The Strange Story Behind “Phil Ochs Greatest Hits”
Updated: Mar 6
For those who don’t know, Phil Ochs was a prominent singer-songwriter in the 1960s most closely related to the “Folk Music” and “Protest” fields.
Ochs was involved in the creation of the Youth International Party, known as the Yippies, along with Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Stew Albert, and Paul Krassner. Ochs actively supported Eugene McCarthy's more mainstream bid for the 1968 Democratic nomination for President.
He helped plan the Yippies' "Festival of Life" which was to take place at the 1968 Democratic National Convention along with demonstrations by other anti-Vietnam-war groups. Ochs went to Chicago both as a guest of the McCarthy campaign and to participate in the demonstrations. He performed in Lincoln Park, Grant Park, and at the Chicago Coliseum, witnessed the violence perpetrated by the Chicago police against the protesters, and was himself arrested.
His 6th album, “Rehearsals For Retirement” was recorded in the aftermath of Ochs's presence at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago (where Ochs claimed to have witnessed the symbolic "death of America") it is often considered to be the darkest of Ochs' albums. The cover portrays a tombstone with the words:
PHIL OCHS (AMERICAN) BORN: EL PASO, TEXAS, 1940 DIED: CHICAGO, ILLINOIS, 1968
At the trial of the Chicago Seven in December 1969, Ochs testified for the defense. His testimony included his recitation of the lyrics to his song "I Ain't Marching Anymore". On his way out of the courthouse, Ochs sang the song for the press corps. It was broadcast that evening by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News.
After the riot in Chicago and the subsequent trial, Ochs changed direction. The events of 1968 convinced him that the average American was not listening to topical songs or responding to Yippie tactics. Ochs thought that by playing the sort of music that had moved him as a teenager he could speak more directly to the American public. Ochs turned to his musical roots in country music and early rock and roll.
Having claimed he’d “died’ on the previous LP, Phil decided to approach his next one with the idea of coming back from the dead.
The album cover concept was strange to say the least. On it he wore a gold lamé suit which he commissioned from Nudie Cohn. He titled the LP “Greatest Hits”. It was nothing of the sort. In fact it consisted of new songs in a decidedly country-rock style.
During his March 27, 1970, concerts at Carnegie Hall, Ochs explained his choice to wear the suit. He told the audience he had died in Chicago, in reference to the violence he witnessed during the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention. He said God gave him a chance to come back to earth as anyone he wanted and he chose Elvis Presley. The suit is now part of the Phil Ochs archives at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Here’s the kicker. It’s a great album. Hindsight shows that Ochs made a terrible choice in how to present it. Record buyers were put off by the Elvis cover and weird title. He might have gotten more sales and good reviews had he found a solid way to market himself as a born again country-rocker. The sound of the record is right in line with The Dillards, The Burritos, Country Gazette, Arlo Guthrie and the like. The stellar group of musicians on the album includes Clarence White, Gene Parsons, Chris Ethridge, James Burton, Kevin Kelley, Earl Ball, Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, Don Rich, Tom Scott, Laurindo Almeida, Bob Rafkin, Mike Rubini, Merry Clayton, and Clydie King.
His lyrics were at their most self-referential, not political. Among the tracks was "Chords of Fame", which warned against the dangers of cult of personality. "Boy In Ohio" saw Ochs looking back nostalgically at his childhood and "Jim Dean of Indiana" was a tribute written after Ochs had visited Dean's grave. One of the standout tracks is “My Kingdom For A Car”, which Gene Parsons recorded a few years later on his “Melodies” album. "No More Songs" was the most telling of the tracks, as Ochs would release but five more studio tracks in his lifetime after 1970, never completing another studio album.
The back cover featured the phrase "50 Phil Ochs Fans Can't Be Wrong".
Ochs toured wearing the gold suit, backed by a rock band, singing his own material along with medleys of songs by Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Merle Haggard. His fans didn’t know what to think. He got hostile reactions from audiences. The aforementioned show was recorded and released as “Gunfight at Carnegie Hall”.
Depressed by his lack of widespread appreciation and suffering from writer's block, Ochs did not record any further albums.
Although the 1968 election had left him deeply disillusioned, Ochs continued to work for the election campaigns of anti-war candidates, such as George McGovern's unsuccessful Presidential bid in 1972.
Ochs drinking was a big problem, and his behavior became increasingly erratic.
In January 1976, Ochs moved to Far Rockaway, New York, to live with his sister Sonny. He was lethargic; his only activities were watching television and playing cards with his nephews. Ochs saw a psychiatrist, who diagnosed his bipolar disorder. He was prescribed medication, and he told his sister he was taking it. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in Sonny's home.
Years after his death, it was revealed that the FBI had a file of nearly 500 pages on Ochs. The information in those files relates to his association with counterculture
figures, protest organizers, musicians, and other people described by the FBI as "subversive".
“Greatest Hits” was Phil Ochs' seventh LP and final studio album. Disregard the cover. It is quite good. Do yourself a favor and check it out.
Jess Marich 2020