Hangin’ With Mr. Ochs

How Left Wing Music can Stear You Right


“In every American community you have varying shades of political opinions, one of the shadiest of these is the liberals” (Love Me, I’m a Liberal, 1964)

It’s easy to take the above quote out of context and paint Phil Ochs as a conservative, but what Phil was stating here was that the liberals of 1964 were full of shit, essentially virtue signaling and not being “true.” Phil Ochs, much like the punk band Dead Kennedys, is a classically leftist / Marxist staple that somehow lead me to the right. Phil Ochs would have nothing but criticism for Trump, America today and would possibly support Antifa (at least I hope he wouldn’t), but I want to be crystal clear that I consider this man a hero and I hope that whoever reads this will at least be able to understand why.

First: who was Phil Ochs?

Phil Ochs was a Texas born folk singer that came about in the Greenwich Village, NYC folk scene in the early 60s alongside the likes of Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel and the like. What made Phil instantly stand out among his contemporaries was that he was politically minded well before it became fashionable. Here’s a cut off his first LP from 1964 called “Talking Vietnam Blues” where Ochs obviously calls out the stupidity of the US going to war in Vietnam. As far as I’m aware, this was the FIRST anti ‘Nam song to come out – again BEFORE it became the cause du jour for musicians in the 60s. The first (by my accounts) major single to be at least anti war then was Donovan’s “Universal Soldier” which came out two years after Ochs’s first album. Phil had something he wanted to say, and if you look at the political climate of the time, being a far left guy was pretty ballsy. No safe spaces or trigger warnings in Phil’s time.

Phil struggled with an artistic paradox: he wanted fame but also had a message that was pretty alienating. Phil would also play anywhere that involved a protest or a demonstration like coal miner strikes and union rallies. His most famous protest related concert was during the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago in where a big event was planned but because of various security concerns, most of the performers dropped out, except Ochs. I feel I need to repeat a point I made earlier, politically I disagree with A LOT Phil stood for (fuck, the guy liked Mao: “I think Mao could be the most important man in the world right now” is a quote from a 1968 interview.) BUT, he was a man of his convictions, and not only that, I truly believe he loved his country and in his mind, he wanted to make it a better place. The left of today is focused on sabotage and no plan B, at least Phil wanted a socialized America (which we all know is TERRIBLE idea) but I still see it as coming from a genuine place. “Say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, dude, at least it’s an ethos.” (Big Lebowski)

After the debacle of the 1968 Democratic Convention, Ochs felt he had “died in Chicago” which he made pretty obvious in that year’s LP cover for Rehearsals for Retirement

He had felt betrayed by his own political side and decided his career would no longer focus on any specific agenda. Rehearsals for Retirement is both one of my favorite Phil Ochs records and one of my favorite of all time. It transitions the last of the political songs and begins his more retrospective side, which until then was only hinted at with such songs like “Changes” and “Pleasures of the Harbor.” As a fan, I love the later part of Phil’s discography, but the majority of his fans of the time didn’t share my enthusiasm. The left then, as they are now, are annoyingly narrow minded and took “offense” to Phil’s new move to embrace his Texas roots when he made a record of honky tonk, Elvis inspired country western songs.

The above photo is a crop of the back cover of Phil’s final album, Greatest Hits which was an ironic title since his fan base had significantly dwindled (the phrase, which is a take on Elvis Presley record, wasn’t that much of an exaggeration). The record is excellent, and the fact that fans and the label both thought it sucked makes me like it more.

And if there’s any hope for America, it lies in a revolution, and if there’s any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.

The next major blow to Phil was the disaster that was his final appearance at Carnegie Hall in March of 1970. To promote Greatest Hits, Phil came on stage in the same gold lamé suit he adorned on the cover and was met with boos from the crowd. He was met with even further resistance when he did a set that contained covers of Conway Twitty and famed right winger Merel Haggard. It also feels like his addition of his lefty hit “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” was thrown in to try to win back his fans.

Phil was poisoned by the left, he was part of a culture that revere the state and looks to the government to handle everything and not take any responsibility. On top of that he was a drunk and a manic depressive and had spiraled out of control in the 70s. There was also the HUGE mess of the Friends of Chile benefit, which would prove to be Phil’s last hurrah into political action through music. Essentially Chile had elected their own Bernie Sanders (Salvador Allende) and Nixon was all “AIN’T NOBODY GOT TIME FOR THAT” and got the CIA to clean those commies’ collective clock. The country was already fucked (homeboy Allende never read Atlas Shrugged). The US didn’t need to be involved. (But that can be it’s own article).

How did this VERY left wing man steer me to the right? He opened my mind to calling bullshit on academia “Oh I am just a student, sir and only want to learn. But it’s hard to read through the risin’ smoke of the books that you like to burn.” He got me to question my country’s involvement in foreign affairs. But again, I can never wrap my head around someone who had such a disgust for the state want to live in a world where the state controls everything. Which, is an argument I can now make against Ochs, but only after Ochs’s music got my mind to comprehend such political paradoxes.

Also, the man had a gift and remains to be my favorite songwriter and has one of my favorite voices. I was only three when I first heard him, so yes I am pretty biased due to being a lifelong fan. I would love to go on and on about Phil, but there is A LOT to talk about. Unfortunately Phil took his life in 1976 and I’ll never have the chance to see what would have become of him. Imagine red pilled Phil? I did have a chance to give my gratitude to Phil’s sister, Sonny back in March 2007.

I leave you with two last links: this is my favorite song of all time, and this is an audience bootleg of Phil’s final live performance in 1975.
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Alex Caprio

Written by Alex Caprio

New Jersey, former musician and stand up comedian with a degree in English. He can also make a better eggplant parm than your Grandma. Follow him on Twitter @alexclarkcaprio.

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