Music fans born after 1976 — the year Phil Ochs hanged himself in a fit of manic depression — can get acquainted this Friday with the work of a great American songsmith.
Younger members of the Phil Ochs Song Night audience will likely learn that he was not only an excellent exponent of the Woody Guthrie tradition of folkie protest but a prolific lyricist whose songbook includes existential laments and romantic reveries. Ochs’ music has an enduring power that can deeply affect new listeners.
Colin Clary of local indie-pop outfit The Smittens has been taking “a month-long crash course” in Ochs’ oeuvre in preparation for performing at Burlington City Hall Auditorium. And now, Clary says, “I can’t listen to one of his songs — ‘When I’m Gone’ — without crying.”
Amber deLaurentis, another thirtysomething singer, hadn’t heard much by or about Ochs until she was asked to take part in the tribute. Urgent immersion led her to term his tunes “timeless — as all good political songs are.” And though deLaurentis doesn’t consider herself an activist, the jazzy pianist suggests, there isn’t a better time than now to resurrect Ochs’ ballsy, bouncy protests against American militarism.
Sonny Ochs says her brother’s insights enabled many of his topical songs to transcend the era in which they were written. She cites “Cops of the World” as an example. Recorded live in 1966, the song protested the U.S. wars then raging in Southeast Asia and prophesized today’s U.S. wars in Western Asia. Sonny, now a 70-year-old resident of New York’s Catskills region, nominates it as “a better version of the National Anthem” because of verses such as this one:
We own half the world, oh say can you see,
And the name for our profits is democracy.
So, like it or not, you will have to be free,
’Cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys.
We’re the Cops of the World.
The Peace & Justice Center has organized the Phil Ochs Night to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. It’s not one of the “official” events that Sonny Ochs herself arranges as part of her effort to keep her brother a living presence in American culture. But, she says, “it’s always a good thing when people get together to sing Phil’s songs.”
For the Burlington concert, seven acts have been invited to perform one of their own compositions along with a rendition of one Ochs song. A chorus consisting of all the singers will belt out three more of his tunes as a finale.
Jon Gailmor, 59, is one of those on the bill who remembers the Vietnam antiwar demonstrations for which Ochs’ music served as a soundtrack. Having covered several of his predecessor’s songs early in his own career, Gailmor says he’s looking forward to Friday’s concert as “a reconnection with what got me singing in the first place.”
Wayne Turiansky, also 59, says he was motivated to help organize the Burlington event because “Phil Ochs turned me into a political activist.” Ochs’ was the voice that should be identified most closely with ’60s protest music, Turiansky says, noting, “Dylan’s reputation as a protest singer is really based on just one album — The Times They Are A-Changin’ — while Ochs was writing protest songs all the time.”
Phil’s time as a singer and activist was not long, however. The manic depression (now called bipolar disorder) that would prompt his suicide at age 35 had “left him broken” by the early 1970s, Sonny Ochs recalls. Having taken to wandering forlornly and sleeping in doorways, Phil eventually moved into his sister’s home, then in the Far Rockaway section of Queens.
Fearing for his mental health, Sonny persuaded him to see a doctor, who prescribed lithium. Every morning, she remembers, she would ask Phil, “Have you taken your medicine today?” And always he would reply, “Yeah, yeah, I took it.”
After his death, the bottle of lithium pills was found unopened, Sonny recounts. “Phil just couldn’t take that stuff,” she says. “He knew it would make him something other than himself.