Phil Ochs - Biography - 1970


After the riot in Chicago and the subsequent trial, Ochs changed direction again. The events of 1968 convinced him that the average American was not listening to topical songs or responding to Yippie tactics. Ochs thought that by playing the sort of music that had moved him as a teenager he could speak more directly to the American public.

Ochs turned to his musical roots in country music and early rock and roll. He decided he needed to be "part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara", so he commissioned a gold lamé suit from Elvis Presley's costumer Nudie Cohn. Ochs wore the gold suit on the cover of his 1970 album, Greatest Hits, which consisted of new songs largely in rock and country styles.

Ochs went on tour wearing the gold suit, backed by a rock band, singing his own material along with medleys of songs by Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Merle Haggard. His fans did not know how to respond. This new Phil Ochs drew a hostile reaction from his audience. Ochs's March 27, 1970, concerts at Carnegie Hall were the most successful, and by the end of that night's second show Ochs had won over many in the crowd. The show was recorded and released as Gunfight at Carnegie Hall.

During this period, Ochs was taking drugs to get through performances. He had been taking Valium for years to help control his nerves, and he was also drinking heavily. Pianist Lincoln Mayorga said of that period, "He was physically abusing himself very badly on that tour. He was drinking a lot of wine and taking uppers. The wine was pulling him one way and the uppers were pulling him another way, and he was kind of a mess. There were so many pharmaceuticals around—so many pills. I'd never seen anything like that." Ochs tried to cut back on the pills, but alcohol remained his drug of choice for the rest of his life.

Depressed by his lack of widespread appreciation and suffering from writer's block, Ochs did not record any further albums. He slipped deeper into depression and alcoholism. His personal problems notwithstanding, Ochs performed at the inaugural benefit for Greenpeace on October 16, 1970, at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, BC. A recording of his performance, along with performances by Joni Mitchell and James Taylor, was released by Greenpeace in 2009.

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