Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Gordon Friesen's `The Strange Death of Phil Ochs' Broadside Magazine Article of 1976 Revisited

(In the October-December 1976 issue of the now-defunct Broadside: the topical song magazine,” a founder and longtime editor of that non-profit folk music publication who died in 1996, Gordon Friesen, provided U.S. music fans with the following interesting alternative take on the 1960s topical and anti-war protest folk singer-songwriter Phil Ochs’s strange death to that presented in the 2011 documentary film about Phil Ochs, There But For Fortune, which was later broadcast in January 2012 on the PBS series, American Masters)

It is indicative of the depth of the brainwashing to which the American people have been systematically subjected that too many of them accept Phil Ochs’ death as a not too uncommon breakdown of a personality. But the accumulated facts raise more than a suspicion that a plot existed leading to his deliberate destruction. Let us look at some of these facts which would impel the reactionary, fascist-type U.S. imperialists to reach the decision that Phil Ochs must die.

The brainwashing of the people by the U.S. ruling class has created a tendency by artists, especially dissident songwriters, to underestimate the ferocious measures the ruling class will employ to destroy them. We know that the Wobbly balladeer Joe Hill was framed and executed by a firing squad (Phil knew this and even wrote a song expressing his admiration of Joe Hill). The woman radical songwriters, Fannie Sellins and Ella May Wiggins, were shot to death by police. Aunt Molly Jackson and her fellow songwriting relatives, Jim Garland and Sara Ogden, were forced to flee for their lives from the Harlan County, Kentucky, coal fields.

A fascist vigilante mob, aided by N.Y. State and local police, tried to murder Paul Robeson at Peekskill. He was finally silenced and driven into exile by the U.S. government. Even Woody Guthrie stated in print he was under surveillance by what he called the F-B-Eyes. Many Pete Seeger concerts were picketed by John Birchers handing out inflammatory leaflets urging at least by implication, violence against him. In 1940 the Oklahoma Red Dust Players were raided and scattered to the winds.

One can conclude that Phil Ochs was an even greater threat than these to the U.S. imperialists. In his early songs he defended Castro Cuba and the Vietnamese liberation fighters against the imperialistic designs of Washington. His songs became more and more pointed. “White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land”, “Santo Domingo”, “United Fruit” (where he approves of “young men going to the mountains to learn the way of the rifle” instead of slaving at pitiful wages for the American exploiters). But it was “Cops Of The World” with such lines as “here’s a kick in the ass, boys”, and “clean your johns with your flag” because “we’re the cops of the world”, and “Ringing Of Revolution” where he looks forward to the destruction of the last vestiges of the desperate decaying ruling class by the exploited masses, which really stuck like a bone in the throat of the U.S. imperialists.

A special threat was the wide circulation of Phil’s songs abroad. Books containing materials about him and his work were published in Spain, France, and other countries. The Spanish book reprinted “Cops Of The World” for its example of an Ochs song and the author likened Phil’s guitar to a machine gun. The first edition sold out so quickly, mainly to students, that the Franco regime did not have time to suppress it, as it did any further reprintings. Individuals and groups sang his songs in Japan, Scandinavia, Holland, W. Germany and many other countries.

It was naïve on Phil’s part to think when he undertook several jaunts in the early seventies to foreign nations that he would be treated like an ordinary tourist. He was met at two South American airports by police who arrested him, jailed him overnight and deported him the next day. From recent revelations it becomes obvious that the local authorities were acting under orders from the C.I.A. He was welcomed only in Chile where he sang together with Victor Jara, the popular Chilean peoples’ singer (Jara was destroyed in a bestial fashion when the C.I.A.-Ford-Kissinger sponsored Chilean fascists overthrew Allende in 1973. The police smashed Victor’s hands with their rifle butts, gave him his guitar and taunted “Now play and sing.” Then they murdered him).

When Phil tried to visit his ancestral Scotland the London police intercepted him and put him on a plane back to the United States. He got off at Dublin. Here communications between the C.I.A. and the Irish authorities seemed to have lagged, for Phil was allowed to stay all of two days in Dublin before being deported to New York.

On an African trip he was set upon by three thugs who paid special attention to crushing his voice box. Again the participation of the C.I.A. seemed unmistakably obvious. He came home barely able to croak and could never again sing like in the old days.

Meantime the activities and programs of the C.I.A. and the F.B.I. were slowly coming to light through hearings in Washington and books by former agents who could no longer endure the inhumanity of these secret organizations—their assassination plots, poison dart-guns, drugs to induce incoherency, burglaries, arming foreign fascists to overthrow their democratic governments, the use of informants and disrupters, spreading of lies, clawing through personal mail, bugging telephones, planting listening devices in citizens’ cars. And so far this seems only the tip of the iceberg.

The F.B.I. even had an elaborate program designed to induce dissidents to commit suicide. They confessed they had tried it on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this instance they failed. But who knows in which cases they have succeeded. In 1965 another Broadside songwriter “committed suicide.” He was Peter La Farge, adopted son of Oliver La Farge, first winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Literature—the book was “Laughing Boy,” a sympathetic treatment of the Navajo Indians. The F.B.I. took an interest in Peter and began hounding him when he organized FAIR (Federation for American Indian Rights). Several months before he died, the F.B.I. raided his New York apartment at midnight. They scattered and tore up his papers; they put handcuffs on him and dragged him to Bellevue in his pajamas. They put pressure on Bellevue to declare him insane, but Bellevue could find nothing wrong and turned him loose.

When Phil came back to New York last summer [in 1975] he was still full of plans. He was arranging to go to a place in New Jersey for a six-weeks “drying out” period under supervision by medical experts. Then he planned to set up what he called Barricade House, where he would issue a newspaper, record protest singers and make films. He already had the building picked out in SoHo.

People ask us what motivation would the F.B.I.-C.I.A. have in wanting to see Phil dead when he could no longer sing or write. We answer that this was their motivation: Phil still had tremendous organizing ability, as witness his organizing the Chilean benefit. Barricade House would have been a great threat to the ruling class. We can visualize the F.B.I. doing one of their infamous psychological profiles on Phil Ochs. They asked the computer, what is his greatest weakness? The computer spat back: ALCOHOL! The next step of the F.B.I. is to assign agents to exploit this weakness in their intended victim; I would be very suspicious of the “friends” who attached themselves to Phil and kept plying him with alcoholic drinks.

I am afraid we didn’t take to seriously Phil’s daily insistence that the C.I.A. and F.B.I., and later with the collaboration of Mafia hit men, were out to murder him. He sought a place to hide and tried to hire a bodyguard; he carried an iron bar, a big scissors and other means with which to defend his life.

Where did these threats come from? What really happened? Perhaps some commission five or ten years from now will bring out the true details of how Phil Ochs met his strange death. We should finally learn how the great song-poem “Crucifixion” became a personal prophesy of the fate of its author.

--Gordon Friesen (Broadside, 10-12/76/issue 133)

1 comment:

Jim Glover said...

The so far big secret about Phil, my ROTC roommate, Is that along with myself we were investigating the plot to kill JFK before during and after Dallas. He never could like he promised me to let the public in on his one way ticket home trip from Dallas and his watch point was on the corner of Elm and Huston. He told me where he was being filmed and I have copies of the frames I have sent out all over the internet. The Truth should come out someday... maybe after I am also dead.

I told the truth to Sis and Gorden in the early 80's and they were not surprised. Phil's Mom who I talked to was not surprised either.