Being Phil

November 16th, 2011 by Phil Leave a reply »

We finally saw the Phil Ochs documentary tonight. I recommend it, but I recommend it from the perspective of having read all of the biographies, and I encourage people to read the biographies too.

Phil, in my mind, was the quintessential actor of the Sixties. For what it’s worth, historians think of “the Sixties” as either 1961 or 1963 through about 1975 – you pick either JFK’s inauguration or JFK’s assassination as the starting point, and the end in Vietnam as the end. Phil, who wound up in New York in 1961, and who died in 1976, pretty much fits the era exactly. He rose and fall as the era rose and fell. In this respect, I’ve always found him to be a more fascinating figure than, say, Bob Dylan, who was always more of an iconoclast, someone who was (and still is) fascinating for ahistorical reasons.

Phil died in April 1976. I was named after him (or at least, the genesis of my name came from him) seven months later. He was 35 when he died. I’m 35 now.

One thing the documentary brought up, which I think is very important but easy to lose sight of, is something Sean Penn addressed in talking about Phil’s outlook on the war: the idea that no matter how horrific Vietnam was, it was more ridiculous than it was horrific. The terror, the tragedy, the destruction – and all of it had no real point. That distinction, that understanding, it’s an important one for me as well. The gubernatorial races in 2006 and 2010 are best understood as these utterly ridiculous fragments, things that don’t really make a lot of sense and which need to be adapted to.

I think if I got caught up in the horror of existence without being able to step back and regard the sheer absurdity of it all, it would just drag me down. And I think what happened to Phil and to the Sixties more broadly is that people couldn’t help but get caught up in and dragged down by the horror. It’s the absurdity which is easier to fight than the horror. The horror makes you despondent. The absurdity makes you feel capable. It’s a hard thing to explain. But I think complacency comes when you accept the absurd, and despondency comes when you get caught up in the horror, and I don’t want to be complacent or despondent.

I wish I knew others who had read the biographies and seen the documentary. These are things I’d like to talk about, but I feel like I’ll inevitably do all of the talking.


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