Memories of Phil Ochs

by Tom Paxton

February, 2009

Phil Ochs and I met when he was playing The Third Step around the corner from The Gaslight. He was flat-picking his guitar with a loud strum and singing his most recent broadside. The buzz about him had already begun and the small bunch of us who went to check him out that night became instant supporters. I’ve forgotten what songs he sang that night, but I haven’t forgotten the intensity of his delivery. From Day One he was Phil Ochs.

A good-looking, intense guy who was playing a sunburst Gibson like it needed a talking-to, he sang in a hard, clear tenor. The immediate impression was of his absolute conviction that the song deserved to be heard –– that it was important. The Village audiences took to him right away, and so did all his fellow performers.

Phil came back with us to The Gaslight to meet the other guys: Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Patrick Sky, Noel Stookey, et al. He was an instant addition to the club and sang at The Gaslight innumerable times. His wars with Sam Hood, son of owner Clarence Hood, over performance fees were always fun. Once, Sam needed a replacement for a singer who hadn’t come in to work; Phil quoted him a price for the night which had all of us laughing and Sam sputtering. Phil stood firm, grinning. “Catch you on the way down, Phil,” said Sam, finally. Phil went whistling back up the stairs to The Kettle Of Fish, our watering hole next door, where we had a semi-permanent folksingers’ table. Sam found somebody else for the night, and of course hired Phil time and time again.

Phil was edgy, opinionated and unabashedly ambitious. He was locked in an impossible competition with Bob Dylan, whom he admired enormously and envied just as greatly. It all served to keep him writing at a terrific pace, and he came up with enough great songs to fuel his growing reputation on the street. He churned out topical/political songs night and day, and published many of them in Broadside, the underground song magazine published by Gordon Friesen and Sis Cunningham, which became his principal platform. His first LP for Elektra contained mostly political songs and –– of all things –– his setting of “The Bells” by Edgar Allan Poe. The Bells interested me then, and still does; it was a complete change-of-pace from Phil’s usual radical ballads (after all, he once told us all with a straight face that his ambition was to become a cross between Che Guevera and Elvis Presley). It was highly romantic, and this hopeless romantic from Oklahoma loved it. Equally striking to me was his setting of Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman”. Dave Van Ronk, our chief philosopher, guru and theoretician, astutely identified Bob Gibson as Phil’s chief influence in his composition. I agreed with Dave; Phil co-wrote some songs with Bob, who was almost entirely unpolitical and the complete showman, and, to my ears, it was Phil’s marriage of Gibson-like melodies to his only-from-Phil lyrics that gave his songs a lot of their power.

Phil was torn by Dylan’s enormous success. Although he idolized Bob, he envied Bob’s meteoric rise –– but, then, who of us didn’t? Bob didn’t make it any easier, either. Around a table in The Kettle Of Fish, the banter could get pointed, and Bob was expert at pushing Phil’s buttons. It often took Van Ronk’s slightly-more-mature persona (and great size) to keep it all in check.

Phil’s own success in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was far greater than mine, and I recall being more than a little envious of him. His grasp of the zeitgeist was better than mine, and he effortlessly tapped into the rebelliousness of the students and other young people. There was still a draft, after all, and he spoke directly to the fear and rage we all felt against being sent to ‘Nam to fight and possibly die.

But we got along, Phil and I. Once in ’65 or so, we were both doing a benefit concert in Baltimore for the striking miners in Hazard, Kentucky. I came into the dressing room and said, “Hey, Phil. We’re being picketed by the Birchers.”

His eyes lit up. “No shit? Lemme see.” He went from window to window in the hall until he got a view of the picket line on the front plaza. “Let’s go down,” he said. Down we went, out the door and up to the circling line of pickets. What we wanted to do was talk to them. Fat chance.

“Why are you here?” one of us asked them. Stone faces. Zero response. “We’re Americans, too,” we said. “Don’t you want the best for the miners? They’ve got the rottenest deal in labor.” They never made eye contact. We may have been evil incarnate to them, but they weren’t going to say “boo” to us. I guess we were too real––not enough like the ideological straw men they preferred to fight. We finally gave up and went back in to do the concert. We laughed about it later; the great negotiators, Phil and Tom.

Phil was tireless. I don’t think he ever said ‘no’ to a political rally or protest concert. I know that every time I appeared at a rally or a teach-in, Phil would also be there. He knew what the occasion needed and when he sang “I Ain’t Marching Any More”, the roof would come off.

Everyone knows of Phil’s terribly sad last years and of his suicide in 1976. He suffered from a condition which nowadays is rather easily medicated, but was more difficult to treat then. I remember my shock at reading of his death in the New York Times. What I’d rather focus on, though, was his beaming face on the occasion of the celebration of the end of the war. We all gathered on the Sheep Meadow of Central Park for speeches and songs. Phil was backstage with a huge cigar and a grin that would not quit. The war was over at last; peace had come and no one had done more than he had done to bring it about. Peace, Phil; peace at last.