Kenneth Bowser, director of the praised documentary Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, is among those fortunate enough to have seen the 1960s folksinger-activist perform twice—he thinks.
“As Dennis Hopper used to say about the ’60s, if you remember them, you weren’t there,” he tells the Georgia Straight by phone from New York City. “But the time I met Ochs and actually got to shake his hand was when he did a benefit in New Haven, Connecticut, I think for the farmworkers in California. This was about 1970, and there were maybe 150 people there; it was a pass-the-hat situation, and if it raised five or six hundred dollars, I’d be surprised. And it probably cost him three or four hundred dollars to fly in from L.A.!
“That was Phil, though,” he says. “He did things like that.”
The 1970s would see Ochs—who wanted to save America by embodying a cross between Elvis Presley and Che Guevara—struggle with alcoholism, bipolar disorder, and disillusionment, ultimately leading to his suicide in 1976. “He still looked pretty good” at the benefit, however, Bowser recalls. “He really had a movie-star charisma when he walked into a room. That’s part of the irony of [Bob] Dylan and Ochs,” Bowser says, referencing Ochs’ constant, losing competition with his peer. “Ochs was certainly the better-looking and, arguably, the much better singer—certainly more accessible to the general public. And yet Dylan—not even getting into the songwriting issue—became the wildly bigger star.”
Why does Bowser think this is so? “Phil was aggressive in his passion,” he observes. “I’ve spent a lot of my career in Los Angeles, in and around the people who make things, and I can tell you that passion is perfectly okay in small and controlled doses, but if you really are passionate, people get nervous. I think Phil made people nervous.”
Bowser’s documentary (which opens in Vancouver on Friday [July 29]) includes interviews with many in Ochs’s circle, from Joan Baez to members of the Ochs family to deceased contemporaries like Abbie Hoffman and Dave Van Ronk. The film is notably absent Dylan, who declined to appear. “We heard back, and his feeling was, 'I’m damned if I do and I’m damned if I don’t.’ To be honest with you, I don’t know what he would have contributed. All the evidence suggests he wouldn’t have given me really open answers—it’s not his style.”
Perhaps the most surprising interviewee is controversial cultural commentator Christopher Hitchens. “Some people get upset with me that I’ve got Christopher Hitchens in it,” Bowser says, amused. “Like Phil, Hitchens’s politics are complex. But I was interviewing Sean Penn, who tried to make a film about Phil Ochs for 15 years, with himself playing Phil, and he said, 'Oh, you have to talk to Christopher Hitchens. He’s a psychotic Phil fan!’ ”
Bowser paraphrases a quote from the interview: “He says, 'People who knew Phil really got the joke. Everybody was into Dylan, but you really had to be on your game to know who Phil Ochs was.’ He’s a little elitist, is Mr. Hitchens, but he was amazing to sit and talk to.”
Watch the trailer for Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune.