'd Only Gotten Some Airplay". Known for such poignant lines as "They saw my soul but wouldn't spare their dough, boys", and the immortal "Can you sense what I see? Can you dwell in the depths of me? If I had lived and twas you who'd died, I would have cried, O lord, I would have cried" - lyrics now imprinted on mugs, towels, popular bobbleheads, and other items in the annual multi-million dollar catalogue of the "Ochs Licensing Corporation" (OLC). The words have been chisled onto the Tomb of the Unknown Singer (Paul Anka) in Arlington National Cemetery, right next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (the final resting place of Private First Class Thomas Gunderson of Knox, Indiana) and down the road a piece from the Kennedy/Monroe plots.
- The second suicide note, which simply read "To All Mankind, My Love and My Mind" has become a defacto national slogan for the United States, as well as for Holland, Egypt, Ecuador, and a few of those volcanic islands in the Pacific. Usually shown with a photoshopped portrayal of Ochs singing to the crowd at Woodstock and surrounded by the words "The Voice of his Generation", the iconic words have graced the cover of major magazines, appear in deep and everchanging colors and designs on the Google search page, and at least one singer, Bob Dylan, wears them on a tee-shirt which he vows never to take off while performing or recording.
- Movies: Over a dozen films, miniseries, plays, and one short-lived Reality Game show have been made about Ochs' life and music. They've won many Oscars, Golden Globes, Tony's, Grammys, and even a few of those hippie Independent Spirit Awards. Played in film by such luminaries as Sean Penn, k.d. lang, and Christian Bale, the "definitive" Phil Ochs story entitled Small Circle of Friends will star two-time Academy Award winner Justin Bieber and is scheduled for release to a shocked and thankful world in 2017.
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
- Chicago Seven
- UnNews:John McCain dazzles fundraiser with "Tribute to Phil Ochs"