Mighty Ochs: Rediscovering An American Troubadour with Kenneth Bowser

For 20 years, documentarian Kenneth Bowser had wanted to make a film about seminal protest singer-songwriter Phil Ochs. But he was continually greeted with apathy on many fronts.

“I knew it was a great story,” says Bowser during a phone call from New York City. “He lived in interesting times and affected the time. People kept saying: ‘Why did you want to make a movie about a dead folk singer?’  They liked my take on the story. I always felt there was lots of interest in the story.”

Ochs’ story, however, was a tragic one, the saga of an immensely talented, politically committed artist who took his own life in 1976 at the age of 35 after struggling with alcoholism and being diagnosed with depression and bi-polar disorder.

As in the case in many aspects of independent filmmaking, Bowser learned that good things come from those who wait, especially those who wait for funding. He kept in contact with Michael Ochs, Phil’s brother, known for his rock archives collection, and the songwriter’s widow, Megan.

Then, six or seven years ago, Michael Ochs contacted Bowser again, only this time the documentary filmmaker didn’t have as big a problem getting things off the ground. Bowser had been successful making documentaries on Preston Sturges and John Wayne and John Ford which aired on American Masters on PBS. He has also directed Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll Generation Saved Hollywood, an adaptation of Peter Biskind’s best-seller about filmmakers in the 1960s and 1970s. He also had a steady income directing documentaries on “Saturday Night Live” for NBC.

Funding help came from another Ochs fan: Michael Cole, a music promoter known for his work with U2, the Rolling Stones and Barbra Streisand, and as a producer of the musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark on Broadway.

“Angels drop from heaven occasionally, and Michael was the one for this film,” says Bowser. “No one else was interested in raising money.”          

So the 60-year-old Bowser—who’s married to actress Amy Irving—revved up the project again. The final result is the new-to DVD Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, a superb and moving chronicle of Ochs’ world, featuring terrific archival film clips and photos, and interviews with Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Sean Penn, Pete Seeger, Jello Biafra (of The Dead Kennedys) as well as the late Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Dave Van Ronk.  

Ochs’ songs—often filled with sardonic lyrics and haunting melodies—have been covered by the likes of Baez, Biafra, Judy Collins, They Might Be Giants, Ani DiFranco, John Denver, Cher, Marianne Faithful and Billy Bragg. It was the latter’s version of “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night” (inspired by the song “Joe Hill”) that prompted Bowser’s young daughter to ask him “Who was Phil Ochs?” Then she said “You’ve got to make a film about him.” Adds Bowser: “I thought, ‘What a good idea!’”

Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune offers fascinating clips of Ochs performing his songs in a wide variety of settings, from folk festivals to hootenannies, from political rallies to segments on primitive  cable access TV. The great thing about the mix of material Bowser has collected is that you get a well-rounded view of Ochs’ life and  world, and what inspired such songs as “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “The Power and the Glory,” “Draft Dodger Rag,” “The War is Over” and “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends.”

As the well-rounded film points out, not everyone loved Phil Ochs or his music. Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau lambasted his singing and guitar playing in Esquire Magazine, which affected Ochs to the point he responded to Christgau in a later album. While a fan of Bob Dylan, Ochs found himself in a rivalry throughout much of his career with the troubadour—who reportedly threw Ochs out of his limousine after a criticism of some of Dylan’s more introspective lyrics. Dylan claimed that the issue-oriented Ochs “was not a folk singer but a journalist.”

But the Texas-born Ochs was not always predictable in his liberal agenda, according to Bowser. “I grew up on John Ford and John Wayne, and Phil was a lefty who loved John Wayne,” related Bowser. “I didn’t hear that from anyone else. He was big enough to have those contradictions. He had a big intellect.

“Wayne was publicizing The Green Berets (in 1968) and did the Playboy interview, which was the en vogue thing to do in those days,” continues Bowser. “Wayne said ‘I made this as a counterpoint to Joan Baez and Phil Ochs.’ Little did he know that Phil loved him and his films.” 

While Bowser’s plan to get Dylan—who at one time shared manager Albert Grossman with Ochs—to comment for the documentary never came to fruition, Dylan did make use of “Blowin’ in the Wind” possible for the filmmaker.

 Thanks in part to Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, Phil Ochs’ legacy lives on today. “He is selling more records than he was alive because of his political involvement,” says Bowser.  “The movement has broken into little pieces like saving the whales, abortion, whatever it is. In the sixties, it was the Vietnam War or Vietnam and civil rights.”

“Phil has fans like Pearl Jam and Neil Young. And if you spoke to his family (who controls the rights to his songs), royalties have been rising. This film has gotten a good deal of press. So it’s no longer: ‘Why do you want to make a film about a dead folk singer?’”