Chords of Fame

This book arrived in the mail the past weekend. I heard about its existence a couple of weeks back through Twitter, when people I admire such as Steve Earle posted tweets about it, and I immediately went to bookshop.org and ordered it. (Do so through them or your local bookstore, if you can.) And then I made sure to pass the tweets on so others would know.

Phil Ochs (December 19, 1940 – April 9, 1976) is one of the most influential people in my life; the only musician besides Frank Turner who has arguably changed the entire trajectory of it in drastic ways. I don’t remember how I came across him initially; it might have been a book I found in the library while I was in high school about protest songs, or it’s possible I took out that book because I was already into Ochs. I just know he became a presence in my life somewhere in that time, though he was long past being someone you heard about regularly. So I was stunned when I read the news about his suicide in 1976.

I read more later on about his tragic final years, the serious depression and other mental illnesses that robbed him of his creativity and set him on a path to destruction. The day he died, I was in the middle of my own first major depressive episode. These crashes have dogged me every ten years or so ever since. I learned about the history of depression and anxiety disorders on both sides of my family and realized early on that genetics and circumstances (including a highly dysfunctional family) would influence my own mental health. Though I never came close to considering suicide, I remember sitting on a plane in Denver watching a crew de-ice it and thinking that if it weren’t for the other passengers, I really didn’t care what happened to it. And I remember the dark aftermath of my best friend’s murder, when I truly considered myself a complete waste of oxygen.

Phil dealt with a much more serious and complex set of demons than I did. He even developed what used to be called a “split personality” (that term is not used in mental health so much these days) to act as a repository of some of his feelings. This shadow side, John Butler Train, dogged him in those last years, where he couldn’t write songs anymore and saw himself as useless. Useless is something I can identify with, and so is not being able to write.

The way Phil (and John Train) influenced my life directly is something I’ve only recently come to grips with intellectually, despite knowing it on some visceral level all along. My fascination with Phil’s music carried along with me when I started university, where I had an eye out for anyone who might share the interest. That led to my meeting two men, almost exactly six months apart, who were the most important negative and positive romantic and sexual earthquakes of my life, one who nearly destroyed me and the other who has become my lifelong partner and soulmate. For years I was at odds about how that could have happened, how Phil had brought about these two disparate things.

Freshman year I heard a tribute show to Phil, a year after his death, on the campus radio station. I made a mental note about the DJ who presented it, who had known Phil, written a song about him, carried the flame. Not quite a year after that, I met this person: a crowded table of friends and acquaintances at a local bar, someone mentioning “Phil Ochs,” and two of us, at opposite ends of the table, snapping to attention. That DJ/musician/activist, in a most unlikely fashion, began pursuing me. (Nowadays we would call it “stalking”: he would have a history of doing this to women who were both initially receptive and firmly unwilling.) I was not in a position to ask the questions I should have, although some part of me knew all along how wrong and unhealthy it was for this thirty-one-year-old to call me daily for a month (one of his strongest and most unsettling attempts to get me to see him was on the second anniversary of Ochs’s death). During the two months of this “relationship” (I eventually succumbed to his pursuit), I became so ill I couldn’t eat, lost seventeen pounds, and was in constant emotional turmoil. It ended with a sexual assault; I would learn over the next decades that this was also a pattern with him, but due to his self-promoted reputation in local lefty-political and musical circles, such things were never mentioned or examined. The women involved were expected to either extricate themselves from the situation or blame themselves for not doing so, and this is what we did.

It would take me eight years to fully recover from this “relationship,” and when you live in a small town and the other person is someone of no small local prominence, it’s in your face a lot. Slowly I learned to untangle myself from the people, places, and things associated with him, and since much of our relationship had been based on music, this was the thing I struggled with most. Especially after I finally went to therapy after another breakdown in the 80s, I became adept at deciding what music I would move away from as a liberation gesture and what I would keep, even though it had become in some way associated with him, because it was and had been mine before I met him or it was worth wresting back from him. Phil Ochs was in the latter categories.

So six months later, in a class centered on literature and culture of the 1960s, I knew what I wanted to base my term paper on when the professor announced it would account for three-quarters of our course grade. There were over a hundred students in the class and the prof didn’t want to grade that many papers, so he decreed we would have to work in groups of three or four. Group work was something I didn’t do, based on previous bad experiences, but the professor insisted I had to work with at least one other person. When those of us who had topics in mind had to get up in front of the class and attempt to recruit groups members interested in the same or similar themes, I announced my Ochs idea, smugly certain no one in the class would respond. One boy did.

He came up to me after class. He was polite, smart, and brought out the exact opposite reaction in me that the other guy had. We agreed to work together, came up with an idea of contrasting Dylan and Ochs as “The Poet and the Historian” (an irony being that he wrote poetry and I studied history and was nominally planning to go into journalism at the time—Ochs had studied to be a journalist and considered himself a historian too). We got an A on the paper and in the course; we talked about ourselves and our lives even more than we did Dylan and Ochs; we learned that we had practically grown up together, with our families intertwining and crossing paths in another small town where we had been raised. And yet somehow, though his father had taken my baby pictures and my father had taught all his cousins in high school and my family often had tripped over his dog on the steps of the store where his older brother worked during several summers of my childhood, we had never met.

Not surprisingly, two months after the class ended we started dating. Not quite four years after we met, we got married. We gave Phil Ochs full credit. When we met his sister, Sonny, at a folk festival, we had brought a copy of the paper we wrote to give her.

The other man was still portraying himself as the keeper of the Ochs legend. That meant I sometimes had to avoid things that otherwise might have interested me. Decades later, long after he had finally left town and I could go weeks, months at a time without thinking of him, I still hesitated after getting into a brief Ochs discussion with a friendly Twitter acquaintance; what if he checked Twitter for Ochs references and saw it?

One of the most vindicating moments of my life happened about two years ago, the day I learned of this man’s death. He may have passed, or at least his death might have been discovered, at the same time I was attending a #MeToo march on the university campus, mere steps away from where I had first met him, a couple of blocks from the bar where we discussed Ochs and made a connection. Finally I was completely free.

Only recently have I come to terms with how Ochs managed to perform this odd feat of drawing me to these two extremes. Ochs had not been gone that long when I met the first man, and I am convinced that, because this man was so damaged, so narcissistic and selfish, so evil, that the side of Ochs he responded to was actually John Butler Train, and that negative shadow side consumed him. The positive side of Ochs I identified with—historian, journalist, musician, songwriter, activist, humorist—might have lost the fight for the temporal life of its host, but as I see the reaction to this new book, published to celebrate his December birthday, by so many people who revere him, I see that Phil beat out Train in the long run.

Normally I dive right into new books I buy, but I am saving this one to start on December 19. It is a collection of the many kinds of things he wrote besides the songs he was known for. I am struck by how little appreciation there was during his life for all the kinds of writing he did, including many of his later songs that were at least as artistic as Dylan’s and more accessible emotionally. Phil died in agony over not being able to break through his early image as a straight-up protest songwriter, as an artist supposedly “inferior” to Dylan, as a rock’n’roller rather than a folkie, and as a prisoner of his own mind. But looking at the breadth of writing in this book, my heart breaks that he didn’t live long enough to experience the DIY punk scene—the thing that saved my life, that has kept me thriving and growing; the thing that led me, at the age of 52, to feel comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life; to find a purpose, a goal, a dream (things that had always eluded me); to stop looking at myself with the disgust, disdain, and dismissal that too many people around me, including my own family, had projected on to me for decades.

The afore-mentioned Frank Turner was the catalyst for the hundreds of times I have found myself (pre-COVID, of course), standing at the foot of a lighted stage knowing it was exactly where I belonged, the place that was the source for everything that kept me alive and moving forward. I’ve met dozens of people who have experienced the same feeling, and dozens more who stand on that stage drawing strength from us below it even as they double up that strength before passing it back. Phil was tortured in part because once he lost his place on stage, he didn’t know where to find that strength.

Because what Phil’s writing tells me is that he studied journalism and history for the same reasons I had, and that he saw writing the way I do: as communication, as something that goes out in the world for a reason, to accomplish something. And that view is what kept me from writing for too many years. As a child who was miserable at home and attacked at school, writing was pretty much the only thing I ever got a positive reaction for; the same kids who tortured me in middle school wanted to read what I wrote. In high school and college I impressed and pissed off the right people with it; I have literally never gotten a job, a promotion, or a man without writing playing some role.

Yet around the time I figured out I didn’t have the personality to become a journalist, I also became convinced I had no ability to write. The man I married is an incredible writer, with the soul of the poet he channeled to write the Dylan part of our college term paper while I wrote the Ochs part. He comes from a family of successful creatives, including a somewhat famous journalist. The family also includes a painter, a sculptor, two photographers (one a photojournalist) as well as a lawyer, a judge, a musician, and an architect. My brother managed to combine a successful business career with a sideline as an actor, director, and film editor. I was just the girl who made the brownies and washed the dishes after family get-togethers.

Every now and then I would take a stab at writing, but by the mid-90s (when I had a very serious mental breakdown that took years, not months, to recover from), I had given up. I spent the next decade, book-ended with another breakdown, desperately trying to find a purpose for myself, wondering how the hell some people got multiple helpings of talents and abilities while I had literally NONE AT ALL.

Enter Frank Turner and the punk scene. I didn’t draw any parallels to Phil Ochs, at first. I just reveled in this place where I finally could be myself completely, I didn’t have to pretend to be anything just to get by. I could just live. And somehow the words came after that. In the past twelve years, I’ve written four books, published one, am in the middle of new one, with another half-finished that I hope to get back to. This past August I hit a COVID wall and started writing songs and bought a Fender Stratocaster I am learning to play quite badly. (Despite my lifetime love and commitment to music, I inherited some of my late father’s tone-deafness.) And I do music just for fun, without any expectation of outcome. Frank Turner and the punk scene taught me that: “Try This at Home.” Just experience and enjoy.

Because I made a mistake when I took book-writing too seriously: I was so delighted to finally have a reason to write that it just about killed me to think that writing might never have an outlet. And here I most closely relate to Phil Ochs’s final angst: If you believe, as he did and as I do, that writing is communication, that it is meant to serve a purpose beyond mere self-expression, then if that writing is not read (or listened to) it simply does not exist. That’s why I once wanted to be a journalist but have never liked keeping a journal. It’s why Phil became Phil. You have to DO SOMETHING or it doesn’t count.

And that is what punk gave me: a chance to say something, do something, maybe not on the level I would like, but something. Would Phil, who spent his college years mimeographing his own publications, have found a home in DIY punk, a place to experiment with different kinds of music and writing, a supportive environment where mental illness is not just tolerated but generally expected? Could he have found the salvation I did, the thing that has (crossed fingers) given me the longest, most fulfilling, depression-free stretch of my life? Could it have helped him limp along just long enough to have access to improved mental health care that wasn’t available in 1976?

We don’t know, and we can’t. But, Phil, I would love for you to know, and your family too, that you continue to inspire me on a daily basis, and that as I’ve stumbled across social-media discussions of this new book the past couple of weeks, I see that I was far from alone in my Ochs obsession, that he is still a musical, literary, and political influence on thousands of us to this day. Thank you, Phil. John Train won the battle for your body, but he lost the war for your soul that is still here for us.

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