In October 1973, in LA, I moved into an apartment belonging to absentee landlord Phil Ochs, the singer. His brother Michael sublet it to me and I stayed there for three months and wrote about the musicians of LA, the Eagles, Linda Rondstadt, Jackson Brown and many more, on Phil’s typewriter. I also wrote about English acts passing through, the Who on their Quadrophenia tour, Rod Stewart & the Faces at the height of their powers, even John Lennon, on the run from Yoko and assorted demons, who was shacking up with Yoko’s beautiful Chinese assistant May Pang at a Bel Air mansion owned by Ode Records boss Lou Adler.
All the while I soaked up the character of Phil, a man whose music I barely knew when I arrived but whose own records I listened to while I sat in his chair and ate from his plates. I was familiar with his best known song, ‘There But For Fortune’, but the rest was a mystery at first. I found the album which featured Phil on the cover wearing the gold lame suit and chuckled at the title, Gunfight At Carnegie Hall. I didn’t know then that Phil, essentially a strident protest singer, had performed a set of rock’n’roll covers at Carnegie Hall and was barracked for his trouble.
Pictures of Phil were everywhere and I decided he had a kindly face. Evidently untroubled by any sartorial leanings, he looked slightly shabby, even on his LP sleeves, so the gold lame must have come as a complete shock to his followers, like Robert Plant in a grey business suit or Mick Jagger with a crew cut. I came to realise, through reading his books and listening to his records, that he was a deeply committed left-winger, probably far more so than any of his contemporaries who came out of Greenwich Village ten years earlier. Although he had a sense of humour, he was a serious radical. In an earlier era he’d have been proscribed like those in the movie industry who fell foul of Senator Joe McCarthy in the Fifties. The closest contemporary musician to whom I can compare him now is Billy Bragg.
Thus did I get to know a man that I’d never met, and whom I thought I’d never meet since during the first week in December MM editor Ray Coleman ordered me to New York where it was much easier to do this strange but wonderful job. I told Michael that I was quitting the flat and he said that it didn’t matter as he was expecting Phil back soon anyway. In the event he came back sooner than either of us expected; so it was that on the very last night of my occupation of his flat, my last night in LA, Phil Ochs himself came barging into my life.
I had just emerged from the bathtub and was preparing to go out on my last night on the town with my LA girlfriend. I was in the bedroom and I heard the front door opened with a key. With only a towel wrapped around my waist, I walked down the corridor towards the living room and there he was. I recognised him instantly. He didn’t look well. He was overweight, unkempt and sweating. He carried two plastic bags full of cans of beer and he sat down and opened one. It wasn’t the first he’d had that night.
“Michael told me you would be here,” he said. “I just came by to collect some stuff.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Pleased to meet you Phil.”
“Are you going out?” he asked.
“Yes. I need to finish getting dressed.”
“OK. Sorry to barge in.”
“It’s your flat. But I’m leaving tomorrow.”
“I know. Michael told me.”
He looked around his living room and saw that nothing much had changed. Then he went over to the stereo and put on an album of classical music, very loud, fortissimo. Then he switched on the TV news and cranked up the volume so that it could be heard above the music. Then he picked up a telephone and made a call, yelling into the phone. The din was far, far louder than anything I might have created in the previous three months. Phil drained his beer, threw the can on the floor and opened another, and then another. The music and TV blared on and when I was dressed and back in the living room I sussed that he was ringing round trying to find a bed for the night. He virtually ignored me. After about five calls he found one, and promptly left as suddenly as he arrived.
“I gotta rush,” he shouted, gathering up the bags of beer cans. “See you around.”
He slammed the door behind him and I turned off to stereo and TV and sat down. The silence was deafening. I’d wanted to tell him about how I’d enjoyed living in his flat, about how I’d enjoyed his records, about how I’d taken advantage of his library. I wanted to say that I was genuinely grateful for having had the opportunity to live among his possessions and that it had been an enlightening experience for me. But he was gone.
* * *
I didn’t see Phil Ochs again until shortly before he died. Aside from a few short months in London, I’d been living in New York almost all the time since we first met at his flat, and I’d become a bit of regular at the music clubs around Bleecker Street where Phil also tended to hang out. He spotted me in the Bottom Line one night and came lurching over, full of plans for some benefit concert for some left-of-centre cause that he wanted to promote at Shea Stadium. It seemed pretty outrageous to me. He was drunk, of course. I saw him two or three more times over the next few weeks, in early ’75. He always looked dishevelled, a bit of a lost soul, and I got the distinct impression he was the kind of guy that people might prefer to avoid, someone who’d somehow outstayed his welcome.
And then, in April, I heard he’d hung himself. I reported on his memorial concert at the Felt Forum where dozens of his contemporaries came up and sang his songs and read eulogies. It was a moving occasion and I have no doubt that many of those present, performers as well as acquaintances like myself, felt they could have done more for Phil in his final years.