John Colson: Hit and Run
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
I’ve been feeling nostalgic for days, ever since viewing a biopic about the long-dead but not forgotten protest singer-songwriter, Phil Ochs, and wondering how he might have viewed our current global disintegration.
Ochs killed himself at the age of 35, on April 9, 1976; after his career took a nosedive, his voice choked out of him by a couple of muggers, and he went more than a little nuts- in part because he was massively depressed over the abject mess the world was in.
Can’t help but wonder what he’d think of the mess we’re in now, and what songs he might write about it.
Ochs preferred to be called a “topical singer” and was known to refer to himself as a “singing journalist,” a nod to his brief college studies to become a news writer.
He remains most well known for his output in the 1960s, when he penned and performed such tunes as “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “Is There Anybody Here,” and the priceless ironical ballad, “Love Me I’m a Liberal.”
He also wrote a tune, “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon,” which was a recasting in the 1970s of an earlier song about the 1964 murder of three civil rights activists in Mississippi, “Here’s To The State of Mississippi.”
All of these were songs of outrage, anger and frustration over the ills Ochs perceived when he looked around him. They were funny, they were full of pathos and pain, and they pointed straight at the heart of whatever issue grabbed his attention in the headlines of the day.
Ochs, born in 1940 in Texas, lived and wrote and sang his way through that terrific and terrible decade and a half now blithely and dismissively referred to as “The Sixties,” although the tumult and madness of the period continued for a few years after the actual decade had passed.
He was unhinged by the murders of John F. Kennedy and his brother, Bobby; of The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and of four college kids at Kent State University in Ohio.
He was demoralized and devastated by the vicious, senseless and deliberate violence of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.
And he wrote scathingly about all of it, to the point where the FBI put together a 500-page dossier on the man and declared him “dangerous” – even after he was dead.
Ochs traveled to South America in 1971 to check out the surprising socio-political foment surrounding the election of Marxist Salvador Allende as president of Chile.
While there he befriended a Chilean activist, folk singer and Allende supporter, Victor Jara. Jara was later tortured and murdered when Allende’s government was overthrown (with help from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the ITT corporation), and Allende was killed in his presidential palace. Ochs himself was imprisoned for a time after singing at a political rally in Uruguay. He apparently narrowly escaped becoming one of the “disapparados,” thousands of Latin American citizens arrested and imprisoned by their governments, and never seen again.
But aside from his growing disenchantment with the world, he also was one curious man.
He went to Africa in 1973 to explore the connections between his music and that of the locals in places like Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania.
It was while he was in Tanzania that he was mugged on a beach one night by a couple of African men, who robbed him and strangled him nearly to death. The incident damaged his vocal chords, taking away the top range of his marvelous, tremelo tenor voice.
He concluded the CIA was behind the mugging. This was either a sign of growing paranoia or a recognition that a shadowy agency that could murder and overthrow the elected president of a nation would feel no compunction at eliminating a pesky protest singer.
It’s a shame he came to the conclusion that his life wasn’t worth the cost and the pain.
If he were still with us, I’d bet good money he would be at the barricades today with the Occupy Movement, writing songs exposing the hollow core of our corporate culture, and urging us to fight for a world that ennobles humanity rather than worshipping the almighty dollar.
We’ll never know what he might have done, but we should remember what he did.
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