A Conversation with Sonny Ochs

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Sonny Ochs, Phil Ochs’s sister, lives in the country; “the middle of nowhere,” she calls it. “I hate cities,” she told me on the phone. In the background, cats meowed. Starstruck and more than a little nervous, I posed a few questions about Kenneth Bowser’s recently released documentary There But for Fortune, which respectfully traces her brother’s career as a musician and social activist, and which plays at the Northwest Film Forum on March 11.

Since the documentary’s release, blog posts and news stories about Phil appear daily, some accurate, some not. “I saw a blog today,” Sonny said, “that said Phil drank himself to death.” He didn’t. Phil lived with Sonny during the last months of his life, and her home contained neither alcohol nor drugs. “He was clean that whole time,” said Sonny. Rather, he suffered from manic-depression, which, in the 1970s, had no more humane nor effective treatment than lithium. “Even though it was hard, I’m glad the film talked about his mental illness,” she said, glad, she said, for its awareness-raising about a culturally stigmatized problem.

Raising awareness was a leitmotif of Phil Ochs’s life. While the movie, at times, implies his egotism, his sister describes him as a shy person, willing, time and again, to donate his talents to speak out against inequality at home and abroad. “Phil saw injustices and was personally bothered by them,” Sonny said, and the film successfully highlights his commitment to Civil Rights and international political causes, such as the concert he organized, after Allende’s assassination, to raise funds for the Chilean people and to make Americans aware of circumstances in Chile. The film also shows his ability to translate current events into music, an ability so acute, his sister describes his creative process as, “He looked at a newspaper and a song would pop up.” These days, Sonny says, every time some new political craziness, like Sarah Palin’s popularity, emerges, she thinks, “Boy, would Phil have had a ball with this!”

What the film omits, however, is the 410 page file the FBI maintained about Phil. Sonny received a copy of the file and found whole pages blacked out, possibly to prevent disclosure of wire-tapping, an illegal act at the time and grounds for litigation, should his surviving family members choose. The film’s less problematic but still notable omissions include Phil’s arrest in Uruguay, where he was participating in an unauthorized political rally and mistaken for a Cuban agitator, and his friendships with Tom Paxton and David Ifshin, a traveling companion who was also arrested in Uruguay. “Also,” Sonny added, “I wish the film had included a complete song.” Of Phil’s eight released albums, “In Concert” is Sonny’s favorite. In today’s world of processed music and autotuning, Sonny says, “Live recordings are so important.”

The film also hints at Phil’s substantial legacy, including clips from The Dead Kennedys’ cover of “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” and interviews with Phil’s daughter Meegan, actor Sean Penn, and atheist writer Christopher Hitchens among those with Phil’s surviving contemporaries. Perhaps a broader cast of younger people would have been hard to find among today’s youth. “It makes me sad, the whole thing,” says Sonny, referring to contemporary society’s complacency and entitlement. Still, she expresses optimism about the youth’s role in the recent Egyptian revolution and, more broadly, the younger generation’s ability to effect change through the internet. Pleased, too, that young people still discover her brother’s music, she mentioned an Italian graduate student who recently wrote her Master’s Thesis on Phil Ochs. I told her that my son, Asher, now 16, has been a Phil Ochs fan since the age of 12, that he owns Phil Ochs’s complete dioscography, has read every biography written about him, and plays guitar himself now, largely because of Phil. Delighted, she asked to talk to Asher and thrilled him with a generously lengthy conversation. Afterward, she told me that many people, since Phil’s death in 1976, have talked to her about his impact on their lives. “I don’t think he had a clue how much he meant to people,” she said. “I wish he’d known. It might have helped him.”

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One Response to “A Conversation with Sonny Ochs”

  1. J-Lon Says:

    “There But for Fortune” also has a Seattle connection.

    Interviews in the film with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, Dave Van Ronk, and others were drawn from Michael Korolenko’s 1984 documentary on Phil Ochs, “Chords of Fame.”

    Mike is a filmmaker and educator who has lived in the Seattle area for many years now.

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