The broken-hearted beauty of Phil Ochs

I get depressed sometimes. And like a lot of people, I listen to sad songs when I feel a certain way. And I often return to the brilliant, bittersweet songs of Phil Ochs, the gifted singer who never quite found the stardom he desperately craved. 

There’s a crystalline beauty to his early ’60s protest songs like “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “There But For Fortune” or “Here’s To The State of Mississippi.” Ochs’ voice was clear and loud, and to me at least, he lacked the strident tendency of many protest singers of that era. He was angry, he was bitterly amused, but he cared and had a sense of humour. 

He had minor hits and palled around with Bob Dylan and all kinds of ‘60s figures, but never quite made it to the A-list despite his talent. He craved fame most of his life – he got a nose job when he was a teenager because he wanted to be a star. Despite being all for revolution and a fan of Mao, Che Guevara and Chile’s Salvador Allende, he was a capitalist when it came to his career. 

Ochs, singer for the people, underwent a big transformation in the late 1960s, unleashing a trilogy of superb, emotional albums that represented a quantum leap from his previous work. Produced by Larry Marks, Pleasures of the Harbor, Tape from California and Rehearsals for Retirement abandoned the guitar-based folk for ornate chamber pop and jazzy songs that turned from the outer world to the inner world.

Gorgeous epics like “Crucifixion,” “The Scorpion Departs, But Never Returns” or “Pleasures of the Harbor” were dazzlingly melancholy, sometimes surreal evocations of Ochs’ own mental struggles. They weren’t as perky as Ochs’ folk work, but they were glittering gems of songwriting. Ochs’ protests were now against himself. 

A lot of his earlier work is topical and may seem dated, but the sentiments of a song like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” is universal, and in his best works, the 50-year-old lyrics still ring out – as he writes in “Tape From California,” “Half the world is crazy / the other half is scared,” and it’s like he looked into a crystal ball and saw the viral insanity of 2021 unfolding. 

The thing that always struck me about Ochs’ voice is the sincerity behind it. He was often hilarious, sometimes maudlin, sometimes poetic, but you always got the impression he meant it – a contrast to his friend and rival Dylan, whose best work involved a series of enigmatic masks. 

Phil Ochs cared too much, maybe. He cared about the political struggles that defined much of his career, and the chaos of the Democratic Convention in Chicago left him shattered. The album cover for Rehearsals for Retirement was of a mock tombstone, and Ochs “died, Chicago, 1968.” 

Unfortunately, things went downhill fast for Ochs after that run of terrific but poor selling albums. He was very troubled, and never got the help he so clearly needed. His longstanding mental health issues and alcoholism got much worse, and his thirst for wider fame consumed him. He ignored calls to find treatment, lashed out abusively at family and friends, wore a gold Elvis suit, changed his name to “John Train” for a little bit and his voice was damaged in a mugging in Africa. His lyrics began referring to death more and more, and he couldn’t put a record out. The sincerity that animated his best work left him. 

He hung himself at only 35 years old in 1976, a shadow of his former self. He’d be 80 years old today, if he lived. 

Suicide never really ends. Ochs is gone, but the music, and the pain irrevocably buried in it, is still here. Like so many other musicians who took their own lives – Cobain, Elliot Smith, Ian Curtis, Chris Cornell – that fact floats, like a haze, over the music. But that doesn’t have to make every song sad. 

The broken beauty in Phil Ochs’ best songs makes me kind of happy, even when they’re kind of sad, because they’re such gorgeous things and they live on long after the man himself left this troubled world. 

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week here in New Zealand, by the way. Maybe play some Phil Ochs sometime during it.

Author: nik dirga

I'm an American journalist who has lived in New Zealand for more than a decade now.

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