Movie Review: Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune @ NWFF

March 11 -13 @ Northwest Film Forum
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(Special performances by Eric Apoe, The Gloria Darlings, Tommy Dean, and Gary Kanter after the 9:15 show at NWFF on Friday, March 11)

Where have I seen this guy? Where have I heard that name? You see books dedicated to him by punk poet/artist-authors like Jim Carroll (Living At The Movies) and great gonzo rock scribes like Larry “Ratso” Sloman (On The Road With Bob Dylan). He shows up in an early, bizarre They Might Be Giants song -- “The Day (Marvin Gaye And Phil Ochs Got Married)”. (What was going on with that?) You hear about influential, long-time indie-scene musicians such as Billy Bragg, John Wesley Harding, and Kind Of Like Spitting’s Ben Barnett being obsessed with him, writing passionate anthems about him, or covering him live or with full releases dedicated to him.

If you get past what many deem the overly sincere and corny early 60s Greenwich Village folk scene roots, beyond the smothering silhouette of Dylan, you begin to hear Phil Ochs’ blurring denim energy and greasy everyman holler in other places, too. It is hard to imagine Joe Strummer’s always-shaved face and trademark DA without him, rallying the kids together in unity chants and romantic poetic rants, making the deeply political outrageously personal. Springsteen was scoffed at as a Dylan wanna-be for his first three urban-fixated LPs, but I would get in the ring to fight that the empire-gone-down Darkness On The Edge Of Town and world-dying-for-love The River had more in common with Phil Ochs Greatest Hits and the folksinger’s best LP, Rehearsals for Retirement. In other media, such as the vigorously topical comic books, writer Garth Ennis references Ochs’ apocalyptic, American-absorbed POV in characters who may look more like John Wayne but have the same haunted, Scottish soul as a troubadour whose name seems just out of reach. The origin story of mentally unstable but viciously righteous Rorschach from Alan Moore’s Watchmen begins with the witnessing of the slaying of Kitty Genovese -- or rather, the fact that those who witnessed it did nothing to help. Sending a downtrodden man, who was poor and had been bullied beyond sense in a feral world, into a vengeful rage against a lack of empathy.

I brought up Ochs’ song “Outside A Small Circle Of Friends,” which references that mid-60s murder and its lack of intervention, with in an interview with Stephin Merrit for The Stranger last year. The music on his Magnetic Fields’ most recent album, Realism, reminded me of the folk-pop and posh art-rock of Van Dyke Parks, Judy Henske, and others who were contemporaneous with Ochs. But Merritt bristled at the mention of the song, which places the listener in a tenement overlooking a woman being attacked and forces them to consider what they would do at that very moment. The music, which was a collaboration with Van Dyke Parks but wasn’t the lighter, more auto-harp laden songs of magic and mirth that evolved out of the rustic beginnings in NYC’s folk movement, may have born a resemblance in composition and production on Realism. But the overriding aesthetic of Merritt, which strives to be cool, sardonic, ironic, and distant, is everything that Ochs virulently avoided in his own work. By choice, by character, by mission.

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is a new documentary about the ambivalent comrade of Dylan, the brother of protest siren Joan Baez, the musical son of Woody and Seeger, the rabble-rousing artist kin of Dave Van Ronk and Ed Sanders (The Fugs), fellow assassin-satirist to Paul Krassner, co-conspirator with visceral activist Abbie Hoffman and progressive Jerry Rubin, and finally, the spiritual double of Latin American musician Victor Jara, who helped bring social justice to Chile before the American government reminded him and Salvador Allende that our government isn’t really concerned with justice at all. There But For Fortune is about Ochs and his vital connection to all of these people, but it’s about so much more too. It is not just about the 60s (Ochs wasn’t a “hippie”), but shows why protest folk is the mother of punk; how protest music really can become some of the best rock and roll; and is easily the best music documentary of the past few years. It is an artistic manifesto, as much as a political validation of rebellion against a cruel society and an unfair world. It doesn’t hide a thing in that world, and it passes no messages from bullies to targets. It shows that Phil Ochs WAS his own manifesto, no matter how much he may have struggled against mental illness, alcoholism, and in spite of a world which for a brief moment embraced ethics found in self-lacerating honesty, the awkwardness of confession, the stanzas of the soul from the dark night we will all go through, rich or poor, in power or meak. Call it method rocking.

Merritt-idol Henske is in this movie, too, and gives some of the best lines about Ochs, about how :he wasn’t cool,” but also about how everyone wanted to hang out with him and how he was there for anyone who needed him. At protest rallies, whenever there was a benefit that needed played, when Dylan needed feedback on a song and Ochs was probably the only one to tell him that it was “shit” -- that the fluffed Emperor had no clothes. It earned him being physically tossed from Dylan’s limo. Ochs admits he may have been a little hasty in his denouncement, but this was a razor-sharp turn in a dialectic that would find the protest singer becoming something Dylan could not. With the help of some amazing art-rockers of the late 60s, Ochs carried his message of empathy and awareness into areas of popular music Dylan veiled behind speed and mysticism. It’s not an either/or situation; some days I put the eschatalogical Highway 61 Revisitedon the altar, some days I adore the literal-end-of-the-world Tape From California more than any other record. For the discerning cultural observer, who can hear Ochs in Neil Young’s “Thrasher,” or see him in the roles Ochs’ fan Sean Penn plays in movies like Milk, or how conceptual comedian Andy Kaufman also took up the mantle of impersonating Elvis Presley as the ultimate American parody as well, the two are twins.

The musical aspects of Ochs’ work are not glossed over: His influences were originally found in Hank Williams, Faron Young, and other transcendent honky tonk singers and players. But as the 60s progressed, Ochs released one final brilliantly brutal protest album (In Concert, the Never Mind The Bullocks of protest folk) before working with many of the finest musical minds of his generation on a trilogy of resonantly arranged and electrically performed broad-canvas LPs (that really need to have an entire movie designed around their inspiration and construction). Pleasures of the Harbor, Tape From California, and Rehearsals for Retirement show that drink and depression cannot stop a brilliantly burning mind from fomenting and performing utterly ambitious and winning musical artwork. The epitaphs of Greatest Hits (a cleverly conceived originals album that seemed designed to show an alternate career, where Ochs stayed true to his initial inspirations) and the live in concert extrapolation of it, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, are not to be missed either.

Among the many loved ones interviewed, his brother (and fiercely loyal manager) Michael, sister Sonny, daughter Meghan, and many others join in discussing the young man who went to New York to be “the best writer,” and ended up taking on the world. There But For Fortune also has necessary input such as observations from Ochs’ original label Elektra’s head Jac Holzman; and A&R man (and sparring right wing pal) Andrew Wickham gives necessary counterpoint too. After all, an unfairly slanted Ochs documentary would serve no purpose at all -- Ochs made arguable mistakes, from perhaps at first being far too sincere in tone and presentation, to not keeping himself as healthy as he wished for the society he cared about -- but keen journalistic fairness is necessary in assessing the “misty madness” of this artist.

From fiery, inspiring relationships with contemporaries, to creative demonstrations based in play and dreams, to hidden albums chock full of multi-dimensional masterpieces, There But For Fortunate is an illuminating odyssey that may convince you that many of your preconceptions of what the world should be are based in shame, fear, and the fists of others. Ochs was a hero of sincere belief and a despairing poet of disillusionment, yet neither one cancels the other out. His voice is absolutely one for our time, when reality just seems so wrong. Step out of time with this movie and claim this spirit of change as your own as well.

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