A 1960s Voice in 2011 [Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune]
When Phil Ochs came to know Bob Dylan, Ochs changed his tune
a little. Instead of saying that he was
striving to be the best songwriter alive, Ochs was satisfied to work at being
the second best songwriter alive. The film,
“Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune,” expresses that and more about the
connection and distance between Ochs and Dylan.
You may seek out this documentary to remind you about one of
the purest voices of 1960s protest. You
may seek out this biographical account to discover the highs and lows of a
prescient and gifted political activist and entertainer. Even if you never heard of Phil Ochs, you may
seek out this film because he still serves as a voice for the state of the
world. The film does good service
presenting Phil Ochs singing Phil Ochs many times over.
He spoke to a wide range of issues, including civil rights
and the Vietnam war. Of his hundreds of songs, the one he made most
famous may be “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”
He wasn’t merely a voice of the anti-war movement, he was an organizer. He wasn’t merely a protester. He was an intelligent, satiric, and lyrical
tuning fork for injustices passing through newspaper headlines that he transformed
into ringing folk songs.
In addition to hearing from members of his family, many
people speak throughout the film of their friend. Ochs’s personal burdens grew
heavier toward the end of a life that lasted only 35 years. Joan Baez speaks of him in the film. She sang one of his more recognizable songs
(and the subtitle of this documentary): “There But for Fortune.” From those
lyrics written in the 1960s, “Show me a country where the bombs had to fall /
Show me the ruins of buildings so tall / And I'll show you a young land / With
many reasons why / There but for fortune, go you or I.”
Q&A with the director Ken Bowser
From a conversation between Chuck Jaffee and Ken Bowser, the director of "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune":
People who were plugged into Phil Ochs when he was alive will want to
see this documentary about him. That's easy to understand. Why should
people who don't know him or his music want to see it?
life perfectly reflected the 1960s. More than that, you see it because
it's a great story. That he's a great artist is besides the point.
CJ: Ochs died 35 years ago. Why and how did you come to be the one to make this film?
I started 20 years ago when I contacted his family. About six or seven
years ago, I was in a position to try to further the project with my own
money. Then, three years ago, a producer named Michael Cole put up the
money this kind of project needs to get it finished. Phil Ochs affected
my world view. I was personally moved by this man. Michael Cole seems to
have been affected like I was.
CJ: Unlike Bob Dylan, Ochs was a
fully committed social and political activist. Do you think it's fair to
say that Ochs was less famous and enduring because of it?
Mystery trumps commitment every time, commercially and artistically.
I've learned to tone down my enthusiasm and passion some. It can make
CJ: Ochs took his own life at age 35, a
life that included alcoholism and mental illness. (He was bipolar.) Do
you think your film offers any special insights into these all too
KB: People coming up to thank me, it's never
about making the film really. I get a lot of someone in my family was
bipolar or committed suicide.
CJ: What hits your gut the most, after the intimate experience of making this film? What resonates in your mind the most?
I got to share my love and passion for an artist with other people.
It's like screening home movies about a brother I love. So much of what
he wrote about in the 1960s relates to what's going on today.