I only met Phil Ochs once, at a counter-bicentennial rally in Concord, Massachusetts, in April 1975. My father and I were at the corner pizza place and heard an announcement on the radio about a free concert in Concord with Pete Seeger and Phil and various other artists, and we decided to go, and then we got home and someone had called asking if my father would speak at the rally, which turned out to be what was actually happening. (My father was a regular anti-war speaker — I’ve posted his most famous talk, A Generation in Search of a Future, on my website.)
So off we went to Concord, and we were in the speakers/ performers area, and I don’t remember what my father did for the next couple of hours, because it was my chance to hang out with Phil Ochs. I was a fan, knew a bunch of his songs, and loved the way he sang, the way he wrote, and the cleverness of the spoken introductions on his live album.
Phil had just come back east from a couple of months in a detox facility in California, and he was looking fit and sounding great, and drinking rum out of a pint bottle. There was a tent to the left of the stage, and he sat in a folding chair with his guitar, and two or three of us sat around him, and he sang for us while the speeches were going on, or maybe while we were waiting for the speeches to begin. I don’t remember what he sang, except one song he said was the first he ever wrote, which was impressive as a first effort, and not political, and which I’ve never heard since.
After a while we moved out front—maybe when Pete Seeger sang—and then my father came on to talk. It was one of his best performances—other speakers had been droning on as usual, saying fine things but at too great length, but he understood that the crowd was mostly there for the music, so he kept it short and passionate. A young man standing near us was caught up in his words, and said what a great man my father was—not knowing who I was—and Phil winked at me and said, “Aw, I don’t think he’s so great,” and the young guy was horrified.
The only sour note was when my father said, “My son tells me that the man who wrote ‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore’ is here, and I want to say that’s all wrong. We can’t get discouraged; we have to keep marching, wherever and whenever we can.” Or words to that effect; the only thing I remember clearly was my embarrassment.
Phil went up and did two or three songs, including “I Ain’t Marching,” and I was standing with my father, and he turned to me and said, “I had that all wrong, didn’t I?” Which he had, but they both were great that night.
Within a year Phil was dead, and I gather that was one of his last really good nights. And a year after that I was in New York, studying with Dave Van Ronk, who told me lots of Phil Ochs stories — one had Phil wandering home down Bleecker at some crazy hour of the morning, and the owner of one of the local bars corralled him to help move the body of a drunk who had died, so it wouldn’t be found in the bar and cause trouble. In Dave’s version, Phil got Dylan to help carry the body, but I’m guessing that was just added to make it funnier. Dave loved Phil, and loved to argue with him about politics, and considered him brilliant and dedicated and naive in a uniquely American way — Dave said Phil always believed that if he could have a private talk with John Wayne, he could win Wayne over for the revolution.
For a while I wanted to write Phil’s biography, but I was too young to be writing books, and by the time I was old enough someone else had written one. My idea had been to make his life an allegory of the 1960s: young and optimistic, passionately activist, then disillusioned, then dead. Which, in hindsight, was pretentious horseshit… but he was a good writer, and a nice guy the one time I met him, and he had strong beliefs and cared about them, and I wish he’d stuck around.