On this day in 1976 topical folk singer Phil Ochs took his own life. He had struggled for over 10 long years, not just with bipolar 1 disorder, but from censorship of his own music in the media, harassment from the CIA and a failure to live up to his own often grandiose expectations. Few songwriters have come close to achieving the deep level of empathy Phil had for the people he wrote about, often inspired by stories he read in The New York Times. Bob Dylan once said Phil’s music was bullshit because he wasn’t singing about himself but when he did the songs were too personal, too painful because Phil would go through many months with major depression after many months of intense mania. People who consistently feel pain like that, having access to often shut off emotions mentally sane people don’t experience because of their soul-wrenching nature, can only really understand how Phil felt and experience his lyrics so profoundly.
Following one of the most traumatic events of his life at his own hands, in the creation of his dissociative personality of John Butler Train Phil became a violent and paranoid madman, often putting his friends lives in danger. And he never forgave himself.
If that wasn’t enough he suffered writer’s block and never penned another song again and had his vocal chords damaged when he was choked by muggers in South Africa, which Phil said had been set up by the CIA. Then he had to deal with another major depressive episode, one which he never recovered from. He took his own life one morning in his sister’s house in Far Rockaway New York. His young nephew David who looked up to Uncle Phil found him.
His songs have been covered from Joan Baez to Pete Seeger and even Teenage Fan Club. Of all the music I’ve listened to I can safely say that no other songwriter has touched me in the same way Phil has. Both socialists who feel the pain of all the people in the world whose lives we desperately wanted to change and had a hatred for a careless government that were often responsible for the conditions they lived in and an anger toward an apathetic population.
He also had a great sense of humor.
I’ll miss you Phil. I’m going to watch the There But For Fortune documentary tonight in honor of the greatest songwriter I’ve listened to.
R.I.P Phil. Photo by his brother Michael Ochs.