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Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan together on stage in 1974. One looks more comfortable to be there than the other.
By Andrew W. Griffin
Red Dirt Report, editor
Posted: September 24, 2012
OKLAHOMA CITY – While watching the fascinating 2011 documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, you hear Ochs’ engaging, leftist political folk songs, melodic voice, and his desire to be approved by his peers, like Bob Dylan, and you are left wondering – what happened to this guy? Why doesn’t the general population know more about him? And why, in a time of neverending war, aren’t Phil Ochs’ songs being re-examined and embraced by the current generation.
Could it be that this society is so far gone that they wouldn’t care even if they did learn about him and his legacy as a folk singer and humanitarian?
Maybe. Maybe not. These are perilous times. Where is our Phil Ochs?
Regardless, Phil Ochs, we are told in Kenneth Bowser’s documentary film, garnered a lot of attention among the Sixties’ student anti-war movements. And while Dylan’s music became more poetically obtuse and lyrically surreal, Ochs’ songs remained largely focused and pretty straightforward. Look at 1965’s I Ain’t Marching Anymore. You had 14 songs ranging from “Draft Dodger Rag” (about sunshine patriots), “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” (an attack on the Magnolia State’s bigoted views and lack of civil rights) and “Iron Lady” (a song against the death penalty). Powerful stuff. Find me a Dylan song up to that point that offers as much punch as any of those songs. Ochs had a better voice than Dylan, yet Dylan was the more popular performer.
And what was Dylan doing that year? He was singing the bizarre “Desolation Row” with the line “Praise be to Nero’s Neptune / The Titanic sails at dawn / And everybody’s shouting / ‘Which side are you on?’”
This was clearly Dylan’s message to the left and the anti-war movement that the ship that is America was sinking and that to shout out slogans that have little meaning will do little in light of the seriousness of the situation. (Funny, that 47 years later, Dylan would shock the music world with a 14-minute epic about the once-unsinkable ship, simply called “Titanic.”)
Yet, Ochs, relegated to the second tier of the folk-music scene, would press on. Appearing at political rallies, anti-war demonstrations or any small event where he could strum his acoustic guitar and stand up for the common folks, as his hero Woody Guthrie had done all those years before.
But Dylan was also a Woody aficionado and would achieve the lofty heights of fame that always seemed out of reach for Ochs. Curious that Dylan, who hit the toppermost of the poppermost with 1966’s bracing and electric Blonde on Blonde, would have a motorcycle crash that year that would forever change his life. It was also an event shrouded in mystery. You knew something was different about Dylan, but what?
As several interviewees in the Ochs doc note, Dylan knew Ochs idolized him, but he toyed with that idolatry and kept Ochs at arms length. They would encounter each other a few times before Ochs’ death. But it seemed strained, as is evidenced in the accompanying photo to this story, two years before Ochs' death.
Ochs, meanwhile, was surrounding himself with the usual list of radicals, activists and political singers – Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, etc. – while his bouts of manic depression would worsen, just as the folly of the Vietnam War and political assassinations worsened by the late 1960's.
Which takes us back to Bob Dylan. Remember his song “Motorpsycho Nitemare”? It was on 1964’s Another Side of Bob Dylan. Basically it’s Dylan’s take on the old traveling salesman joke about being invited to spend the night at a farmer’s house – so long as you don’t give into the wily ways of the farmer’s daughter. The song had a political point – that even if the farmer is outraged by the narrator’s pro-commie statements – “I like Fidel Castro and his beard!” - he still has First Amendment rights.
But those rights were being trampled by the political establishment of that era. Dylan might mention his concerns about the state of things in a song or two, but Ochs lived it. The more rallies Ochs attended and played at, the less it seemed that his efforts were making a difference. The Kennedy brothers were dead and, as one film reviewer wrote: “Ochs felt hopeless, beaten and personally responsible for his music’s failure to change the world.”
That’s a heavy load to have on your shoulders, man. And Dylan? Post-motorcycle crash he had gone all Nashville on everyone, with country-folk on 1968’s John Wesley Harding and countrypolitan on 1969’s smooth Nashville Skyline. It was as if Dylan’s motorcycle crash had transformed him into a completely different person. No chance of Dylan showing up at any anti-war rallies at that point. And as a matter of fact, we find it curious that so few singers and bands of that era actually showed up to play at any of the rallies that sought to end the Vietnam War or help end poverty or any of the other ailments plaguing 1960’s America.
But Phil Ochs so wanted the war to end that he even wrote a song in 1967 called “The War is Over.” It became Ochs’ best known songs about the Vietnam War. He performed it a number of times, including one final time in May 1975 after the Vietnam War had officially ended.
Even then, Ochs was never quite satisfied. Six years earlier, in 1969, it was clear that Ochs was struggling. That year, his album Rehearsals for Retirement shows a tombstone on the cover which read: “Phil Ochs (American) Born: El Paso, Texas 1940, Died: Chicago, Illinois, 1968.” The message? The old Ochs was dead and gone. So, who was this "new" Phil Ochs?
Ochs would physically die in April 1976. He was found hanged in a room in his sister’s Long Island home. This was nearly a year after he began to seriously freak people out by claiming his was really a CIA agent named John Train and that “Phil Ochs” had to be killed, or as Ochs/Train said: “For the good of societies, public and secret, he needed to be gotten rid of.” This was a few years after his bizarre attempt to offer up a “greatest hits” album and a tour where he dressed up like an absurd Elvis-like figure, this, before Elvis impersonators had become common.
It was during the early 1970’s that Ochs decided to “wash some of the American off of him” and toured the world, going to places like Africa (while in Tanzania he was attacked and robbed and had his vocal chords damaged in the melee – he thought it might have been a CIA “hit”) as well as Chile, where Marxist Salvador Allende had been democratically elected. Two years after Ochs’ visit, Allende had been toppled in a right-wing coup on 9/11/73, 39 years to the day before Dylan released his current album Tempest. Yep, 9/11.
Troubled by the U.S.-backed overthrow of Allende, Ochs would hold a concert called “An Evening With Salvador Allende” with Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie – and a last-minute appearance by Bob Dylan himself. It was awkward, but the concert tickets had only sold well because it was said Dylan was going to show up. Had he not, well …
Ochs would note the CIA's role in the Allende affair and how U.S. policies towards Latin America were just an extension of the Cold War battles that had been seen over the past decade and beyond in Southeast Asia.
As pop culture and political writer Dave McGowan noted in a 2008 article at his Center for an Informed America website, Ochs “transformed” into alter identity John Train on the summer solstice of 1975, shortly after his successful “The War is Over” rally. At that point, Ochs/Train “began compiling curious lists, with entries that clearly were references to US biological warfare research: ‘shellfish toxin, Fort Dietrich, cobra venom, Chantilly Race Track, hollow silver dollars, New York Cornell Hospital …” Train, McGowan noted, “proclaimed himself to be a CIA operative and presented himself as a belligerent, right-wing thug.” He would be dead within a year.
It is suggested that Ochs/Train may have indeed been a spy with two personalities – personalities that are at complete odds with one another but personalities that don’t know the other exists. It is important to note that the Ochs family spent time at military bases in his early life and that Ochs’ father, who had been in WWII, was institutionalized. This would make sense in light of the interview subjects in the Phil Ochs documentary noting that while Ochs considered himself a leftist, man of the people, he loved American Western films, and the idea of a strong America. He seemed a man torn in two diametrically opposite directions.
But is it any crazier than what Dylan said in the current issue of Rolling Stone, where he opens up more about his ’66 motorcycle accident? This period – in 1966 – was a strange one in pop music history. If you believe some of the theories that have been floating out there for years, there was a dramatic shift that year. Buffalo Springfield, led by Stephen Stills and Neil Young, would have the song “For What It’s Worth.” Long a “hippie, anti-war anthem,” if actually studied, is simply a reaction to the 1966 riots on the Sunset Strip. And the follow-up single? As writer Dave McGowan notes, the song “Bluebird,” penned by Stephen “Sarge” Stills, shares its name with “Project Bluebird” – a precursor to the CIA’s infamous MK-ULTRA program.
It is theorized that a lot of the folk and rock music scene of the 1960’s and early 1970’s were all part of a clandestine program that sought to control the youth. Dave McGowan’s “Inside the LC” series on the Laurel Canyon music scene delves into that in a serious fashion.
For instance, note how few of the big names of that era actually went to Vietnam. You’d think the establishment would want a guy like Stephen Stills to go to war, right? Or then you have Dick Clark-styled creations like Paul Revere & The Raiders who made war look cool in their un-hip Revolutionary War garb while singing square, anti-drug songs like "Kicks."
Loren Coleman, writing at the Twilight Language blog, in a piece titled "Synchromystic Bob Dylan," he addresses the Dylan RS interview and the portion where Dylan talks about “transfiguration.” He claims that he was “transfigured” via that crash and that it involved a Hell’s Angel motorcycle gang member named Bobby Zimmerman, the same as Dylan’s given name, who had died in a motorcycle crash in 1961. Dylan talks at length about his “transfiguration,” something he learned via the book Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels. Dylan even brought a dog-eared copy of the Barger book to his interview.
Says Dylan to the Rolling Stone interviewer: “I didn’t know who I was before I read the Barger book.”
Continuing later in the interview, Dylan (or “Bobby Zimmerman”) says: “You can go and learn about it from the Catholic Church. You can learn about it in some old mystical books, but it’s a real concept … So when you ask your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist.”
So, 36 years after Phil Ochs death at age 35, we see the 71-year-old man commonly known as Bob Dylan, out with an album called Tempest, revealing to the world that he may not be the man he claims to be, or believes that he is. Is this simply the ravings of a confused old man? No, I doubt it. Dylan is smart and he is media-savvy. I believe he really believes he is this Zimmerman guy known as Bob Dylan. Back in '68, Phil Ochs realized he had experienced a "death." Dylan seems to be just now coming to terms with his.
I suspect both Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan were manipulated and had their personalities altered somehow. Both men – respected by the counterculture (in Ochs’ case) and by the world at large (in Dylan’s case) – have given a lot to American folk music and regardless of what may or may not have happened in their lives, they deserve respect for what they have given us.
And while Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is a good documentary, it tends to scratch the surface a little too much and not give us more about Phil Ochs himself. There may be reasons for that. Regardless, it’s a place to start.
UPDATE* Within minutes of posting this article, Twilight Language's Loren Coleman points us to this article - "Did folksinger Phil Ochs have knowledge of the JFK assassination? Jim Glover says 'yes.'" So, Ochs was a "security observer" in Dallas that day? Ochs allegedly told Glover that he was aware of the plot and that "he was working for some domestic national security program kinda like the CIA but these are the 'Good Guys' in the war between the bad guy Hoover's FBI and JFK and the Good Guys." Wow! Quite a bombshell. And Coleman himself notes the number of JFK-assassination-related suicides - Phil Ochs included.
Copyright 2012 Red Dirt Report