Phil Ochs was a songwriter who, in his time, never got his due. He was direct and biting in his art, crafting songs to reflect on, comment about, and criticize the politics of the day. He was also a man beset by emotional turmoil that caused him to take his life at age 35.
In his documentary, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, three-time Emmy-nominated writer/producer Ken Bowser takes an unflinching look at Ochs’ life, art, and the tumultuous era of the ’60s in which he lived. In a recent phone conversation, Bowser explained his motivations behind making the documentary and why his subject’s art is still so relevant today.
You’ve produced, directed and written documentaries on Frank Capra, Preston Sturges, John Wayne, and John Ford, American icons to be sure. What was it about Phil Ochs that inspired you to do a documentary about him?
I admired Phil Ochs when I was young. I saw him play a couple of times. Besides loving his music and his voice, he was a voice of the left who could also appreciate a John Ford movie. He had no problems with the contradictions of American life. He was a complex guy and he saw the world in a complex way. It wasn’t black and white for him. It was many shades.
How long did it take to complete the film?
I started almost 20 years ago when I approached the Ochs family, and I started shooting it seven or eight years ago. Kind of shooting it on my own dime while I was in the city working on something else. I’d pick up some interviews. A little over two and a half or three years ago, I got a call out of the blue. A guy named Michael Cohl who is a producer. He’s done Spider-Man on Broadway but also is a promoter for the Rolling Stones, U2, and various others. He said, “I hear you’re making a film about Phil Ochs. How can I help?” I told him I need this much money for clearances and so on and so forth. And he said, “Okay. I’ll put up the money.” It was one of those miracle things that happens for these kinds of projects. So he got us the money to complete the film.
Was it a challenge to find the concert and interview footage, and was Michael Ochs a great help in this regard?
The Ochs family in general and Michael specifically were enormous. They had found a lot of stuff. I found a lot more that they didn’t know about. They had been looking at stuff and people had been sending them things for years. It made the archival job enormously easier with the family’s involvement.
When one thinks of THE protest singer of the '60s, it’s generally Bob Dylan who comes to mind. In reality, Ochs had a much more political bent. Why do you think he gets less credit in this regard?
I think there’s a couple of things. One is that he died and he was gone by ’76. If Dylan had stopped producing in ’76, he still would have left behind an amazing body of work. I don’t think he would be discussed quite in the same terms he is because he survived. I’m not trying to take anything away from Dylan. Dylan’s the Shakespeare of his time. But because Phil’s work was so political, I think it was harder for him to shift gears, harder for his audience to shift gears, an audience that always had a certain ambivalence about him because of his complex political views.
You brought out in the film that he wasn’t as accessible in his songwriting as Dylan.
Christopher Hitchens talks about how tough Phil was and that Phil didn’t give you any room. But Phil also sometimes attacked the left as bitingly as he attacked the right. It’s tough to kind of attack your audience. If you go off, if you do something else, then they go, “Oh, really?” and they can ignore you. And I think that’s what happened to Phil, they weren’t willing to follow him.
Dylan understood not to be a man of his time. It’s part of what makes him a great artist. He got out of the politics, the specific politics. Phil stayed with it a lot longer. It was something he never abandoned and it finally turned on him and broke his heart.
A vast array of Ochs’ contemporaries agreed to be interviewed for the film, including some surprises like Van Dyke Parks and the late Christopher Hitchens. How did you choose who to interview?
Obviously we went after Dylan but interviewing is not his thing and he’d rather stay hidden. But everyone else who I went after pretty much talked to me. I’m sure there are some exceptions I can’t remember now, but no glaring ones. There are a couple of people I interviewed who aren’t in it. At some point I hope to put out a longer version or another version of the film because there are so many stories you can tell about Phil and that time.
Unlike many artists today who lend their voice for a cause, Ochs did not initially play the star. He seemed genuinely passionate, filled with rage and political purpose and unconcerned with celebrity. Why do you feel he wanted fame as the years went on?
I’ve been asked that a lot and what I’ve finally kind of come to is that a couple of things happened. One was when Phil started and Dylan and Tom Paxton and the various other people who were around at the time, fame wasn’t only unlikely, it wasn’t even something that existed. The Kingston Trio took off in ’59 or ’60 and Peter, Paul and Mary, ’61 or ’62. So when Phil first began, if you got successful you could play at a string of coffee houses that existed in the country. That was going to be your audience.
If you were really lucky maybe you could get a record deal. If you were really, really lucky, maybe one of those records would hit. It’s kind of a gradual process where it became that the fame took over. And the fame took over for everybody. It wasn’t just Phil. It was everyone who had been playing and committed to political causes. Suddenly they were being looked for for their opinion, they were being looked for for their fashion sense, they were being looked for for their moral views on everything.
The Beatles kind of started that.
Yeah, but The Beatles hit America in 1963. Phil had already been around for two years. Rock and roll had already taken musical performers and made them famous. Folk music was a much slower-burning thing. If you were huge in the folk world you played the Newport Folk Festival. You played for 5,000 people. That was a monster attendance.
Phil Ochs’ music is especially relevant these days. Why are his notoriety and accomplishments not referenced more, especially in the wake of all the political unrest we’re living with now?
Actually it is starting to be. A lot of artists like Neil Young and Ani DiFranco reference Phil constantly and talk about him. He’s selling more records now than he did when he was alive. The bad news for Phil is it didn’t happen when he was alive but the good news is he’s being discovered. Everyone likes to discover someone and I think a lot of people in their 20s now are saying, “Wait a minute. Who’s this guy? I never heard of this guy. Why haven’t I heard of this guy?” They’ve kind of taken him up, if you will, and made him part of their political movement. So in a lot of ways he’s getting better known than at any time he was alive.
When Dylan changed his style and went “electric” he got called down for it. Do you feel when Phil began changing his style and veered toward more classical and pop stylings in his music, the backlash contributed to the beginning of his alcoholism and mental decline?
Without question. You know, Phil grew up in the movie theaters. Phil grew up watching films and he kind of bought into the American fantasy of the hero who saves the day, as his daughter says in the film, that one man’s going to change the course of the river and right injustice.
I think that after ’68 and the convention and what happened there, seeing people really hurt and seeing the costs of political action, his own lack of success slowly began to bring him down. I think chasing fame and not being successful also was there. Finally it’s his mental illness, his manic depression, and the alcoholism. It’s all of those things together [that drove him to commit suicide].
People a lot of times think it was because he was mentally ill or because he didn’t get success or because his side didn’t win. It was all of those things. He was an interesting, complex guy who on his best day was brilliant and funny. Michael Ochs, Phil’s brother, suffers from the same thing and it’s very, very hard for him when he’s depressed. He can barely function. I think for Phil, who was in the public eye, it was even more difficult.
What would you hope people take away from your film?
I loved Phil Ochs’ music and I loved who this guy was. I’ve made a lot of films that have been reasonably successful and I’ve made a decent living. I made this film just because I love Phil Ochs. My ambition and goal for it was just to expose Phil’s music and Phil’s life and perhaps, I hope, how the complexity of American life can unfold, and how fame and politics and art can kind of mix together.
American Masters: Phil Ochs — There But for Fortune premieres on January 23 at 10 PM on PBS.