The short life and times of folkie Phil Ochs

By Matthew Flamm
Updated February 17, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

Phil Ochs was never a mainstream success like his onetime pal and rival Bob Dylan. But at his peak in the mid-’60s, the young singer-songwriter who penned ”There but for Fortune” and ”Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” had a loyal following, four critically acclaimed albums, and a bright future. Ten years later in 1976, his voice gone, his talent eroded, Ochs, just 35 years old, hanged himself.

Ironically, Ochs’ music still finds an audience to this day, as does Death of a Rebel (Citadel Press, $14.95), Marc Eliot’s biography of the singer, first published in 1979 and recently reissued with a new introduction and afterword.

”Of all the ’60s icons you can think of,” says Eliot on why Ochs continues to fascinate, ”only Phil Ochs’ life and career perfectly paralleled (the decade). He starts in ’61, filled with innocence, optimism, and left-wing politics. He comes to Greenwich Village, the folk-song mecca, and follows in Dylan’s footsteps. As the ’60s deteriorated into drugs, disillusionment, Nixon, the war in Vietnam, so did Phil’s career.”

Nonetheless, twentysomethings continue to rediscover Ochs’ albums, almost all of which are available on CD. ”He was never commercialized or cleaned up,” says the author. ”He remains one of the great, authentic voices of a generation.”

And as Death of a Rebel‘s new afterword illustrates, he was considered a genuinely ”subversive” voice of a generation: Eliot has included excerpts from the phone book-thick file that the FBI compiled on Ochs. ”When he said he was being followed by the FBI, everybody thought he was nuts,” says Eliot. Not that the government agency knew what it was doing. According to Eliot, in May 1976, the FBI warned the Secret Service that the singer was a threat to the President’s life. By that time, Ochs had been dead for a month.