Phil Ochs, “The War is Over.”

In 1966, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg published a poem that contained the lines, “I here declare the end of the War!… this Act done by my own voice.” The concept of declaring an end to the Vietnam War “from the bottom up” appealed to Phil Ochs’ Yippie sensibilities, and he composed this song:

In early 1967, he wrote for the LA Free Press:

“A protest demonstration does not satisfy the demands of modern mass communications; it is somehow out of tune with the electric age. A protest rally is an act of negation against an act of negation, canceling each other out. The times demand a positive approach to demonstrations, a pro-life, joyful, energized, magnificently absurd demonstration against the sucking vacuum of war.
The trick is not to go against the establishment, but not to believe them. Come on, now—do you really believe that a war is being fought in this day and age—certainly, not a war that has anything to do with us. Why, that would be absurd—don’t you think?
On June 23, there is going to be a celebration of the end of the war. This celebration could be a love-in, a be-in, a to-be or not to be-in, a happening, a rally, a demonstration, an earthquake, a premature solstice, living theatre, living movies, a huge Hollywood production, a statement of numbers that you can attend without insulting your aesthetic.
Johnson will be speaking at a $500 a plate dinner inside the Century Plaza Hotel, so we can have a penny a plate dinner outside at the celebration. How ironic to have this bit actor give a speech demanding that people support a demented war while outside thousands are celebrating the end of the war!”

June 23rd rolled around, and there was a protest in LA outside the hotel, but it didn’t turn out the way Ochs envisioned it. It started as a conventional peaceful protest, and included a significant number of people attending their first protest rally ever. By the end of the march, they were abruptly introduced to the war on the domestic front.

“On the night of June 23, 1967, the meaning of ‘police brutality’ took on an electrifying reality for thousands of respectable middle-class residents of Los Angeles who participated in a peaceful anti-Vietnam demonstration,” wrote one of those respectable residents a few days later. He was a college professor, and his family was with him. The quote comes from an article written by this eyewitness’s son many years later, who continued:

“Forty-six years ago today, Los Angeles was rocked by a violent police response to a peaceful demonstration against the Vietnam War. I don’t know if it’s taught in schools, or if anyone besides the people who were there remember it.
But it was an important moment in the life of the city, and its reverberations were felt across the rest of the country.
The city permit called for marchers to keep moving — past the hotel, to Santa Monica Boulevard and back toward the park. But when the marchers approached the hotel, a group of demonstrators sat down in the street, stopping forward movement. Primed for a confrontation, and determined not to be embarrassed in front of the president and his supporters, who dined on filet mignon forestiere as the Supremes entertained, the police ordered the crowd to disperse.
The people who had sat down in protest stayed put. Few of the thousands of marchers behind them heard the dispersal orders; even if they had, they were trapped by the crowds and had trouble moving.
Watching from the comfort of a high floor in the hotel, Los Angeles Police Chief Tom Reddin ordered his men to break up the demonstration by force.”

It was incidents like these that broke the back of Ochs political optimism over the next year and a half. This story does end on an up, though- sort of. He played this song at a concert that actually did celebrate the end of the war- eight years later.

The War Is Over
By Phil Ochs

Silent Soldiers on a silver screen
Framed in fantasies and dragged in dream
Unpaid actors of the mystery
The mad director knows that freedom will not make you free
And what’s this got to do with me

I declare the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

Drums are drizzling on a grain of sand
Fading rhythms of a fading land
Prove your courage in the proud parade
Trust your leaders where mistakes are almost never made
And they’re afraid that I’m afraid

I’m afraid the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

Angry artists painting angry signs
Use their vision just to blind the blind
Poisoned players of a grizzly game
One is guilty and the other gets the point to blame
Pardon me if I refrain

I declare the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

So do your duty, boys, and join with pride
Serve your country in her suicide
Find the flags so you can wave goodbye
But just before the end even treason might be worth a try
This country is to young to die

I declare the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

One-legged veterans will greet the dawn
And they’re whistling marches as they mow the lawn
And the gargoyles only sit and grieve
The gypsy fortune teller told me that we’d been deceived
You only are what you believe

I believe the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

(Ochs changed the verses for the recorded version; below are the other verses originally written:)

Cardboard cowboys of a new frontier
drowning indians in vats of beer
the troops are leaving on the trojan train
the sun in their eyes, but i am hiding from the rain
now one of us must be insane

All the children play with gatling guns
tattoord moithers with their tattooed sons
the strong will wonder if they’re really strong
but surely we’ve been gone to long

But at least we’re working building tanks and planesC#m
and a raise is coming so we can’t complain
the master of the march has lost his mind
perhaps, some other war, this fabled farce would all be fine
but now we’re running out of time

Phil Ochs,”I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More”

In August of 1968, the Yippies and other assorted counter-culture groups held a “Festival of Life” protest in Lincoln Park, Chicago, a counterpoint to “the Convention of Death” (otherwise known as the Democratic Party National Convention). Phil Ochs was a Yippie, and centrally involved in organising the protest. The massive police security around the Convention had intimidated a great many political artists into staying away, so besides Ochs, only the Motor City 5 and Country Joe and the Fish turned up to perform.

Phil Ochs played this song for the crowd, and as his fellow Yippie Tom Hayden wrote later, the performance inspired a “pandemonium of emotion, of collective power.” Hundreds of young men in the crowd were inspired to burn their draft cards. Ochs later referred to this performance as the highlight of his career.

“I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More” became a Phil Ochs signature song, one he performed repeatedly, sometimes for the mainstream media. When he sang it on the courthouse steps outside the trial of the Chicago Seven (the court prevented him from singing it to the jury), Walter Cronkite broadcast it on CBS, much to his amusement.

This is not a topical song, in the sense that it reports a particular event or presents a biography. The narrator is an archetype rather than an individual, a war weary American soldier who has “been” at every US war since 1812. The lyrics testify to a collective historical experience of American imperial adventures, and reject further collaboration in the war machine. It is a fine example of a narrative technique used by political songwriters to this day.*

About Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs was born into a nice apolitical middle class family in Texas. It was at college that he discovered the nature of the American beast, and devoted his classically trained musical talent, sardonic wit, and poetic sense to changing it.

He learned to play guitar, dropped out, and joined the New York folk scene, devoting himself to ending the Vietnam War and opposing the draft. He joined the Yippies and helped to organize the Festival of Life outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (Tasks included several hours of searching the outer suburbs of Chicago with Jerry Rubin for a pig to run as a presidential candidate).

1968 was a bad year for radicals in the United States. The politically optimistic anti-war/civil rights movement was dealt several shattering blows, and Phil Ochs felt them all deeply. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon left Ochs feeling disillusioned and depressed. In particular, the vicious state reaction to the Lincoln Park protests, and the utter venality of the convention itself, broke his heart.

“I’m really beginning to question the basic sanity of the American public,” he remarked in an interview later that year.

I think more and more politicians are really becoming pathological liars… I think the Daily News, Tribune poisoning that comes out is literally creating – and television, all the media are creating a really mentally ill, unbalanced public…. I’ve always felt a contact with political reality from 1960 to 1968. But after Chicago I’m totally disoriented. I’m disoriented because the time has come for guns, and I’m not personally ready for guns. America’s such a violent country. The American revolution is going to be ridiculously bloody.”

Ochs’ 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement has a tombstone on the cover, inscribed with the words “Phil Ochs… Died Chicago Illinois 1968.”
Despite several more albums and an active touring career, Ochs continued to decline over the late 60s and early 70s.

One biographer puts it this way:

By Phil’s thinking, he had died a long time ago: he had died politically in Chicago in 1968 in the violence of the Democratic National Convention; he had died professionally in Africa a few years later, when he had been strangled and felt that he could no longer sing; he had died spiritually when Chile had been overthrown and his friend Victor Jara had been brutally murdered; and, finally, he had died psychologically at the hands of John Train.

[Note: John Butler Train was an alternative personality that subsumed Ochs identity for several months in 1975, one of the manifestations of an increasingly severe bipolar disorder].

On April 9th, 1976, Phil Ochs took his own life. He was 35 years of age.

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*David Rovics, “Glory and Fame” uses this same technique to narrate the history of the industrial worker, and Cosmo, “The Butcher’s Apron“, for the sailors and soldiers of the British Empire.