By BOB BAKER
Published: December 22, 2010
IF Kenneth Bowser, a New York documentary filmmaker, succeeds in his
crusade to rehabilitate the 1960s protest singer Phil Ochs, he'll
have his daughter to thank.
Mr. Bowser was a teenager during the Vietnam War when he discovered
Mr. Ochs, a brilliant, quirky and erratic artist who, plagued by
mental illness and alcoholism, committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 35.
Mr. Bowser, who has made PBS documentaries about the directors John
Ford and Preston Sturges, began thinking about making a film about
Mr. Ochs some 20 years ago. In his vision, the documentary would show
how Mr. Ochs had been wrongfully "written out of the history books,"
unfair treatment for a man whom Mr. Bowser considers the best protest
singer who ever lived and the most relevant recording artist of the
1960s. A mention of Bob Dylan, whose protest songs disappeared early
in his career as he turned his gifts to the surrealistically
personal, is an easy way to inflame Mr. Bowser. While Mr. Dylan was
recording "Maggie's Farm," Mr. Ochs was recording a war-resistance
anthem called "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore.":
Oh I marched to the battle of New Orleans
At the end of the early British War.
Young land started growing
The young blood started flowing
But I ain't marchin' anymore
Mr. Bowser and other voices Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow (of Peter,
Paul and Mary), Joan Baez and Tom Hayden pepper the film with
praise for Mr. Ochs's history-driven, pamphlet-style songs: forceful,
angry and cleverly absurd lessons about society's evil and unfair
circumstances; Tom Paine with a guitar.
Whether Mr. Bowser can breed another generation of Phil Ochs fanatics
will rest on critical and word-of-mouth reaction to "Phil Ochs: There
but for Fortune," a title from an Ochs song people are more likely to
associate with Ms. Baez's cover version. The documentary opens on
Jan. 5 in New York at the IFC Center and in nine other American
cities through March.
A lack of money for music rights blew out every budget Mr. Bowser
drew up during the '90s, and the project languished. Then, 10 years
ago, his daughter Samantha, 4 at the time, heard him playing a
tribute to Mr. Ochs by the leftist British singer Billy Bragg.
"I told her about Phil, and she said, 'Daddy, why don't you make a
film about him?' " Mr. Bowser said. "When a little girl asks that
question, you take it seriously."
Mr. Bowser had just finished directing several "Saturday Night Live"
greatest-hits episodes for NBC, so money was now less of a hurdle.
And he had done business with Mr. Ochs's younger brother, Michael
Ochs, Phil's sometimes-manager and a photograph broker who was
willing to produce.
Telling the beginning was easy. Mr. Ochs's evolution as a leftist
hero started on a patriotic note: his parents sent him to military
school, where he showed talent on the clarinet. Later, at Ohio State
University, he fancied his roommate's guitar and won it by betting
that John F. Kennedy would beat Richard Nixon in the 1960 election.
Two years later he followed the roommate to Greenwich Village, where
folk singers tried to shed their anonymity. Mr. Ochs filtered a
litany of heroes and villains through his songs, with an insistent
style determined that every word be heard. Even a tribute to America,
"The Power and the Glory," from his first album, "All the News That's
Fit to Sing," cautioned:
"Yet she's only as rich as the poorest of her poor/Only as free as
the padlocked prison door."
From 1965 to mid-1968, when violence swept America's political
landscape, Mr. Ochs was at his peak, writing songs like "Draft Dodger
Rag" and "The War Is Over." "It's wrong to expect a reward for your
struggles," he told an interviewer. "The reward is the act of
struggle itself, not what you win."
Mr. Ochs's bipolar disorder created a heightened sensitivity to
events around him, friends say in the film. Mr. Ochs demanded that he
and his brother, who suffers from a different form of the same
condition, take a pledge never to incarcerate the other in a mental home.
Phil Ochs's fragility would weigh heavily on him. He was convinced
that the idea of America had died at the violent 1968 Democratic
National Convention. The cover of his 1969 album, "Rehearsals for
Retirement," had a picture of his grave with the partial inscription:
"Died in Chicago, Illinois, 1968."
Mr. Bowser captures how Mr. Ochs's style began to reflect a bit less
certainty and more vulnerability. Now the hero was not so sure in his
righteousness. He sounded paranoid. The songs were a sort of
protest/baroque, including one of essay length, "Crucifixion," about
how heroes like Jesus and John F. Kennedy are ritually destroyed by
their overworshipful fans. The immortality he craved eluded him; most
music fans either loved him or had never heard of him.
He held a 1970 concert at Carnegie Hall, where the audience backlash
prompted demands for the "real" Phil Ochs as he played covers of rock
and pop songs while wearing a gold lamé suit. In 1973, while touring
Africa, he was mugged, suffering irreparable damage to his vocal
cords. And then three disappointing years later, he was gone and
history closed an eye.
One reason for that, Mr. Bowser said, was that Mr. Ochs reminded many
people of their failures. "A lot of us thought we had life by the
hair and it got away from us," he said. "Phil's story becomes the
struggle with the failure of those times."
Michael Ochs said that another obstacle Mr. Bowser faced was
society's cynicism about mental illness. "People get M.S., people get
cancer, but people are manic-depressive," he said, adding that "it
turns people off, it makes us real standoffish."
Whether a documentary can even out history's verdict is problematic,
said Todd Boyd, who holds a chair in race and culture at the
University of Southern California's film school. Cinema is a
subjective medium, he said, because every director walks in with a
point of view.
"There's no way to objectively measure a musician's influence," he
said, and quoted a line from John Sayles's "Lone Star": "You may call
it history, but I call it propaganda."