They said he was as good as Bob Dylan, perhaps even better. For a split-second in time, Phil Ochs probably was.
When Dylan alienated his hardcore folk fan-base by famously ‘going electric’, it was Ochs who was handed Bob’s tarnished crown as the king of American protest singers. A king who was destined to be destroyed by the very ideals he preached for.
It was 28 August 1968 and Ochs, already a minor singing star was in Chicago to participate in a peace rally outside the annual Democratic Party convention.
The gruesome events he witnessed that day – innocent protesters kicked, clubbed and tear-gassed by riot police – affected him for the rest of his all-too-short tragic life.
Already a borderline alcoholic and a bitter cynic (his 1969 album Rehearsals For Retirement depicted his own gravestone, his death listed as being ‘Chicago, Illinois, 1968’), he now began to seriously question his attitudes and approach to politics in his music.
Donning a copy of Elvis’s famous gold lamé suit for the cover of his next LP, 1970’s Greatest Hits (a facetious title – it was actually all new material), Ochs then decided to wear it on the road.
Sadly his new look and new repertoire (half 50s rock ‘n’ roll covers) was lost on his folk audience, whose hisses and boos were every bit as venomous as those heard at Dylan’s “Judas!”-invoking electric rebirth five years earlier.
Deflated, drunk and directionless, Ochs opted to broaden his horizons with a trip to Africa in 1973, an excursion that was to prove almost fatal when he was mugged in Tanzania. His three assailants not only robbed him but left him half-strangled, damaging his vocal cords permanently.
Unable to reach his usual high notes, on return to the US he sought help from Frank Sinatra‘s throat doctor. His advice – “stop drinking!”.
Phil Ochs? Stop drinking? It was never going to happen.
The last three years of his life were just excruciating, dominated by deteriorating tonsils, manic depression, schizophrenia and, of course, booze. In 1975 he told the press that Phil Ochs was dead (“he drank too much and was becoming a boring old fart”), hoping to kick-start his career with a change of name to John Butler Train. Its inevitable failure was the final straw.
He sold his LA hovel and attempted to move back East, yet managed to lose the removal van and all his possessions in the process. Missing for several days, he eventually arrived dazed and dishevelled at a friend’s house in his crumpled gold Elvis suit, caked in vomit.
Such behaviour alienated the few friends he had left, leaving him with nowhere else to go other than the Queens, NY, home of his sister, Sonny, who mercifully convinced him to seek psychiatric help. Suddenly there was a spark of hope, a dim but possible chance of recovery.
But then, on 9 April 1976, Ochs’ nephew popped out to the shops, leaving him alone in the house for just ten minutes. The boy returned to find his 35-year-old uncle’s lifeless body hanging from the bathroom door.