Intelligent Dissent: Impressions of Phil Ochs

Cover of Phil Ochs’ “Rehearsals for Retirement” LP, released in 1969.

“Even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make the attempt. That’s morality, that’s religion, that’s art, that’s life

The way this world is turning often makes me feel I am out on my own.  In the here-and-now, I am at a loss to identify where I stand and who I can relate to politically. A search for kindred spirits has recently implored me to explore the music, personality and world view of singer-songwriter Phil Ochs in greater depth after neglecting his legacy for so long. I have now been firmly pulled into the orbit of the thoughts and words of this much-maligned “topical composer” and am struck by the pertinence of Ochs’ political observations to what I see unfolding around the world at present.

In western Europe, alongside the neoliberal “common sense” of austerity, an increasingly insular, nativist political sentiment is gaining ground – exemplified by the consolidation of the Front National in France as a “respectable party”, the arrival of their German confrères the AfD on the right-populist block and the existential burnout of Brexit in the UK. Meanwhile, Ochs’ homeland, the USA, is sleepwalking into authoritarian oligarchy. At the time of writing the bellicose, narcissistic posturing of Donald Trump punctuates the drift to a nihilistic thermonuclear confrontation with the Stalinist necrocracy of North Korea and the theocractic Iranian state. Despite these ominous developments, no coherent, progressive and inclusive counter-dialogue can be heard above the “righteous cacophony” of  disingenuous identitarian moralism that today defines so-called radicals. Freedom of expression is evermore subjected to violent assault from competing strains of intolerance, its centrality to a free, democratic and humane society frequently undermined by both Left and Right. Furthermore, an ill-disguised contempt for our fellow humans and a calculated dehumanization of the opponent is increasingly prevalent in political discourse.

So, the question is: “who is speaking out for me?” – many people alienated from politics may be asking the same…The object of this article is not to give an exhaustive musical biography of an underrated “legend”, but to stress the relevance of Phil Ochs’ example, ideas and actions and how they can provide pointers for those concerned with the state of the world today, in a search for ways to transform it.

Ochs: “Turning on” the Opposition!

To my detriment I had neglected both the significance of Phil Ochs’ music as well as being ignorant of his pivotal role in the 1960’s radical counterculture. Previously I knew only one song of his ( the acerbic Love me I’m a Liberal), which I had last heard in passing about 20-odd years ago – a time when I was exploring the music and politics of the naive, utopian prehistory that was the late 1960’s. However, I didn’t make the effort to seriously engage with Ochs’ music until early 2017.

I have discovered a forthright, articulate and vulnerable, human being equipped with a voracious intelligence and a sharp, ironic wit, who possessed the capacity to relate to people from many contrasting (and on occasion apparently conflicting) social, intellectual and political backgrounds. As a performer, observer and activist, Ochs sought to enthuse and convince his audience without resorting to idle sloganeering or posturing, employing his keen turn of phrase and mastery of the written language as devastating political tools.

Much of what Ochs observed around him in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, and the manner in which his protest was articulated in his music is disturbingly relevant to the fractious political environment we currently find ourselves. The calm, dignified reasoning of his lyrics contrasts with the righteous factionalism of supposed “radicals” and “activists” today, who unlike Ochs no longer appear to express a sense of attachment to people or place, nor seek to connect with a broader mass of people in a meaningful way.

“Pigasus for President”!

I particularly admire the absurdist slant of Ochs’ activism and positions; for me a plea for a genuinely humane reasoning to confront what he defined as the “insanity of obedience”. Ochs’ call to “change the reality in your head” came in a period where the moral compass of the supposedly civilized world was most certainly askew. Ochs’ provocative “The War is Over” expressed his disillusion of what he described as the “mindless habit” of repeating anti-Vietnam war slogans in the face of an intransigent government and an indifferent public. With this 1968 release he turned reality on its head and asserted a “unilateral declaration of peace from the bottom up”, reminding the listener that you could “create your own reality” and go beyond “serving your country in its suicide”.

The “War is Over” rallies in 1967 proved a refreshing antidote to the established forms of political demonstration. Ochs illustrated that by exploring the absurd you can further emphasize the insanity and barbarism of those that rule us, whilst transmitting a message in defence of human dignity that both entertained and challenged the listener.

Ochs later aligned with the creative radicalism of the Youth International Party (“Yippies” – a countercultural movement featuring the likes of Abbie Hoffmann and Jerry Rubin), which used street theatre and public provocation as their chief political tactics. Coinciding with the Democratic Party congress in Chicago in August 1968, Ochs participated alongside Yippies frontman Abbie Hoffmann in the irreverant psychedelic pranksterism of the “Unbirthday Party” for Lyndon B. Johnson and the “Pigasus for President” stunt – the parading of a pig through central Chicago as future presidential candidate (with Ochs providing the pig). The latter event led to Ochs’ arrest for “disorderly conduct” along with six other Yippy activists.

Despite his involvement with the Yippies, Ochs also insisted on maintaining an “organic relationship” with American working class people (today, like their British counterparts largely dismissed as an amorphous, culturally debased mass, or reinvented as passive recipients of pity by supposedly progressive commentators). This led Ochs to campaign for electoral candidates such as the Democrats’ Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, that in Ochs’ thinking could connect his message to a broader political constituency beyond the radical protest fringe and advance constructive political demands in the present. This obliged him to step out of the insulated radical bubble and articulate his arguments in an accessible, constructive way to people far-removed from the milieu he frequented. and to learn how to confront both hostility and indifference to his political views.

Ochs’ Kindred Spirits?

These late-’60’s episodes of Ochs’ life lead me to draw comparisons with Albert Camus, not only in terms of their exploration of “absurdism” or political positions, but also in direct relation to his writings and experiences. There exist numerous parallels between the two activist-writers, particularly in their “topical” approach to writing, and perhaps more significantly in the shared loyalty to their roots – a deep, affective attachment to their “people” (or les miens as Camus would have said). Ochs’ politics were motivated for a love for those around him and a belief that these very people deserved better.

I also see parallels between Ochs’ emotive affinity to his origins and those he grew up alongside and sentiments expressed later by John Lydon (who once spoke of his motives for writing songs like “God Save the Queen” and “Anarchy in the UK” as being inspired by a love for the English people, a people who had been abused and debased by their rulers). Ochs was motivated by a desire to effect meaningful change for the benefit of the majority – to live up to the ideals of his homeland, perhaps?

Phil Ochs retained a sincerity and edge in his music throughout, leaving behind perhaps the most chilling portrait of 1960’s America’s existential malaise in his song “Crucifixion”, whilst advocating an attitude to life and politics that encouraged self-deprecation, irony and humour so far removed from the insular, joyless “social media activism” of our times.

Where Does Ochs Fit In?

Phil Ochs was also a deeply troubled man who found everyday domestic existence difficult to handle, who lived his political experiences in a visceral, all-encompassing manner that ultimately exhausted his moral energy. He was severely damaged by the implosion of his political aspirations amidst the squalid state violence unleashed on peaceful demonstrators in Chicago in August 1968, and from that point onwards inexorably declined into alcoholism and mental illness. This dark turn in Ochs’ life was resultant of the pressures on a profoundly sensitive and humane individual of confronting a world that framed its “normality” through violence and repression, built on the negation of our common humanity. Finding no belonging in such a world, Ochs retreated from it.

For me, Ochs as musician and activist occupies a cruelly neglected corner of the 1960’s, lurking obstinately somewhere between Bob Dylan and John Lennon, and though separated by time, space and experience, the travails and torment of the later period of Ochs’ personal life (as well as his nature as an individual) appear later to be replicated in the life of Ian Curtis. Above all, it is Ochs’ unassuming grace and dignity in a time of polarizing orthodoxies that I identify with (another commonality that in my view Ochs shares with Albert Camus). He reminds us that in all circumstances we have choices – that the path we follow is shaped by these choices and our moral engagements. For Ochs, the form our world takes is also dependent on our complicity with it.

Protest Is Beauty

Despite the self-destructive trajectory of his life in the 1970’s, Ochs sought not to retreat from life and the world, but to embrace its possibilities. Phil Ochs’ most telling contribution was the search for a constructive, engaging and progressive political dialogue that “turns people on” – to connect with a broad mass of individuals and to transcend the limits of an insular, self-absorbed world bereft of positivity or hope. The edge and intelligence of the message of Phil Ochs the writer-activist calls on us to reflect on his example, as opposed to pay homage to a long-dead idol as we “rehearse for retirement”.

In a solitary search for meaning and belonging in a confusing and indifferent world, sometimes we ignore and overlook others who despite all we go through remain true to us. Often we neglect the message of those with whom we later discover commonalities. Ochs’ plaintive, poetic language and observational style emanates a raw creative energy that seeks to engage meaningfully with a common humanity, reminding us that “in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty”…