Mick Houghton – “Judee Sill: Spirited Away” (2005)

October 12, 2011 at 1:47 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

Taken from an April 2005 issue of Uncut magazine comes this overview of the unjustly-forgotten Judee Sill. Written by Mick Houghton…


Until recently, Judee Sill and her two Asylum albums were all but forgotten. Her story is so tragic as to be nearly unbelievable, the antithesis of the Californian dream, even though she recorded for California’s dream label. But a resurgence of interest has prompted the appearance of the meticulous Dreams Come True, a collection of unreleased material that includes her final work-in-progress album, mixed by left-field auteur, Sonic Youth member and long-time Sill aficionado Jim O’Rourke. Finally, it helps tell Sill’s complete story, both through the eyes of those who knew her and through her own stunning music.

Sill signed to David Geffen’s newly founded Asylum Records — the label that epitomised mellow West Coast rock — in 1970. Asylum’s roster included The Eagles, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt, and Geffen had already masterminded the careers of Crosby, Still & Nash and Sill’s kindred spirit Laura Nyro. But unlike her distinguished labelmates, Sill’s career failed to ignite. Eighteen months after 1973’s Heart Flood, and having endured three months of agonising recuperation following corrective back surgery, Sill abandoned the recording of her third album and disappeared without a trace until, in November 1979, news broke of her suicide from a cocaine and codeine overdose.

It seemed the inevitable end to such a free-falling life. Sill was born in Studio City, Californiain October 1944, her background respectable Hollywood. But her father, a cameraman at Paramount Studios, died when she was only eight and her mother remarried and relocated to LA. Sill’s family life then disintegrated. Her mother succumbed to downers and alcohol, her stepfather Ken Muse — an award-winning animator for Tom & Jerry — allegedly abused her. When her brother, the only stable influence in her life, left home during high school, she transformed into the proverbial wild child. She and a partner began a series of gas station hold-ups that saw Sill wind up in reform school. Already experimenting with drugs, on release in 1964 she moved from dope to daily LSD consumption and ended up back in jail for narcotics offences and passing forged cheques. Her drug-world connections, and the time she spent hanging out in jazz and folk clubs, now drew her into musical circles. Sill’s first influences had been, predictably, the folk of Joan Baez and Buff Sainte-Marie. On home recordings from 1968 included on Dreams Come True, Sill is captured singing such traditional fare as “500 Miles” — utterly charming but no indication of the artistry to come.

In jail, she began writing songs, one of which — “Dead Time Bummer Blues” (also on Dreams Come True) — was recorded by LA garage band The Leaves. Sill met them through pianist Bob Harris, whom she later married, and with whom she first started dabbling with heroin. Before long she was dealing again, and turning tricks to support a serious habit that she combatted for the rest of her life.

By this time, Sill was performing herself in local dives while studiously writing songs. When Jim Pons left The Leaves and joined The Turtles, he continued to champion Sill: their final single in 1969 was a wondrous version of her “Lady-O”, on which she played guitar. Her fate was sealed as an errant singer-songwriter by, first, inking a publishing deal for The Turtles’ Blimp Music and then signing to Asylum.

The eponymous debut, released in 1971, was a revelation. Its immediate impact comes from the purity of her voice, oblique lyricism and bewitching, hymn-like songs. Well-received, the album still wound up marginalised, despite the Graham Nash-produced “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” being heavily promoted. An archetypal Sill song, cloaked in religious imagery and Jesus depicted as sexual predator, it failed to resonate with a public that preferred the more anodyne “You’ve Got a Friend”.

Heart Food, which appeared two years later, had the same lyrical deviance but more stunning musicality, swathed in expansive Bach-like arrangements and exquisite vocal harmonies. Closing song “The Donor” grows into an epic choral requiem intoning “Kyrie Eleison” (lord have mercy). It’s as if Sill was writing her own epitaph.

Heart Food suffered poor sales and diminished critical response. Sill’s lyrics, displaying a deep philosophical core that reflected her fascination with alchemy, theosophy and obscure literature, failed to engage people. She wasn’t kidding, telling NME in 1971 that her influences were “Bach, Pythagoras and Ray Charles”. But she also had a strong petulant streak, branding the music industry sick and brazenly insulting the all-powerful David Geffen. In London, promoting “Jesus Was A Cross Maker” on The Old Grey Whistle Test, she was decidedly tetchy, imploring people to buy her records so she could stop supporting “snotty, loud rock bands”.

They didn’t take note: her liaison with Asylum ended, and Sill slid into cult obscurity. Dreams Come True picks up the story, but also takes us back by gathering up nascent folksy recordings and some of Sill’s rare early songs. There’s also an enhanced video of a live performance at theUniversity ofSouthern California in 1973. But it’s the last recordings from late 1974 that give real substance.

Considering the aborted outcome of those sessions at Mike Nesmith’s studios, Sill’s songs and outlook are remarkably positive at times, with some of her most directly personal and penetrable lyrics, such as the opening “That’s The Spirit”, soulful and uplifting, recalling Laura Nyro. All recorded live with Sill at the piano or on guitar instructing a basic four-piece band, the arrangements are both complex and upbeat. Her lead vocals are live, but with up to six- or seven-part harmonies gracefully and sparsely embellishing the sound. “I never thought to try and equal those (earlier recordings) except in spirit, how she seemed to like the colour of her instruments,” says Jim O’Rourke of his work on the rediscovered masters. “I wanted the music to stand on its own and to be about nothing other than itself. And the moment of soloing up Judee’s vocal track was, frankly, eerie. . . a serious thing! Not to be taken lightly.”

No one knows how these tracks should have turned out, but O’Rourke’s touch allows Sill’s voice to retain its purity, spirituality and emotion. Her transcendent lyricism is as acute as ever, most notably on “The Apocalypse Express”, “The Living End”, the prophetic “The Good Ship Omega” and the heartrending, mystical hymn “’Til Dreams Come True”.

Sill aimed to make the listener “open up his heart”, and you might want to check your pulse if you are not moved by her breathtaking recordings. As O’Rourke puts it: “Her songs were simultaneously personal and incredibly grand. If people sang this stuff in church a lot of us might still be there.”

Mick Houghton



1 Comment

  1. Jeff Godsey said,

    “Jesus is a Crossmaker” does not depict Jesus as a sexual predator. Sill compares herself to Jesus in the song, going ahead with what would ultimately undo her.

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