Blog Post · Folk Music

That Man in the Gold Lamé Suit (Book Review)

I grew up with Bob Dylan’s born-again Christian albums playing in the house and was vaguely aware of his protest songs. It wasn’t until I embraced folk music as an adult that someone introduced me to Phil Ochs. I was at a winter solstice campfire sing when, after I did some Ewan MacColl and Dubliners songs, local folk singer, Judy Pinder, suggested I look up Phil Ochs.

Since then I’ve recorded 37 covers of Phil’s songs (to Dylan’s 34), and recently released a proper album of covers. Phil wrote sharp, insightful, songs, targeting injustice wherever he saw it. He pulled no punches and didn’t hide behind the vague general references and metaphor in Bob’s protest songs.

I knew that Phil’s story was a sad one, and that he killed himself at a young age, struggling with alcohol abuse and depression. I had also read several online and published biographies, including the Michael Schumacher one. But the recent biography by Jim Bowers, That Man in the Gold Lamé Suit: Phil Ochs’s Search for Self, took a different approach to look at Phil.

What follows here is a review of Jim’s book, that I finished reading today. Firstly, the writing is accessible and flows at a good pace, I found myself consistently engaged throughout the whole book, so much so that a few of the chapters prompted some recordings before I had even finished reading the book. This Woody Guthrie song and this imagined conversation between Dylan and Ochs.

Phil’s is not a happy story, but one of insecurity, failed ambition, anger, confusion and ultimately a choice to end his own life. But it is also a story of some of the best topical songwriting of the generation, and some nation-changing activism, and of a person who at his core was kind, altruistic and honest.

Even though some of the activism didn’t bear fruit in Phil’s lifetime, many of the words he spoke then are still applicable to today’s politics. I re-wrote some of the lines from ‘Knock at the Door’ to speak to the crushing of protesters in Hong Kong by the Chinese Communist Party in 2019.

In terms of structure, Jim has used a psychological theory as the basis for seeking to understand Phil. It took me a while to understand the language of ‘self objects’. I didn’t read the Wikipedia primer on this theory before finishing the book, but I probably should have.

From what I understood, the theory puts a framework around the way that children go from having no distinction between self and not-self, to then starting to understand the distinction and begin to generate internal models or copies of external entities to then drive their decision making, and their feelings.  The movie Inside Out from Disney is probably a good primer to this way of thinking about how human internal processes of emotion work.

Just like when watching Inside Out, Jim’s book caused me to re-look at my own childhood and my own psychological state in several confronting ways. When humans find themselves in situations where their internal models consistently don’t behave the same way as the real external objects, it can lead to anxiety, fear, anger and a feeling of dissociation from reality.

Much of what drove Phil’s behaviour is attributed to a mother in a disappointing marriage who was disengaged and difficult to please. Phil also had a father who was damaged from his wartime experience and unable to model the foundational behaviours that grow kids into balanced, resilient, adults. Jim follows Phil’s career as a journey of attempting to be the American hero that a childhood of ‘cinema as parenting proxy’ had generated in him.

I won’t recount the journey here, you should read Jim’s book, as it is a convincing analysis, pieced together through interviews with Phil and those that knew him and analysis of Phil’s lyrics and career choices.

Phil died the year I was born, but I did not realise that he had toured Australia just 4 years earlier.  Phil played the Clancy Auditorium on 10th June 1972, advertised here. Canberra, with Ron Cobb on 8th July. He also played Melbourne, but I couldn’t find a record of where and when. This site has a more complete list of dates and locations and a summary of the performance.

Canberra Show Advertisement – 1973
Sydney Advertisement – 1973

One of the saddest chapters for me was the vision Phil had for his ‘Greatest Hits’ album. A leap from the solo guitarist protest singer to a socialist version of Elvis Presley, gold suit, swagger and rock band. I was very happy that the Phil Ochs album I picked up in Columbus Ohio last year was this one. It was a really good album, but was rejected by his ‘loyal’ fans because it was such a change, and not picked up by the mainstream because he was a leftists folk singer.

I am very happy that Jim has written this book. I can’t say that reading it was enjoyable, it isn’t, for anyone that loves Phil and his work, it is tough going. But it is really valuable to add to the depth of understanding of Phil’s inner world, and what was at the core of his work. Jim’s book scratches beneath the simplistic view that Phil had mental health problems and killed himself, the story is far more nuanced than that, and Phil deserves to be listened to.

Personally, I still wonder about the involvement of the CIA in Phil’s demise. The ‘John Train’ psychotic break of 1975 maps too well to the published MK-ULTRA experiments and the now unsealed knowledge of what was being done to track and control American political activists in the 1960s and 70s. That would have been a whole different book, that maybe Jim Glover will write in the future. I know many dismiss this as Q-Anon hoax, but this is an interesting interview with Jim Glover.

To end as I started, Bob Dylan is still making music and I enjoy many of his songs. I just wish that Phil had made it, and they could be trading barbs in song and stage banter well into their 90s.




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