Friday night, I finally go to see the late Phil Ochs in concert thanks to West Side Folk’s “A Night of Phil Ochs,” in which singer, actor and shining soul Zachary Stevenson completed embodied Ochs in voice, gestures, patter between songs, and stories. There’s been no way for me and many others who love his music to see the actual Phil Ochs live since he killed himself in 1976, about three years before I heard him singing “Changes” on the radio and fell in love. At least, that was
true until Friday night. Och’s sister Sonny, according to Bob McWilliams who organized the concert and does so much to keep the music alive in our community, once introduced Stevenson by saying, “If you’ve never seen Phil in concert, now you can.” While I can’t compare the real Ochs in concert with Stevenson, friends who saw Stevenson affirmed he was the real deal in gesture and tone.
There are some voices in the world so distinctive and soulful that they feel like the home we didn’t know we lost. The first times I heard James Taylor, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Springsteen, Greg Greenway, Tracy Chapman, Joni Mitchell, and Kelley Hunt, I felt like they were old friends I’ve known all my life and whose music seemed to know me also. Phil Ochs is part of that small circle of friends for me, but unlike his song of the same title, this circle doesn’t turn away out of self-interest or apathy, but shows up via recorded performances, radio, CDs and records, and even in the songs I play in my mind some days when I swim laps.
Phil Ochs particularly had a depth of passion funneled through clarity, wit, and conviction. There’s no way to listen to any Och’s song without believing him, or at least, that he believes in his bones all he sings. There’s also something about Ochs that transcends the sum of his considerable parts: a great sense of rhythm and verve in his songwriting, his vibrant guitar playing and picking, and most of all, his bell of a voice. I’ve been trying to name that something since the concert as I’ve watched videos of Ochs and listened to Stevenson’s astonishing recording of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” What was it that made me spend hours decades ago doing the same thing with albums rather than youtube videos when I was 19? I remember long mornings in the KOPN community radio studio in Columbia, Missouri back in 1980 when, on the loose premise that I was looking for music for my democratic socialist radio show, I pored over Ochs’ albums, studying each line and each earnest turn of his voice. He mirrored back to me my yearnings to do something that mattered through writing and activism, but he also spoke and sung right into the center of whoever I was.
I forgot about this time until the concert when every word came back to me and just about everyone else, even the long chorus of “Draft Dodger Rag.” As I looked around each time Stevenson began a favorite song — “Pleasures of the Harbor,” “Changes, “When I’m Gone” — I saw people so elated they needed to wipe their eyes. I remembered a quote from Ochs that speaks to me more as I age: “In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” Thank you to West Side Folk Folk and Zachary Stevenson for bringing us back this particular beauty that grows in depth and meaning even 40 years after he’s gone.