Monday, March 21, 2011

There But For Fortune

Phil Ochs story shines with the promise of the '60s and teaches lessons about the failures of the time

Marrianne and I went to see There But For Fortune this past weekend. I did not fall asleep during the documentary, which I expected to do, because I ended up feeling almost inside the movie and was carried along by the events that were so pivotal in Ochs' short and dramatic life. One thing seems clear, Ochs is among the best songwriters ever at writing melodic and lyrically powerful songs about political realities.

His songs were important to me at the time, and though I never heard him in live performance, his songs reliably expressed my own feelings about the Vietnam War, about the overthrow of a democratically elected Socialist government in Chile, about Civil Rights, about the lives of working people, and about the nearly anonymous lives of the victims of capitalism and institutional power. Sometimes, such as at the Democratic convention in 1968, Ochs and I were in the same places, on the same streets, sharing community and shouting to be heard. At one point in the documentary, Ochs' daughter, Meegan, applauds the documentary effort, noting that her father would be thrilled to be remembered, but saddened that so many of the important struggles of the '60s were yet to be won.

Ochs struggled with manic-depression, which was likely partially inherited from his father, who was himself hobbled and institutionalized by the condition. Ochs' mania may very well have been one of the most important factors in his consistent ability to mobilize for protest and organizing. His mental illness may also have been inseparable from his creative power. By 1976, when Ochs killed himself, his depression and self-medicating alcoholism were likely the most important factors. Both his strengths and weaknesses may have been to a substantial degree the gifts of his manic-depression. But another factor in his suicide, a factor which must have undermined his previously impressive resilience, his ability to engage the fight for peace and justice, was a feeling that the promise of the '60s was dissipated, that the movement had lost too many struggles, had been defeated, compromised or had turned to violence.

Ochs was only a few years older than me, and he's been gone for almost 35 years. But watching There But For Fortune I felt both the joy of comradeship, bafflement at the ebbs and flows of creativity, and the sorrow of loss. Ultimately, I can't say whether Ochs' early death makes his life more quintessentially a '60s life, or less so. But he was vulnerable in a way that most of us are not because of the severity of his mental illness.

This morning before she left for work, Marrianne told me about a colleague of hers at the Department of Health and Human Services who as a boy was a refugee. At one point in his childhood, he walked hundreds of miles across an African desert to escape war and starvation. The story got me to thinking about the size of the struggle for peace and justice that we face now and how a person tempered by a childhood journey across deserts might tackle the challenge. This issue very much matters to me because I can't easily answer strategic questions about how to rebuild the peace and justice movement and restore faith in this country about the good that government can do. It is clearly a struggle for a longer haul than ever reckoned by Phil Ochs or by me. So I guess I'd have to start with the acknowledgement that if one is planning a long walk across a vast desert, one should begin in the knowledge that water and food might be frequently unavailable, but there is a promised land, of sorts, on the other side. And, of course, when food and water are available, it will seem like a banquet.

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