There But for Fortune: A Life of Phil Ochs

Matthew A. Schumacher, Author, Michael Schumacher, Author Hyperion Books $24.45 (0p) ISBN 978-0-7868-6084-5
In folk singer Phil Ochs (1940-1976), the 1960s had the perfect tragic hero for a tumultuous era. Though a gifted songwriter and tireless antiwar and civil rights activist, Ochs suffered a running battle with manic depression that ruined his career and eventually drove him to suicide. Schumacher (Crossroads; Dharma Lion) covers Ochs's personal and professional highs and lows. He provides the requisite family background (e.g., that Ochs's father, also manic depressive, and mother were unhappily married; that his relationships with his siblings were strained), but he doesn't overdo it. Through extensive interviews with Ochs's family members, friends and business associates, Schumacher constructs a balanced portrait of the musician's brief but eventful life. Ochs's unsuccessful marriage and distant relationship with his daughter are contrasted to his commitment to the antiwar cause and to human rights issues in both the U.S. and South America. Schumacher doesn't gloss over Ochs's musical shortcomings: samples of Ochs's lyrics show his gift for the written word, but excerpts from concert reviews indicate that he could give deplorable live performances. The author's presentation of Ochs's humiliating attempt to revive his career by sporting an Elvis-style gold lame suit at a Carnegie Hall performance is particularly piercing and demonstrates how Ochs often misjudged his audience. Twenty years after Ochs's death, it seems odd, if not ludicrous, that the FBI once considered him a potential threat to American society; as Schumacher shows, he was, in fact, more of a threat to himself. Because Ochs never had a major commercial hit, memory of his accomplishments are fading with time; this worthy chronicle should keep those memories, and Ochs's spirit, alive for a while longer. (Sept.)
Reviewed on: 09/02/1996
Release date: 09/01/1996
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