College Quarterly
Spring 2006 - Volume 9 Number 2

Unearthing Phil Ochs: An Exchange

I came upon the article, "No Place in this World," when seeking some context for Phil Ochs' song "The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns". Howard A. Doughty's exposition was interesting and informative. Yet the very act of dissecting his life in the lens of a nation's pathologies troubled me. I wonder if many asked too much of Phil Ochs. Perhaps that led him to expect too much of himself. When social critics dismiss a singer for not being more effective it bothers me. The quest for leaders and hero-figures to eradicate the social injustices of the world or lead the way for a mass of followers not only removes the individual of their personal responsibility for social justice, but disempowers them. Thus, in the United States, many find themselves feeling ineffective and alienated from the process of change.

There is an unhealthy relationship to history. The larger perspective is lost. The connection of personal struggle to larger ones is lost.

The result? A foreboding sense of unease, a feeling that the world is moving in the wrong direction with a dejected acceptance of one's powerlessness.

This hero-worship may not be unique to Americans, but is amplified by a popular culture which simplifies things until they become empty.

History is the song of millions of voices we will neer hear. By focusing on individuals, raising them up and reducing their complexities to simple mythologies, the rich stories which provide and sustain imagination are removed. The civilization of production and consumption's greatest threat is imagination. The inability to imagine that life could be otherwise robs people of their ability to effect change, the end result being psychological slavery. And that is the greatest achievement of modern society, the non-violent reduction of a majority of the populace to slavery. No need for the whip.

So, I listen to Phil Ochs' music in appreciation, yet with no expectation that he should have saved a nation from itself. His music inspires and moves me. But it is my responsibility to discover and use my power. I don't ask him to lead me. I say let the dead lie quietly and tend to the living.

John Colby
Doctoral Student in Computer Studies
University of California at Santa Cruz

Howard Doughty replies:

Thank you for your thoughtful letter. If, however, you think that I am one of the "social critics" who "dismiss a singer for not being more effective," then I have not made myself clear.

I do not dismiss Phil Ochs at all. I regard him as a tragic figure, a minstrel with a great heart who was brought down by a fatal flaw. If, as seems likely, he suffered from a psychiatric condition commonly known as "bipolar disorder," then his tragedy had natural causes. If, as also seems likely, he was helped toward his destiny by his political opinions (what his sister Sonny called his "cockeyed optimism") and his unrealistic expectations for sweeping social changes in the USA, then his death needs to be explored so that we can learn from his mistakes.

I remain a big fan of Phil's music and an earnest supporter of his ideals. To further them requires that we probe the causes of precisely the sense of political impotence that you identify as the most effective weapon of the right wing (whether in the US, Canada or anywhere else). War mongers and environment wreckers, I agree, play brilliantly upon people's fears and uncertainties. In diagnosing and advancing therapies for our personal and collective pathologies, we ought not, of course, to become obsessed with leaders and heroes, much less to become mired in nostalgia. At the same time, though, I think that a look back at the fate of those who were destroyed in their pursuit of worthy goals can help others to avoid the same misjudgments. Call it, if I can pursue the medical analogy one more step, "taking a history," a necessary part of the process of restoring health to a civilization sorely in need of treatment.

John Colby answers:

I appreciate your response. Afterwards, I realized my letter could be misinterpreted as an attack on what you had written, and that was not my intent.

I believe that most personal tragedies are driven by individuals' internal worlds which we usually have little knowledge of. But, as you say, Phil Ochs was probably helped along by political circumstances and the cultural mythologies which shaped him. I am trying to put my finger on exactly why a political/cultural analysis of Phil Ochs' life and death disturbs me. Public figures are fair game for these kinds of analyses. Yet somehow an analysis of Ochs' tragedy troubles me. Really his mistakes are the mistakes of a generation and a movement, or a collection of movements. Perhaps I feel that putting Ochs under a microscope as a standard bearer is part of the dynamics which helped destroy him.

Consider your talk about hubris. Ochs’ political celebrity persona was as much or more a creation of his fans than of himself. Investing him with such importance and status must have contributed to his unrealistic expectations of his responsibilities and abilities, especially in light of his likely illness. So I see his tragedy as a co-creation of him, his fans and a crushing political system; he lost his sense of his place in the world. Thus, while I agree wholeheartedly that looking at his fate can help others to avoid his mistakes, and one must be clear about which mistakes are being examined, the act of analyzing Phil Ochs' tragic life disturbs me. This is not an indictment of your analysis but rather an articulation of my own discomfort surrounding it. This discomfort merits some further thought on my part about its source.

John Colby

Howard A. Doughty concludes:

In the main, I agree. The factors that precipitated Ochs' death plainly included his own vulnerable personality, the relationship between him and his fans (and his critics), and the general problems of American culture and politics at the time. Though clearly different in many ways, I cannot help drawing a parallel: both Phil and Abbie Hoffman endured much the same problems and suffered much the same fate. My affection and respect for both has never diminished.

I would only want to add that Phil lived in something close to a fantasy world even as a child, especially when his father (also "bipolar") was institutionalized. Phil was obsessed with movies and projected himself into many heroic roles - his favourites, by far, being John Ford / John Wayne films, and especially World War II productions such as She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. He also worshipped "the young Bobby Dylan” for much of his career, and spoke often of the "god-like" people whom he revered and wished to emulate. Whether speaking of JFK, Fidel or Mao, the Übermensch played large in his life. (There are suggestions that he tried to get to see Charles Manson in prison and, when in Africa, made a failed bid to meet Idi Amin.)

How much the "great man theory of history" distorted his ideas and his actions remains uncertain, but I have no doubt that he did see himself as something of a leader, though his infectious smile and self-deprecating sense of humour seemed to keep such delusions in check for most of his life.


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2006 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology