On the thirtieth anniversary of a suicide

And so this is how it is: your revolution never came
but what right you had to take yourself away I’ll never know.
You might have sung to lift our hearts to fight another war,
now one out of a hundred barely just recalls your name.
You might have lived content had you unstrung the chords of fame
though the crests and troughs they hammered unforgiving at your shore,
and the waves they were relentless, with a fearful undertow
and the wrack they left hung on your kitchen door.

And your music has gone quiet. Where once your voice was heard
comes the ringing of the coins in rich men’s pockets.
Your people have grown soft and fat, with soft inside their heads,
they’re lulled to sleep by trinkets that they’re selling;
That mountain of machinery has since been put to work
It sells soulless songs to mask the sound of rockets.
In the streets the beggars murmur, beg for bread.

A glint of gold, a speck of silver layered on the lead
and dismal days that make the time in which we’re dwelling;
and your country has moved on. The news is full of grinning liars:
What you’d think if you were here, there is no telling.
Would you hammer out a song, stoking rage into a pyre?
Would you lose the fear of faggots? Or the blithe naiveté?
Would your eyes they start astonished if I had a chance to say
that the banner bright a hanging on that stadium in Chile
bears Victor’s name to mark too many martyrs?

Just thirty years of time and work great wonders might inspire:
the Chileans didn’t off themselves, for starters.

And so this is how it is: We need you more than we did then
and what right you had to take yourself I cannot understand.
We had no claim on you, we could not keep you ‘gainst your will
but the songs you sang to us before we’re needing once again
and the fires that burn in Baghdad are the same that burned Phnom Penh,
and the color of the skin on all the children that we kill.
There are those of us who, one more time, are trying to take a stand
and we really could have used your help here, Phil.

And your music has gone quiet; where once your voice was heard
comes the ringing of the coins in rich men’s pockets.
Your people have grown soft and fat, and soft inside their heads
they’re lulled to sleep by trinkets that they’re buying
That mountain of machinery has since been put to work
It sells soulless songs to mask the sound of rockets.
In the streets the beggars murmur, hungry, crying.

9 thoughts on “On the thirtieth anniversary of a suicide

  1. volney

    what a lovely, lovely piece of writing.  i wonder how many of us there are left out here.

  2. Kimberly

    Thank you, Chris.

    It’s 1972, and I’m at summer camp in the Sangre de Cristos. Beside a campfire, under a star-filled sky, a long-haired college student coaxes quiet chords from his beat-up guitar, and we sing with him:

    I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
    There but for fortune go you or I.

  3. spyder

    My life was inordinately blessed for having seen Phil live a number of times.  I got to your fourth line and sadly giggled in that those hundred+ represent a small circle of friends; a soul-filled rendition i am hearing in my mind’s ears as i text this.  Between the Troubador and McCabes, cross streets of a time now mostly long gone, he was the living embodiment of a great mythic hero for many of us.

  4. Auguste

    I’m embarrassed to the absolute bone to admit that I had never knowingly heard of Phil Ochs until very recently. Somehow, some way, I ended up with “Cops of the World” on my not-iPod without knowing it. The first time I heard it -about three weeks ago -I thought “who says nobody’s writing good protest songs this time around?” When I found out that the song was from the Vietnam era -and that the author was no longer with us -I just shook my head sadly.

    Really could have used your help here, indeed.

  5. Mike

    Phil’s stuff echoes through my mind so much that I hadn’t realized the anniversary. What’s sad is that, for many years, it was the social-commentary songs—The Party and so on—that ran through my brain. For the past couple of years, it’s been the political songs. Scary times.

    Thanks for buying a few flowers from the flower lady, Chris.