|From Acorns Grow|
The blend of art and politics that typified the 1960s cultural environment achieved a rare, if tormented, expression in the life and hard times of musician Philip David Ochs. This essay reviews Phil Ochs' family and childhood up to the period when he left Ohio to find fame and fortune in the New York folk music scene in 1962. It is a place to start our understanding of the grown man, who, in the process of influencing his generation, self-destructed and eventually killed himself. In his wake, Phil Ochs left an important legacy.|
Jacob Ochs, Philip's father was a doctor, driven mad by his World War II experiences in Europe. Jacob Ochs has been described as a dreamer who inherited his father's friendly personality, but not his ambition. Jacob grew up in the immigrant Jewish environment of New York City. After a brief try at becoming a boxer, Jacob went to the University of Virginia with the dream of becoming a medical doctor. However, his attempts to get into medical school in the United States were frustrated because of the quotas schools used to minimize diversity. He eventually received his medical training at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. And in Scotland he met his wife.
Gertrude Phin was the older sister of Harry Phin, one of Jacob's medical school classmates. A romance blossomed between Jacob and Gertrude and they were married on June 24, 1936. The following April, a daughter, Sonia, was born. Eventually Jacob took his young family back to America.
By the time Jacob and his brood returned to live in New York, World War Two was in full gust. Shortly after his return, Jacob was drafted by the U.S. Army which in the face of the war in Europe had its own quotas to fill. Jacob's family grew as he moved from New York to New Mexico to Texas from army hospital to army hospital. A second child, Philip David was born in El Paso in 1940 and another son, Michael was born in 1943. Also in 1943 Jacob Ochs received his army orders to go overseas. After some additional training in England Jacob Ochs was sent to the front lines at the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). Some 7,000 allied soldiers died during the battle, another 34,000 were wounded and some 21,000 were captured or missing. The experience blew Jacob Ochs' mind. Granted an honorable medical discharge, Dr. Ochs returned to the United States and spent the next two years away from his family in a mental institution diagnosed as manic-depressive. He was provided with a variety of treatments including electroshock therapy. Finally, in 1947 Jacob Ochs returned to his family. He was a changed man, distant in all respects.
In estimating the effect his father's absence had on Philip, one of Ochs' biographers comments:
The long-term effects of his father's absence on Phillip, coupled with the many changes of homes that he would go through during his childhood, can never be accurately determined, but there is no doubting that Philip was markedly different from his older sister and younger brother...[he] was naturally shy and tended to be withdrawn even among his own family. (Shumacher, page 18)
But we do know that Phil Ochs was not close with his father. They apparently never had a chance to develop much of a relationship. After Dr. Ochs' war time experience he was withdrawn and apparently emotionally unavailable. In 1963 when Jacob Ochs' died, Phil was reluctant to go to the funeral. Only after some cajoling from his sister did Phil agree to attend.
Philip Ochs' mother, Gertrude, endured a basically loveless marriage and raised three children. More practical and strong-willed than her beleaguered husband it was Gertrude who exercised the most direct influence on her children. She had grown up with a cold and unemotional father but at least she had known stability in Scotland. Her life in America was a bill of goods she disliked and the resentment she had for her husband no doubt showed.
At an early age, Philip became fascinated with movies and movie stars. The origin of this passion surely had to do with the amount of time he spent watching movies since his mother frequently sent Philip and his brother to the movies as a form of babysitting. Philip and his younger brother Michael would see up to nine movies a week. John Wayne became an early hero to the young Philip Ochs. Philip collected movie posters, post cards, photographs. He demonstratred an amazing memory for details about various films. Of course, the movies, experienced in the dark theater was a practical escape from what might have been a painful reality. A reality that consisted of his parents' loveless marriage, a remote and distant father (described by his daughter as "almost like a phantom"), and a strong, perhaps overly-protective mother. John Wayne's heroics offered a more pleasing scenario. Philip decided early on that he wanted to be a movie star. Celebrity-hood was an escape.
When Philip was 6, Gertrude took the children to Scotland for six months while her husband was still institutionalized. On the boat ride over Philip, while horsing around on deck, apparently slipped and nearly fell overboard. He saved himself at the last moment by grabbing on to a volleyball net. Even at this stage he is described by family memebers as absent-minded, for example, he was always forgetting his school books. His sister Sonia ("Sonny") says that Philip was "a dreamer with a capital D."
One day, back in Far Rockaway, when he was 9, Philip, left alone at home, accidentally started a fire in his mother's closet. When the Ochs family returned the fire department had already arrived. How many nine year olds would be ready to own up to the responsibility of having almost burned the house down? In this respect, Philip seems to have been a normal 9-year old. He denied having any thing to do with the blaze.
In 1951 the family moved to Perrysburg, a rural town in upstate New York near Buffalo. In Perrysburg Philip's mother encouraged her sons to take up musical instruments. Philip took up the clarinet, his brother opted for the saxophone. Philip's music teacher in Perrysburg, Mr. Navarro, was one of the first to recognize Philip's musical talents. He quickly saw that Philip demonstrated a gift for musical interpretation. Another judge of his talents remarked that he had "exceptional musical feeling."
By the time Philip was a teenager, in 1954, the family was living in Columbus, Ohio. Dr. Ochs had a new job at the Benjamin Franklin Hospital. Philip's mother saw to it that he continued playing the clarinet by securing a teacher from the Capital University Conservatory of Music. Philip's musical abilities with the instrument were such that at age 15 he was playing with the college orchestra. At 16 he was a leading soloist at the Conservatory featured in the orchestra's renditions of Bach's Prelude and Fugue in D Minor and Sammartini's Symphony in D Major. In some respect, Philip had become a little star in the classical music world of Columbus, Ohio. His passion for the movies and its stars continued unabated. By adolescence Philip's favorite movie stars were Marlon Brando and James Dean.
In Columbus, Ohio Philip met a classmate, Dave Sweazy, and the two teenagers became best friends spending hours together watching movies and identifying with their cinematic heroes. It got out of hand one day when the boys got hold of some real pistols and Philip accidentally shot himself in the leg, below the knee causing a not-serious flesh wound.
Shortly after this incident Gertrude decided Philip and his brother needed a better educational environment and she decided to send them to Columbus Academy. Phil compained. Columbus Academy didn't have a band. Gertrude told Philip to find another suitable school instead. Using the back of the New York Times Sunday Magazine Philip selected Staunton Military Academy in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley because their ad showed cadets marching in a band.
In the Fall of 1956, just as Phil arrived at Staunton for his junior year in high school, Elvis Presley was making his first appearance on Ed Sullivan's television show. Also at this same time, in England, unknown to Phil, a skiffle band called The Quarrymen was being formed by John Lennon of Liverpool.
At Staunton Philip shortened his name to Phil, took up weight-lifting (he earned the nickname "Mr. Universe"), took an interest in writing and began listening to country music broadcasted over a local country-western radio station. Over the radio Phil would listen to the songs of Johnny Cash, Faron Young, Hank Williams, the Everly Brothers, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly, Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Lefty Fritzell and of course Elvis Presley. This convergence of country music and the blues comes to be known, of course, as rock and roll.
Despite his love of marching music, Phil was disappointed in the band at Staunton because it focused more on the marching than the music. There was little opportunity for Phil to be expressive with his instrument.
Influenced by the stories in the songs he was listening to Phil began to write on his own. He won second-prize in a Staunton writing contest for a story called "White Milk to Red Wine." It is a story of personal courage. In it the underdog is victorious. Phil Ochs' future political activism can be seen in this short story where the mighty unjust is defeated by the weaker but more honorable soul.
By most accounts Phil was a popular and friendly kid at Staunton. One individual who knew Phil at the time remarks at his awesome knowledge of movie stars and Oscar awards. Another tells of a contest to see who could speak grammatically correct English for the longest. Phil won after several days.
During Phil's first year at Staunton a friend and fellow band member hung himself between a double bed. According to another friend at Staunton, Phil was "emotionally affected" by this suicide. Ironically, some twenty years later, Phil Ochs would end his own life the same way.
Phil graduated Staunton in the spring of 1958 and returned to Columbus with plans to attend Ohio State University. Before he started college in the fall he decided to have plastic surgery to change the shape of his nose. It isn't clear where this streak of vanity came from but his obsession with movie stars might have had something to do with it.
In January 1959 after his first couple of months in college Phil decided to drop out. His plan was to go to Florida and start his trek to stardom by becoming a singer. Over his mother's objections Phil departed Ohio by bus wearing a red jacket like the one worn by James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Fidel Castro had just taken over Cuba. Like other Americans, Phil saw Castro and his comrade Che Guevara as romantic liberators. Like John Wayne and then James Dean, Fidel Castro became another role model in Phil's pantheon of stars.
The excursion to Florida was short-circuited when Phil was arrested for vagrancy in Miami. After his release from jail he found a few assorted jobs but no singing gigs. A few months later, Phil returned to Cleveland (where the Ochs family has moved). By the fall of 1959 Phil was back in college. While Phil failed to launch his singing career in Florida he did get a dose of the real world, something the educational system protects our children from in earnest. And his experience in Florida did much to prepare him for the awakening of his social consciousness. By the time he returned to Ohio State that fall the strong currents of music and stardom that flowed inside Phil Ochs were about to be joined by a strong dose of radical politics.
Fellow student Jim Glover heard Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" coming from a room in the off-campus boarding house. In the room was Phil Ochs who had also plastered the walls with posters of Elvis. Jim Glover walked into the room and asked Phil Ochs if he'd ever listened to Woody Guthrie, the Weavers or Pete Seeger. Phil didn't recognize any of the names. Nevertheless, the two college students became friends and eventually roommates. Soon Phil would meet Jim's father. Mr. Glover was a Marxist who loved to talk politics at the dinner table. In his biography of Phil Ochs, Death of a Rebel, Marc Eliot writes:
Philip loved Mr. Glover. He wanted to learn everything he could from him about politics. Most of all, he wanted Jim's father to like him, the way he'd wanted his own father to like him.(Marc Eliot, page 23)
Phil became more politically involved on campus. He became involved in protesting campus ROTC training and he started to write for The Lantern, the student newspaper. Phil's politics, radicalized by Mr. Glover, put him at odds with the more moderate voices on the paper. When the editors refused to publish Phil's more controversial pieces, Phil started his own publication called The Word.
As a result of John Kennedy's victory over Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election, Phil Ochs took over ownership of Jim Glover's guitar. Phil had bet on Kennedy and won. Inspired by the music that Jim Glover had turned him on to, Phil began writing songs. Eventually Phil and Jim formed a duo and called themselves the "Singing Socialists". (Later, perhaps for commercial reasons, Phil would change the name of the duo to "The Sundowners" in tribute to the Robert Mitchum film.) The Glover-Ochs duo was a relatively short-lived affair. They played at La Cave a new area club. But in several months Jim Glover would leave Ohio in search of fame and fortune in New York. Phil stayed behind to pursue his singing career in Cleveland.
Phil had begun writing "topical" songs that combined his passion for politics with his passion for music. Early tunes included Phil's "Bay of Pigs" about the misguided and aborted April 1961 invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro elements trained by the United States. With his song "Billy Sol" Phil satirized the case of Billy Sol Estes, a Texas rich man involved in a price-fixing scandal. Phil also wrote a theme song for the Cleveland Indians baseball team, but it was rejected.
During the summer of 1961 Phil got work playing at a new coffeehouse club in Cleveland Heights called Faragher's. He was in the right place at the right time when the Smothers Brothers came to Faragher's. Phil got to open for them. He also got to meet a number of important musicians that summer including the Chicago-based folksinger Bob Gibson. Gibson played at Faraghers for a week in July and he was an important influence in Phil's musical development.
One interesting aside. With the exception of a reference by a Staunton classmate that Phil might have dated a coed at the nearby Mary Baldwin College there is no mention of Phil dating until his senior year at college where he apparently briefly dated a "toothy blond beauty from Indiana". However they soon broke up because Phil wanted to got to movies and she wanted to go to parties. Romance, outside of politics and music didn't seem to penetrate Phil's life. It's as if Phil didn't think about the opposite sex..
Back at college in the Fall of 1961 Phil is passed over for editor of The Lantern. Perhaps motivated by a holiday visit from Jim Glover who came to Ohio with exciting stories about New York and perhaps because of disappointment in not being named editor of the student newspaper, Phil Ochs, just months before he would have graduated, decided to drop out of college.
It was 1962 and Phil Ochs is headed East towards New York, seeking fame and fortune.
CodaOn April 9, 1976 after a sustained bout of depression coupled with writer's block Phil Ochs hung himself in his sister's home in Far Rockaway, New York. A decade earlier he was on the cutting edge of the forces that merged the radical politics of the New Left with the cultural revolution inspired in part by rock and roll music and drugs.
Phil Ochs' art was fueled more by inspiration than craft. He was never considered a brilliant guitarist or vocalist. What he was known for was his passion. And like other inspired and passionate souls there was a dark and self-destructive side to the man.
Phil Ochs can be seen as another casualty of the sixties generation. Maybe he was. Maybe the source of his demon was inherited. It is hard to sort out. But Phil Ochs' legacy remains in tact. His music, in the great tradition of Woody Guthrie and other political folk singers was designed to inspire people to resist the injustices the Goliaths of the world visited on the Davids. And for that, we honor him.
NOTE: Several former classmates of Phil Ochs at the Staunton Military Academy provided useful anecdotes and comments. Thankyou gentlemen for your kind cooperation.
|Phil Ochs: Official Cosmic Record|
In his rookie year with the Psychedelphia Woodstockings, Phil Ochs turned out to be an ace reliever. With no dynamic fastball (it's clocked at 84 mph) he gets by on guile and finesse. Ochs can make the best of swingers look silly at the plate.