Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Phil Ochs in Columbus


The legend that is the Columbus, Oh. Larry's Bar/ Phil Ochs/Bob Dylan link has been passed around for decades in Columbus. Did Dylan live above Larry's? Was he just visiting Ochs? Did Ochs live over Larry's? Where did I put my bong?
Today OSU Lantern writer John Cropper touches on this story in a recent column, which he then relates to his life.

Columbus folk hero
By: John Cropper

When it comes to memorable moments in rock 'n' roll history, the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I., ranks high on the minds of most music historians. It was there that a beloved Bob Dylan spurned his most faithful folk following by plugging in for the first time, creating the chasm between the "old Dylan" and the new one that ultimately defined his career.
And it was there, too, that a 25-year-old Phil Ochs watched quietly from the crowd. Ochs, once a friend and contemporary of Dylan, had twice before played the festival in 1963 and 1964 to riotous reactions from thousands of fans in attendance. But 1965 was Dylan's year, so Ochs took a backseat to the burgeoning, young singer.
What's interesting is not that Ochs didn't play the '65 festival, or even why he didn't (rumors say he and Dylan had a falling out in their East Village scene in New York), but the similarity between the two. Both men were raised in the Midwest, and both chose to forego education for music; while Dylan spent a year at the University of Minnesota, Ochs attended our very own Ohio State University for four years.
It was just recently that I discovered Ochs' connection to Columbus. For almost five years I've listened to his anthemic protest songs, completely naive to the eerie connection I share with the mostly unknown folk singer.
During a freshman year break from school, Ochs realized he wanted to pursue a career in writing. This epiphany, coupled with his love for politics, naturally lead him to enroll in the (then) heralded OSU School of Journalism when he returned to Columbus in 1959.
Save for about 50 years, Ochs' decision to pursue journalism mirrors mine almost verbatim.
But it gets better.
As an outspoken critic of American government, Ochs channeled his protests through newspaper articles and printed those opinions in the school paper. That's right. Ochs, a contemporary of Dylan, John Lennon, Joan Baez and Woody Guthrie, is an alumnus of The Lantern.
Michael Schumacher, Ochs' chief biographer, wrote that "Phil continued into his senior year at OSU but after getting passed over for the position of editor-in-chief of The Lantern, he dropped out with less than a quarter before graduation." Schumacher goes on to write that Ochs, clearly upset at the paper, decided to move to New York City in 1961 to pursue music.
It would be strange enough to know that Ochs and I shared the same campus and newsroom, but it gets better yet.
Indeed, it was here that Ochs perfected his Woody Guthrie-inspired protest songs, and the stage of the historic Larry's Bar at 2040 N. High St. was his first gig. Jon Paoletti, Larry's son and the current owner of the bar, said he remembers Ochs playing there.
When I learned that last revelation of Ochs' Columbus roots, I nearly fell out of my chair.
As it turns out, music, journalism, this paper and Larry's - probably four of the things I care most about in this city - were all cherished by Ochs as well.
Tragically, Ochs hanged himself in his New York apartment in 1976. He was 35. And almost equally tragic is the fact that, like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ochs' most critical acclaim came post-humously. Even still, most people don't recognize his name, let alone his music.
Ochs was also an avid reader and a fan of Victor Hugo. The French writer once said "music expresses that which cannot be said on which it is impossible to be silent."
Looking back now, it's fairly obvious why Ochs lived and eventually died by those words.

1 comment:

Eric said...

Ochs returned to Ohio State a few years later to play a concert in 1965. The event was captured on film and recently broadcast on BBC People's Century. He clearly looked happy to be back at his alma mater.