The 1960s Come Alive on a New York Stage at a Memorial for the Tragic Phil Ochs
If Phil Ochs was here, man, he would destroy this place. He would get everyone up on their feet by his third song. He would insult the audience. Insult the performers. He was wild. He was great. You know what I mean?
Folk singer David Blue, who became a good friend of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan during their Greenwich Village coffeehouse days, was sucking on a piece of ice backstage. He had just performed in front of 4,500 people jammed into Manhattan’s Felt Forum. The occasion was a five-and-a-half-hour tribute to the late singer Phil Ochs by more than 20 aristocrats of the folk and radical movements of the 1960s. Ochs hanged himself two months ago at the age of 35.
Blue marveled at the “strange crowd” that assembled onstage to honor his dead friend: former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, activist lawyer William Kunstler, poet Allen Ginsberg, radical activist Jerry Rubin and such folk singers as Pete Seeger, Melanie, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Tim Hardin, Tom Rush, Peter Yarrow, Eric Andersen, Dave Van Ronk and Len Chandler.
Blue was the first to admit that Ochs was an odd man himself. Unlike most other folk singers, Ochs straddled the volcanic underground of antiwar politics and the more passive world of the folk crowd. He sang at Berkeley teach-ins, drove demonstrators wild in Chicago at the 1968 Democratic convention with his ironic Love Me, I’m a Liberal, subsequently got arrested with the Yippie pet pig and then showed up, guitar in hand, to testify for the Chicago Seven. “He’s one of the people most responsible for ending the Vietnam war,” insists Rubin. “He was the anti-war movement’s troubadour.”
Ironically, many of the fans who came to the concert were too young to have experienced the fervor of the ’60s. Since the performers were not billed in advance, rumor had it that superstar Bob Dylan would turn up. “I really don’t know why he didn’t come,” said Ochs’s sister, Sonny Tanzman. “He never had the courtesy to pick up the phone and call.”
Ochs first met Dylan about 15 years ago when both came to Greenwich Village. Ochs had been a journalism major at Ohio State—he dropped out his senior year—who would scour newspapers and magazines looking for topical subjects to sing about. The murder of Kitty Genovese in Queens, when neighbors failed to call the police, inspired Outside of a Small Circle of Friends. Conscription produced Draft Dodger Rag. And the civil rights killings in the South were remembered in Here’s to the State of Mississippi.
In his last three years, Ochs drifted in and out of severe mental depression. In 1973 he and his wife, Alice, divorced and she got custody of their daughter, Meegan, now 12. He drank heavily, became obsessed with the fear that his health was failing and in his final year did not write a single song. Occasionally he was violent.
“I felt so sad for him at the end,” says Ochs’s friend David Ifshin, now a law student at Stanford. “People were laughing at him behind his back, playing with him, and he couldn’t see it. Dylan really rubbed it in.”
But the performers who came to praise Ochs at the concert focused on what he was, not what he became. Many of the younger members of the audience had only heard these folk heroes on records. “I never thought I’d ever have the chance to see them,” said Steve Cavallo, 19, of New Jersey, “and now there they are, all on that stage.”