Christopher Jones, Phil Ochs, and the Chords of Fame



So play the chords of love, my friend

Play the chords of pain

If you want to keep your song,

Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t play the chords of fame

The brilliant, but troubled, singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, who later descended into alcoholism and manic depression before taking his own life at age 35, warned of the dangers of playing the chords of fame.

Christopher Jones, the promising young actor who took the starring role that Ochs turned down in the satirical 1968 teen rebellion film Wild In The Streets, turned his back on fame just as his star was reaching its peak, and went on to live a quiet life until his death from cancer in February 2014 at age 72.

The story of Christopher Jones should be the stuff of legend. Instead, it’s largely forgotten. A charismatic young actor with smoldering good looks, hailed as the next James Dean, becomes a leading man on TV by age 24 and quickly parlays his success into starring roles on the silver screen—and then, before he turns 30, walks away for reasons that have never been fully explained.

And never looks back.

Oh yeah, and did I mention the Charlie Manson cult murder angle? More on that in a bit.

For the next four decades, Jones lived off the money he made as the star of the ABC TV series The Legend of Jesse James, which lasted only one season, and a tantalizingly brief movie career that included starring roles in the cult classic Wild In The Streets, the John LeCarre spy thriller The Looking Glass, and David Lean’s epic Ryan’s Daughter. He also was a painter and a sculptor, a devoted father, and—by his own account in rare newspaper interviews—happy.

So today, on what would have been Christopher Jones’ 75th birthday, we would do well to remember the actor who decided not to play the Chords of Fame.

‘A Leader of Men and of Little Girls’

Born William Franklin Jones on Aug. 18, 1941, he had the southern gothic version of a Dickensian childhood. The family initially lived above a grocery store in Jackson, Tennessee, where his father was a clerk. When Jones was just 4, his mother, an artist, was confined to a psychiatric hospital, where she died 15 years later. Jones was sent by his father to live in in a children’s home in Memphis.

At 16, with permission from his father, Jones joined the Army, went AWOL, and did a short stint in prison. Like so many before him, he made his way to New York City, where he studied painting while working odd jobs until he won a small role on Broadway in the 1961 production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. It got him noticed, and he auditioned at the famed Actors Studio. He wound up marrying Artistic Director Lee Strasberg’s daughter, Susan Strasberg. (They divorced in 1968.)

In 1965, Jones landed the starring role in The Legend of Jesse James. That’s where I first saw him, and became an instant fan. Jones played the outlaw as a good-hearted Robin Hood who robbed and killed only to right injustices. I watched every episode, and was among the thousands of young people who were crushed when the show was canceled after one season. The show led me to read up on the real Jesse James, which provided a valuable early life lesson that TV and reality are distant cousins, at best.

Wild_In-The_Streets_300pJones soon landed the starring role in Wild In The Streets, an American International Pictures exploitation film about 24-year-old rock star Max Frost, a “leader of men and of little girls,” as the off-screen announcer intones, who spearheads a teen rebellion that results in 15-year-olds getting the right to vote and Frost carrying every state but Hawaii as the Republican nominee for president.

That’s right, Republican nominee. It seems that in this crazy, totally ridiculous satire, the GOP is desperate enough to offer its presidential nomination to an unhinged celebrity. If you think Donald Trump is unstable and unpredictable, wait until you meet Max Frost, who accomplishes his government takeover by having his young “troops” dump LSD in the Washington, DC, water supply and, upon taking office, sets 30 as the mandatory retirement age. “Who, after all, do you think caused all of our troubles? Those who are stiff, baby, but not with love—with age!” At age 35, everyone has to go to an internment camp, where, as Frost explains, “We’re going to psyche ‘em all out on LSD, babies!”

Truth in advertising: “Perhaps the Most Unusual Motion Picture You’ll Ever See” Watch the trailer for Wild In The Streets.

The film features a stellar cast given the material, including Hal Holbrook as an ambitious young congressman who forms a Faustian pact with Frost and his teen followers to advance his own campaign for U.S. Senate; Ed Begley as California’s distinguished senior senator, who just doesn’t understand what’s the matter with kids today; Shelley Winters as a psycho, abusive mother who’s even more twisted than Angela Lansbury’s Manchurian Candidate mom;  and a very young Richard Pryor as Stanley X, an anthropologist and author of The Aborigine Cookbook who is the drummer in Max Frost’s band. It also includes cameos by Walter Winchell and Dick Clark as TV news announcers.

Unusual? I guess you could say that.

‘Once You’re In, You’re In’

Phil_Ochs_Patriot_300pOn screen, Jones is every bit the pop star he portrays, and you can’t take your eyes off him. Yet, as I watched the movie again last night, I couldn’t help but think what it would have been like if Phil Ochs had said yes.

Ochs, a passionate, literate, and wickedly funny folksinger and political activist, loved Elvis, James Dean, and John Wayne. It’s one of the things I’ve always loved most about him. In his excellent biography, There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs, author Michael Schumacher writes about Phil’s passion for movies, and how he harbored the faint hope of one day acting in films himself.

At one point during this period, Phil was offered the lead role in Wild in the Streets, a feature film about a rock ‘n’ roll idol who is elected President of the United States. (Ochs manager) Arthur Gorson had disapproved of the movie’s right-wing message, and had discouraged Phil from accepting the part. The movie went on to become a major hit, and twenty-five years after the fact, Michael Ochs still stewed about his brother’s rejecting the opportunity to star in the film.

“I was not managing him at that point,” Michael stated, “but if I had been, I would not have let him turn it down. Yes, it was right wing, and it was against everything he believed in but he still should have done it. He loved the movies and wanted to be in them, and this was his chance. Once you’re in, you’re in.”

He’s right. But as Max Frost and the Troopers sang, nothing can change the shape of things to come. Jones, who did say yes when the role was offered, went on to make the sexploitation farce Three in the Attic with Yvette Mimieux; The Looking Glass War, based on a John LeCarre Cold War spy thriller with Anthony Hopkins; A Brief Season, an Italian film that I don’t believe has been released in the U.S.; and Ryan’s Daughter, the Irish epic by Doctor Zhivago director David Lean that stars Robert Mitchum, Trevor Howard, and Sarah Miles, along with Jones.

‘It’s Too Late to Fall In Love with Sharon Tate’

And here’s where the Charlie Manson cult connection comes in. It was during the filming of Ryan’s Daughter, which was going to be Jones’ ticket to major stardom, that word came of the Tate-Labianca murders. In what I’ve long thought is the best opening line in rock history, the late writer, rock star, and poet Jim Carroll wrote: “It’s too late, to fall in love with Sharon Tate.” That proved to be literally true for Jones, who told a British interviewer in 2007 that he had fallen in love with the actress—who was the wife of director Roman Polanski and pregnant with his child at the time—in Rome earlier in 1969.

News of her grisly murder by Manson family members on Aug. 9, 1969 devastated Jones, and he suffered a breakdown. He was barely able to finish the film, and walked away from his Hollywood career when it finally wrapped. Jones, who turned down Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 entreaty to play The Gimp character in Pulp Fiction, only appeared once more on screen, in a small role as a favor to old friend Larry Bishop (who played The Hook in Wild in the Streets and was the son of comedian Joey Bishop) in the 1996 movie Trigger Happy.

Over the years, Jones hinted that there was more to his decision to still the Chords of Fame than Sharon Tate’s murder. He told the Toronto Globe and Mail: “Fate is fate. That’s the way it was. As for the rest, I want my epitaph to read: ‘Some things are better left unsaid.’”

So happy 75th birthday to Christopher Jones, who chose to play the chords of love instead of the chords of fame. I only wish Phil Ochs could have been so fortunate.

Coda: Phil Ochs

Chords of Fame from Phil Ochs Greatest Hits

Coda: Christopher Jones

Watch the premier episode of The Legend of Jesse James from September 1965.

Max Frost and the Troopers perform “Shape of Things to Come.”