Phil Ochs during a 1967 Vietnam protest outside the UN building in New York.
It probably seemed like a gloomy joke when Phil Ochs put an image of his own tombstone on the cover of his 1969 album Rehearsal for Retirement with an inscription that read: "Born El Paso, Texas; Died Chicago, IL, 1968."
The grave, which also featured a black-and-white photo of Ochs—rifle slung over shoulder—standing in front of an American flag, was an obvious reference to the radical leftist folk singer's role in the bloody protests outside the Democratic National Convention 50 years ago this week. Specifically, Ochs was in Chicago to help plan and participate in the Youth International Party's (also known as Yippie) "Festival of Life" protest in Lincoln Park. He was among a core group of organizers arrested as they tried to publicize their own candidate for president, a pig.
Ochs witnessed all of the violence and chaos in Chicago while the Democratic establishment, guarded by a small army of Mayor Richard J. Daley's troops, chose pro-Vietnam war candidate Hubert Humphrey. The singer saw it as the "final death of democracy in America."
"It was the total, final takeover of the fascist military state—in one city, at least," Ochs said in an interview in New York shortly after the DNC. "Chicago was just a total, absolute police state. A police state from top to bottom. I mean it was totally controlled and vicious."
Certainly, Ochs didn't perish. Nor was he one of the hundreds of anti-war protesters hurt in the ensuing melees with police and the National Guard that week. What he and many of his peers in the New Left instead suffered was a kind of spiritual death.
"I've always tried to hang onto the idea of saving the country, but at this point, I could be persuaded to destroy it," Ochs said. "For the first time, I feel this way."
The cover of Phil Ochs's 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement
If the music of Phil Ochs doesn't ring a bell, you're not alone. History has a way of sanitizing, obscuring, or just plain forgetting much of the protest music of the past. Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," for instance, was never intended to be a paean to our republic but a defiant Marxist response to Irving Berlin's "God Bless America." And the radical pro-labor and anti-war tunes contained in the Industrial Workers of the World's Little Red Songbook (detailed in a recent Reader feature) are all but unknown today.
The same goes for Ochs. He wrote eight albums of fierce and fiery folk songs before he died by his own hand in 1976, but his legacy has been papered over when we think of the protest music of the tumultuous 60s. When Lady Gaga asked, "Anybody know who Phil Ochs is?" before covering his 1967 ballad "The War is Over" at a free concert during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, it got a lackluster response.
It's no wonder: Ochs's radical politics pulled no punches. When the Ohio State student newspaper refused to publish some of his pieces, he started his own underground magazine called the Word. During his early musical career—as part of a duo called the Singing Socialists and then as a solo artist—his songs often sounded like left-wing columns on current events set to music. Bob Dylan once famously once kicked him out of his car during an argument saying, "You're not a folk singer, you're a journalist." Ochs didn't totally deny it—his first album for Elektra in 1964 was even titled All the News That's Fit to Sing, a play on the New York Times's tagline, and the songs were written about topics allegedly pulled from the pages of Newsweek magazine.
Many of his songs, as one might expect, take direct aim at reactionary conservatives and the architects of the Vietnam war: "We've got too much money we're looking for toys. And guns will be guns and boys will be boys. But we'll gladly pay for all we destroy. 'Cause we're the Cops of the World, boys," he sang on "Cops of the World."
Other tracks hold up a mirror to moderate liberals and implicate them in the excesses of American empire and systems of inequality and institutional racism. His scathing 1966 song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" mocks hypocritical Democrats he described as "ten degrees to the left of center in good times, ten degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally." Sung from the perspective of a liberal, Ochs croons the lyrics: "I love Puerto Ricans and Negros, as long as they don't move next door. So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal."
Mass-market success eluded Ochs his entire career. His most popular album, a 1966 live album, peaked at 150 on the Billboard charts. But he was an influential presence at folk festivals and at political rallies at college campuses all over the country. It was while visiting UC Berkeley to perform at a teach-in against Vietnam during the Free Speech Movement protests in 1965 that Ochs met and befriended Jerry Rubin, one of the founders of the Yippies.
It was Rubin who convinced Ochs to play music at the Festival of Life, the Yippies' theatrical spoof of the DNC in Chicago. "[The Festival] was to show the public, the media, that the convention was not to be taken seriously because it wasn't fair, and wasn't going to be honest, and wasn't going to be a democratic convention," Ochs later testified in court.
To show their contempt for the American political system, they vowed to nominate their own Democratic candidate—one of the swine kind. Abe Peck of the underground paper Chicago Seedtold the New York Timesthat after the nomination, they were "going to roast him and eat him. For years, the Democrats have been nominating a pig and then letting the pig devour them. We plan to reverse the process."
Phil Ochs paid an Illinois farmer for Pigasis, the pig the Yippies tried to nominate as president.
Ochs and several other Yippies traveled to various farms in the Chicago area before the convention to pick out what Yippie Judy Gumbo, in her 2008 recollection of 1968, called "the largest, smelliest, most repulsive hog we could find." The 145-pound black-and-white pig, dubbed Pigasus, was taken to the Chicago Civil Center for a press conference on August 23. Five Yippies were taken to jail at the press conference as they were taking Pigasis out of the truck—including Rubin and Ochs, while the presidential hog hopeful was taken to the Chicago Humane Society. All humans were released after posting a $25 bond.
The crowds at the five-day Festival of Life in Lincoln Park averaged between 8,000 and 10,000, nowhere near the 15,000 that organizers expected. Many were scared off by Daley's saber rattling. A week before the convention, the city of Chicago turned downtown into a combat zone, with a special 300-strong CPD task force armed with riot gear. "No one is going to take over the streets," said Daley. After the Yippies were denied a permit by the city, the Chicago Seed advised activists to avoid coming. "Don't come to Chicago if you expect a five-day festival of life, music, and love. The word is out. Chicago may host a festival of blood," the paper wrote.
"Daley's preconvention terror tactics were a success in keeping out large numbers of people. For instance, his threats to set up large-scale concentration camps," Ochs said. "Daley issued many statements like that, very threatening statements, and these and come succeeded in keeping a lot of people away. But the people who did show up were the toughest, really, and the most dedicated."
Few countercultural artists and musicians came as well. Ochs invited Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Paul Simon, and others to perform but he was the only folk singer to show. As he sang "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore", hundreds of protesters burned their draft cards.
The only rock band to appear were the MC5, a radical leftist group managed by John Sinclair, a Yippie who'd formed the White Panthers—an organization of white allies to the Black Panthers. MC5 played at the Festival of Life.
Ochs believed his peers didn't see the DNC protests as a "worthwhile project."
"There really hasn't been that much involvement of folk people and rock people in the movement since the Civil Rights period except that one period where the anti-war action became in vogue and safe, you know, large numbers of people and all that publicity, and then they showed up," Ochs said, while also acknowledging their fear. "I'm sure everybody was afraid. I was afraid."
As it turns out, there was plenty to fear. Especially on Wednesday, August 28, the day that most people think about when they think about that convention in Chicago. That early morning, protesters agitated along the east side of Michigan Avenue across from the Conrad Hilton Hotel where the Democratic delegates were staying. That included Ochs, who wore a flag pin on his suit jacket.
"Phil was born in El Paso, Texas, and really loves America," Gumbo later said. "Even when he's being gassed along with the rest of us."
He also tried to engage with the young National Guardsmen pointing their bayoneted rifles toward the sky, Gumbo recalled:
As we walk, Phil introduces himself to the impressed guardsmen and asks if they've ever heard his songs. Like "I Ain't Marching Anymore." Many nod.
"I once spent $10 to go to one of your concerts" one complains. "I'll never do that again."
In 1968, $10 was a lot of money. Phil stops and talks directly to the guy, explaining why he is opposed to the war. The Guardsman starts to smile, and even lowers his rifle a little bit, very appreciative that a celebrity like Phil is speaking to him like a real person.
But the smiles soon disappeared as about 3,000 protesters tried to march and the police didn't let them and some of them started throwing rocks, sticks, sometimes feces. What ensued was a 17-minute melee in front of the hotel between the marchers and a force that included some of the 12,000 Chicago police in addition to 6,000 army troops and 5,000 National Guardsmen that had been called to protect Chicago on the orders of Mayor Daley. Officers beat activists bloody in the streets of Chicago with nightsticks—live on national TV. It was called the Battle of Michigan Avenue, a nickname used to describe a one-sided affair that a government commission later declared to be a "police riot." In all, 100 protesters and 119 cops were treated for injuries and about 600 protesters were arrested.
A public poll taken two months later found that more people thought the police had used too little force rather than too much, 25 to 19 percent. Many Chicagoans were also on Daley's side, a fact that disturbed Ochs.
"The Chicagoans were unable to recognize that this was a national convention. They literally, psychologically couldn't. They kept thinking, 'This is our city, our convention.' When it's a national election they're talking about," he said. "I'm really beginning to question the basic sanity of the American public . . . I think more and more politicians are really becoming pathological liars, and I think many members of the public are. I think the Daily News, Tribune poisoning that comes out is literally creating—and television—all the media are creating a really mentally ill, unbalanced public."
But Ochs also left Chicago feeling unbalanced and disillusioned with the idea that the system could be repaired or reformed.
"Maybe America is the final end of the Biblical prophecy: We're all going to end up in fire this time. America represents the absolute rule of money, just absolute money controlling everything to the total detriment of humanity and morals. It's not so much the rule of America as it is the rule of money. And the money happens to be in America. And that combination is eating away at everybody. It destroys the souls of everybody that it touches, beginning with the people in power," he said.
This sense of despondency was reflected in his music. Many of his politically charged anthems had been critical of American society but were nonetheless anchored in a kind of can-do optimism. But in mid-1969, the man who once sang "Can't add my name into the fight while I'm gone / So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here" released Rehearsal for Retirement," an entire album of what he called "despair music."
In the funereal track "William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park," Ochs sang about the bleak scene in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention: "They spread their sheets upon the ground just like a wandering tribe. And the wise men walked in their Robespierre robes. When the fog rolled in and the gas rolled out. In Lincoln Park the dark was burning."
Ochs wouldn't return to Chicago until almost a year after the Festival of Life to testify in the trial of the so-called Chicago Eight. They were the main organizers of the protests—including Rubin and Yippies cofounder Abbie Hoffman, and members of the Students for a Democratic Society, the National Mobilization Committee, and Bobby Seale of the Black Panthers—charged with conspiracy to cross state lines with intent to incite a riot.
The trial was a circuslike spectacle, and Ochs's testimony was no different. The defense lawyer William Kunstler asked him discursive questions about Pigasus ("Mr. Ochs, can you describe the pig which was finally bought?"), had Ochs deny that he'd made plans for public sex acts in Lincoln Park, and tried to get him to play his song "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" in front of the judge and jury until the defense objected. The trial dragged on for months, and Ochs returned to Chicago in December 1969 to play the so-called Conspiracy Stomp, a benefit for the Chicago Eight, at the Aragon.
R. Crumb drew the poster for the Conspiracy Stomp, a benefit for the Chicago Eight held at the Aragon in 1969.
The criminal and contempt charges against the Chicago Eight were eventually overturned or dropped, but the FBI escalated its attempt to build a case against them and Ochs. "I'm a folk singer for the FBI," he told an audience during one show. Special agents monitored his travels in person and received updates from foreign authorities when, for example, he flew to Chile to meet with supporters of Salvador Allende, a socialist elected in 1970. (After his death in 1976, the FBI declassified the 420-plus-page file they kept on him, with information including the claim that a lyric about assassinating the president from Rehearsal for Retirement's "Pretty Smart on My Part" was a threat against President Nixon.)
Ironically, the FBI had increasingly less justification to do so. Ochs considered leaving the country at the end of 1968, but instead moved to Los Angeles and drastically changed his act. The tactics of the Yippies, he came to believe, were ineffective at enacting change. He turned, believe it or not, to Elvis Presley.
In Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, a concert album recorded at Carnegie Hall in New York on March 27, 1970, Ochs dressed in a Elvis-style flashy gold- lamé suits and sang medleys of covers of the King and Buddy Holly. He laid out his new philosophy bare in a monologue to the audience:
"As you know, I died in Chicago. I lost my life and I went to heaven because I was very good and sang very lyrical songs. And I got to talk to God and he said, 'Well, what do you want to do? You can go back and be anyone you want.' So I thought who do I want to be? And I thought, I wanted to be the guy who was the King of Pop, the king of show business, Elvis Presley.
Phil Ochs in his Elvis suit.
"If there's any hope for America, it lies in a revolution. If there's any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley into becoming Che Guevera. If you don't do that, you're just beating your head against the wall, or the cop down the street will beat your head against the wall. We have to discover where he is, he's the ultimate American artist."
But Ochs's Elvis-impersonator act bombed even as the singer begged the crowd to be more open-minded, pleading, "Don't be narrow-minded like Spiro Agnew."
Over the course of the 70s, the singer fell into mental illness, depression, and alcoholism. His death came at his own hands on April 9, 1976, at the age of 35. His real passing came almost exactly seven years after he announced his death on vinyl in early May 1969.
The tombstone wasn't meant as a prophecy, it was a lament of the past.