Outside of a small circle of friends, it isn’t widely known that Phil Ochs—the influential singer-songwriter who composed some of the most satiric and rousing anthems of the protest movement of the 1960s—was also an accomplished writer and social critic of high seriousness.
Ochs is best remembered now for a handful of songs, from the passionate “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “There But for Fortune” to the satiric “Small Circle of Friends.” He’s overdue for a retrospective, and I’m Gonna Say It Now, out in time for what would have been his 80th birthday, is just that: a compendium of Ochs’s writings spanning journalism, reviews, satire, songs, and poems from his military-academy and college days, through his years in New York City and Los Angeles.
It should go far in bringing Ochs back to our collective mind.
Call it truth or urban myth, but Bob Dylan allegedly threw Phil Ochs out of a limousine—or was it a taxi?—in November of 1968 after Ochs failed to praise his new song, “One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later).” Ochs felt that the songs in Dylan’s latest album, Blonde on Blonde, had lost their focus. “You’re not a folk singer, you’re a journalist,” Dylan is rumored to have told Ochs on that occasion.
In fact, Ochs was both, sometimes billed as “the singing journalist” in his heyday, in Greenwich Village in the mid-60s, when he wrote protest folk songs about civil rights and Vietnam. But Ochs was wounded by Dylan, and it would be 10 years before the two songwriters would reconcile.
An influential singer-songwriter, Ochs was also an accomplished writer and social critic of high seriousness.
After Dylan angered folk-song purists by going electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Ochs was widely seen as Dylan’s successor. That was too narrow a fit for Ochs’s eclectic talent, as I’m Gonna Say It Now amply illustrates.
Among his works, “The Last Ten Best List” and “Requiem for a Dragon Departed” (a tribute to Bruce Lee after his death) showcase his love of cinema. Culled from archives and publications including Take One (Montreal), Los Angeles Weekly, The Village Voice, and Time Out (London), Ochs’s work moves from indignation to humor to satire to lyricism, turning dark toward the end.
The book also includes two of Ochs’s previously unpublished songs and, gratefully, touches on “Pleasures of the Harbor,” his plangent, haunting song evoking the loneliness of a sailor who spends his brief time onshore with a red-light-district woman before heading back out to sea.
In a section titled “Pleasures of the Harbor (Liner Notes),” Ochs muses on the song in a meditative poem, beginning and ending with the line “Oh I’ve been away for a while and I hope to be back again soon” (which I’m Gonna Say It Now makes abundantly clear). The song was inspired by John Ford’s The Long Voyage Home, with John Wayne in the atypical role of a Swedish sailor. (Curiously, Ochs was a huge fan of Wayne’s.) Fully orchestrated with soaring strings, “Pleasures of the Harbor” was a masterpiece, and Ochs knew it. One wonders if even Dylan—whom Ochs recognized as the superior songwriter—was influenced by “Pleasures of the Harbor” in his own, wistful “Simple Twist of Fate.”
By the early 70s, Ochs, who suffered from bi-polar disorder, writer’s block, and alcohol abuse, saw his career founder. At the time of his death—Ochs tragically hanged himself in 1976, at just 35—a family friend remarked that he “had been depressed for a long time, because the words weren’t coming for him anymore.” He never reached the heights of his idol and rival Dylan, yet he made an indelible impact on the folk-protest world of his day.
It’s not too late for a Phil Ochs biopic. In fact, it’s never been more timely. I’m Gonna Say It Now could well be the rock upon which it is built.
Sam Kashner is a Writer at Large for AIR MAIL and the co-author, along with Nancy Schoenberger, of The Fabulous Bouvier Sisters: The Tragic and Glamorous Lives of Jackie and Lee
Nancy Schoenberger is the author of Dangerous Muse: The Life of Lady Caroline Blackwood and Wayne and Ford: The Films, the Friendship, and the Forging of an American Hero