Death of a Rebel, by Marc Eliot

Death of a Rebel

Death of a Rebel is a biography of ’60s pop folk singer Phil Ochs, written by a friend of his. It is sympathetic to Ochs, and sympathetic to the ’60s Left.

I knew very little about Ochs before reading this book. I knew the name, and that he was a folk singer who sang antiwar songs in the ’60s, but that’s about it. I’m pretty sure I’d never seen film of him nor heard him sing.

I mostly like the style of this book. It’s straightforward, chronological, easy to understand. The author does not adopt a position of phony neutrality, but is willing, for example, to call atrocities atrocities. (As I say, he mostly sides with the Left.)

Though I noted that the author is sympathetic to Ochs, just by presenting the facts of Ochs’s life the picture he paints is really not that of a good person. Evidently Ochs was at best a very mixed person. His flaws tended to hurt himself as much as they did the people around him, which does make it harder to dislike him, and he seems to have had a certain amount of charisma that drew people to him and his music, and made them more forgiving of him than one might expect given his behavior, which frankly was often poor.

I’m really not sure what I think of him. I feel myself going back and forth.

He wanted to be a much bigger star than he was, and at times described himself and his approach as if he put no value on avoiding selling out and really just wanted to do whatever worked.

On the other hand, it wasn’t like he was trying to follow some conventional path, to do everything “by the book” to be a star. A lot of what he did—including his choice of subject matter—certainly didn’t seem like what someone who was seeking only popularity and material success would choose.

Maybe the best way to describe it is that he was very self-directed as an artist, very resistant to letting others control him, and that he neither mimicked what seemed to make successful artists successful, nor tried to fit some common paradigm of the non-conformist artist who doesn’t care about success. He seemed convinced that he needed just to follow his instincts, however conventional or unconventional they might seem to others (and they became very unconventional, to the point of insanity, toward the end), in order both to be true to himself and to become a big star.

Unlike many folks from that era, his politics were both sincere and important to him, not a fad to go along with because it was convenient to do so. Many, many times he participated in or organized benefit concerts and political events, and really threw himself into these things and committed his time, money, and emotions. He was one of the founders of the tongue-in-cheek Yippie Party, and an important participant in the demonstrations outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968 (and a defense witness in the subsequent bizarre Chicago 8 trial).

Politically I think his heart was in the right place. He favored the underdogs and peace and generally was on the side I would have been on, but I don’t think he was an especially deep and sophisticated thinker about these things. He was the type who looked at dictators and revolutionaries through rose-colored glasses as long as they were (or claimed to be) of the Left.

Though there were certain things about him I admire, in a lot of ways he wasn’t the sort of person I like. He was routinely irresponsible and inconsiderate, he was a drunk, and he just wasn’t a nice person.

Most egregious was his treatment of women. At times he was even physically abusive. He was decidedly unsympathetic to the portion of the Left of the time that wanted to include women’s liberation as one of its causes, to go along with racial civil rights and anti-imperialism and such. He claimed—how seriously or how facetiously I’m not sure—that it was a notion spread on the Left by infiltrators working for its enemies, trying to discredit it and sow dissent within it by pushing ludicrous and misguided doctrines.

Obviously I have a big problem with someone like that.

I think the author made a good choice by putting the notion of mental illness in the reader’s mind early. He opens with a brief description of one of Ochs’s last public performances, and it’s really creepy the way Ochs rants between songs in a paranoid schizophrenic way. It reminded me slightly of Lenny Bruce, the way he became more and more obsessive in talking about himself and his struggles and his enemies on stage toward the end of his life, but I don’t think what Bruce was doing was insane in quite the way Ochs comes across.

Then when the author commences the body of the book with Ochs’s childhood and such, he includes a lot about Ochs’s father and his mental illness.

Pretty clearly there were certain mental health issues, certain predispositions, present inside Ochs all along. It wasn’t just a matter of taking a lot of drugs in the ’60s and messing up his brain or something. In reading about his deterioration in the ’70s where people are trying to talk him into checking into a mental hospital and such, there’s a feeling of inevitability about it all.

This isn’t really a “life and times” book, but through Ochs’s connection to certain politically important events (like the aforementioned Chicago 8 trial), there is a certain amount of history related as a byproduct of telling Ochs’s life story. So you do get a sense of what at least certain elements of the ’60s Left were like, and you’re reminded of things like the American government and its proxies’ murder of Salvador Allende in Chile, leading to one of the most vicious dictatorships any country could be cursed with.

It’s a sad book in a lot of ways. The forces of reaction proved powerful enough and unscrupulous enough to snuff out most of what was best and most hopeful about the ’60s Left, and Ochs as an individual went from being someone who was already troubled and something of an asshole, to suffering a total breakdown.

But again, I don’t know that I have a firm opinion about Ochs himself, whether he was more hero or pathetic loser. The author is honest enough to present him as a complex person with plenty of elements of both.

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