Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Phil Ochs, "There but for Fortune".

Back in 1978, when I was (as I often did in those times) spending an evening at the Bells of Hell, I slipped a quarter into the jukebox and played Dylan's "Positively Fourth Street". The music had barely started when Lee, the pretty Gypsy waitress, confronted me with blazing eyes. "I thought you were a nice guy."

"I try," I said, with a shrug.

"How could you play that song?"

"I know it's a bitter song, but I guess I'm in a bitter mood now."

"That's not the point. Don't you know? That song drove Phil Ochs to suicide."

I expressed my regret, and promised never to play the offending song again, a promise I kept so long as Lee was around. She stayed until a shrewish little woman who drank there for a time ratted her out for getting state benefits that partly covered the cost of her treatments for breast cancer while she worked off the books for a paltry wage plus tips.

I told some friends who had been involved in the Village folkie scene in the 1960s and early '70s about my confrontation with Lee, and they assured me she was mistaken. Dylan and Ochs had been friends to the end; the song was about someone else. I was relieved to be able, when the mood struck me, to wallow in self-pity with "Positively" and not feel guilty.

Phil Ochs was never my favorite folk singer. I liked "There but for Fortune" but I thought his voice was too pretty and precious. I didn't like "Here's to the State of Mississippi," which I thought unfairly ignored the presence of a large number of good people, white as well as black, in that much-maligned state, and perversely supported Ross Barnett and his ilk by making it seem that the whole state was under attack by "outside agitators."

Since I wasn't much of a fan, I didn't closely follow Ochs's career or music in the years leading up to his death. Today I received an e-mail from my friend Michael Simmons in L.A., with a link to his article about Ochs, written in conjunction with the release of Kenneth Bowser's documentary, Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune.

Having read Michael's piece, and seen the trailer for Bowser's movie (which I will certainly see), I now realize Ochs was a much more complex (dare I say "nuanced"?) and interesting character than I'd thought, and I regret (even more than the incident with Lee) not having paid more attention to him. For those in the New York area, the movie premieres tomorrow at the IFC Center, 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street. Call (212) 924-7771 for times.