Monday, July 09, 2007

Judee Sill: Out of the Mud a Lotus Grew

Play this video clip of Judee Sill singing her song "The Kiss" from the British TV show "The Old Grey Whistle Test" in 1973, and weep for the short and tragic life that could produce such beauty.

I was reminded of Judee when I recently read British writer Barney Hoskyns' book, Hotel California, about the life and times of musicians in Hollywood during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a period I knew well. I say reminded, because I knew of Judee. Her first album was also the first to be released by David Geffen's Asylum label, and Atlantic Records, where I toiled as flack and office hippie, distributed it. But, like many others, I was more interested in Geffen's better known artists: Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, the Eagles, and Crosby, Stills and Nash (and occasionally Young). Her first album in 1971 was followed two years later by "Heart Food," but despite touring with CS&N, neither record made the charts. In the music biz, our eyes tended to be focused on the winners.

Judee Sill was a fallen sparrow. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley and in Oakland where her father owned a bar, Judee had a troubled childhood. She served time in prison for robbing liquor stores and writing bad checks. And she financed a $150-a-day heroin habit with prostitution. But by the end of the 1960s, she had crawled out of the mud long enough to write some amazing songs for two memorable records. Unfortunately, she fell back in. Her friend and record producer, Jim Pons, told Hoskyns, "I heard many years later that she despired of her relationship with David Geffen and went back to drugs." Hoskyns continues the story:
A series of car accidents, one involving being rear-ended in Hollywood by none other than Danny Kaye, necessitated a series of excruciating operations on her back and the use of heavy painkillers. Because of her criminal record, doctors would not prescribe her legal opiates. It was only a matter of time before she was scoring again on the street. Sill was found dead at her North Hollywood home on November 23, 1979, the cause of death given as "acute cocaine and codeine intoxication." Many of her old musical associates did not find out till the following year.

I never met Sill and cannot even remember if I heard her perform (although our paths must have crossed at the Troubadour, West LA's musical heart, and I also worked with CS&N). But back then I was deep into sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll myself and my memory of the period is faulty. Still, when I read of her rise and tragic fall, I immediately went to iTunes to hear some samples of her music. What I found was a revelation: a pure and captivating voice, remarkable melodies, and lyrics as deep and as profound as they get. I quickly downloaded her two albums and have been listening to them for a week, while scouring the web for news, views and reviews. There is a small industry of acolytes devoted to resurrecting her music.

I am not alone. Rhino Records re-released "Heart Food" in 2005 and a year later combined it with the first album, calling it "Abracadabra: The Asylum Years." This prompted tributes of praise from the Washington Post and the London Observer. There is a Wikipedia entry and a reverential web site. Over 300 people have subscribed to a Yahoo e-group to discuss her life and work. Contemporary musicians who have expressed their appreciation include XTC's Andy Partridge, Liz Phair, Jane Sibery, Sean Hagen of the British band High Llamas, and the late Warren Zevon, as well as Shawn Colvin who told Hoskyns: "She didn't sound like anybody else, but it was sort of like Brian Wilson or somebody, what with all the double-tracking she did. It was streetwise and yet it was religious." Colvin recorded Sill's "There's a Rugged Road" on her album "Cover Girl." "I still get chills thinking about her," says Howard Kaylan of the Turtles, who recorded Sill's "Lady-O" in 1969. "Her songs and her soul speak like Sylvia Plath to a generation of kids that never even heard her name." Unreleased songs that Sill recorded in the late 1970s were remixed by the eclectic musician Jim O'Rourke and released in 2005 as "Dreams Come True" on the Water label. (I bought it today and the incredible package includes a 50-page booklet with stories about Sill's life from her friends, as well as a video of a concert in 1973). Video clips, like the one above, have found their way to YouTube

Sill's lyrics were relentlessly religious, and her stubborn optimism belied a life filled with struggles against demons only a few can know. She told a writer for Rolling Stone that "while my religion is unspeakable, it's not unsingable." Her best known song, "Jesus was a Cross Maker," was recorded by the Hollies and is included in the soundtrack of Cameron Crowe's recent film, "Elizabethtown." Graham Nash produced the song for her first album. But rather than focusing on the human Jesus (Nikos Kazantzakis, author of Last Temptation of Christ, was her favorite author), in this song she is writing about unrequited love for the songwriter J.D. Souther who left her for Linda Ronstadt in the soap opera that was LA in the 1970s. In "Crayon Angels," however, the singer sits "here waitin' for God and a train, to the Astral Plane." In "Lopin' Along Thru the Cosmos," she is "hopin' so hard for a kiss from God, I missed the sweet love of the air." And in "My Man on Love," clearly about Jesus, "resurrection waits within." Her most conventionally Biblical song is "When the Bridegroom Comes." The slyly humorous "Enchanted Sky Machines" is either about the Rapture or about redemption from flying saucers who arrive to "take all the gentle home." A dark masculine figure, either Jesus or a lover, can be found in many of her songs: "The Vigilante," "The Phantom Cowboy, "Soldier of the Heart," "The Archetypal Man" and the "Ridge Rider." Sill told one interviewer that it was her animus, the masculine side of woman (just as men possess an anima within), and often the figure is a spirit seeker like herself, riding "the ridge between dark and light...courageous enough to be scared but he's too humble to win." In "The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown" she uses the figure of the lamb, traditionally associated with Jesus, to show that good will always win out. She is at her most optimistic in "Cosmos":
I'll tell you a secret
I've never revealed
However we are is O.K.
But the words without the music, and her wonderfully baroque and lush arrangements, tell only half the story. She called her unique musical style "country-cult-baroque," and it shows the influence of Bach's mathematical lyricism, the rolling gospel music she heard in prison (which she called "Pentecostal licks"), and the folk and country songs popular at the time in LA. She told one interviewer:
My music is really magnified four-part choral style. I feel that it's the most fulfilling style of music. And it gets to people's emotional centers quickly. That's why all church music in in four-part choral style. Human voices and strings, that's what touches people.
In "The Archetypal Man" the melody moves from ballad to jazz-baroque scat singing like that of the Swingle Singers. Both albums end with an anthem: "Abracadabra" on the first, she told Rolling Stone, is "about reaching to open up your heart and eyes to the Christ spirit within us, and to expand it." The lyrics "refer to the moment when the bottom drops out of your consciousness, the moment of inspiration. It's as if you'd just discovered the you behind the crummy you you thought you were stuck with." The ending to the second album is "The Donor," an eight-minute masterpiece suffused with the words "kyrie eleison," Greek for "Lord have mercy, " a plea to god that predates Christianity. One writer called it "high hippie Christian," and another "psychedelic church music." Yet a third compared her accomplishment to that of Arthur Lee, founder of the LA group Love, whose career was also destroyed by drugs. They were both "two West Coast desperadoes who ended up invoking the sound of angels." For Hoskyns, Sill's songs "suggest a hippie update of the cosmic epiphanies of William Blake."

During a visit to England in 1972, Sill told a reporter for the New Musical Express that "out of the mud a lotus grows" to explain her belief that beauty could arise from deep squalor. She told another interviewer that it was spiritual hunger that drove her to seek the "white peace" of LSD and the "dark peace" of heroin, but it was also this same hunger that drove her to express her pain in song. And a passion for philosophy and magic gave her a vocabulary of imagery to express her insights. She told the NME that her three principal influences were Pythagorass, Bach and Ray Charles, a trinity few songwriters can match.

Judee Sill, said one writer, "was an intractible badass and a junkie." She was married to two men and had a string of female lovers, who, Hoskyn writes, "she treated with mild contempt. 'I just have her around to clean my house,' she would say" of the current occupant. A lawyer who worked for her called Sill a "typical self-centered artist who treated everybody around her like they were servants." After touring with CS&N she complained about having to open for "snotty rock groups," and refused to perform if she couldn't headline. Job offers disappeared. Someone who met her in 1975 told Hoskyns that she had a photo of Bela Lugosi above her fireplace and a large ebony cross behind her bed. The curtains were closed in the daytime and the house was full of candles. Sill read from books by Aleister Crowley and various Rosicrucians. Only slowly did the visitor realize that Sill was "smacked out of her skull."

But today the memory of Judee Sill arises out of the muck and her music is finding a new audience, including those like me who missed her when she was here. "I can barely speak about her without crying," says J.D. Souther, the lover who rejected her for Linda Ronstadt. "There's no one more important in my musical life: she was certainly as important as Linda or Jackson or the Eagles. But it was too esoteric. Judee's music just didn't get out."

In "The Phoenix," Sill's most autobiographical song, she sings:
Ever since a long time ago,
I've tried to let my feelings show
I'd like to think I'm being sincere,
But I'll never know.

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