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Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

One day in the mid-sixties I was asked if I’d like to join some friends on a trip to Buffalo to hear Phil Ochs in concert. The friends knew the promoter and had complimentary tickets. Already a huge Ochs fan—I had purchased tickets for his Toronto appearance at Massey Hall—how could I pass up yet another chance to see Phil?

We headed out in the afternoon, a Friday as I remember it now, and arrived in Buffalo in time for the evening concert. The venue was huge, but at show time it remained almost empty. Phil came out on stage, invited everyone to move down front and put on the whole show for about 50 of us. What a show. We had come to see Phil and he was not going to disappoint. We returned to Toronto in two cars. Phil and the promoter in the other car. The next night Phil played to a sold-out house. I never found out what the problem had been in Buffalo.

I have one other memory of running into Phil. I was at The Mouse Hole coffeehouse in Toronto’s Yorkville and between sets I went to the back of the room and there was Phil standing by the kitchen singing harmony to “There But for Fortune” playing over the PA. For this young hippie it was a magic moment.

Last night I attended the Toronto premier of the movie Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, a Kenneth Browser production about the life of this 60s icon.

The synopsis of the film from the First Run Features web site says:

As our country continues to embroil itself in foreign wars and pins its hopes on a new leader’s promise for change, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is a timely and relevant tribute to an unlikely American hero. Over the course of a meteoric music career that spanned two turbulent decades, Phil Ochs sought the bright lights of fame and social justice in equal measure – a contradiction that eventually tore him apart. From youthful idealism to rage to pessimism, the arch of Ochs’ life paralleled that of the times, and the anger, satire and righteous indignation that drove his music also drove him to dark despair. In this brilliantly constructed film, interview and performance footage of Ochs is illuminated by the ruminations of Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Pete Seeger, Sean Penn, Peter Yarrow, Christopher Hitchens, Ed Sanders, and others.

Oh, the memories. Young, idealistic, ready to save the world from itself. Phil did more to raise my awareness of political and social issues of the times than anyone else. I suspect I’m not the only one who owes Phil a debt of gratitude for that.

The film is a trip through a troubled time in the USA following a troubled man. It brought back many memories and filled in a few blanks. Some of Phil’s lyrics now have even more meaning for me than before. If you were there in the ’60s or if you are curious about Phil or the protest movement this movie is for you.

It’s almost 50 years later and there’s still more to be done. Phil’s words are as inspiring now as they were then and sadly, we still need the same inspiration.

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune is playing at the Bloor Cinema in Toronto through February 24th. For other dates and locations see the film’s website.

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