The Life and Times of Judee Sill
Born in Southern California in 1944, and dead in '79, Judee Sill's life was brief, yet filled with enough dark drama to satisfy a lifespan twice that long. It would be easy to relegate her life and musical career as a series of interesting footnotes in the biographies of other more well-known personas: her self-titled debut full-length was the first official release for David Geffen's Asylum imprint; Graham Nash produced her most well known single "Jesus Was a Cross Maker," which was a minor hit for Nash's group the Hollies; she penned a hit single for the Turtles. But doing so would deny the power and majesty of the two albums she released during her lifetime. Critics reacted warmly to her music, commercial success never followed. By the time of her death at the end of the 1970s, she had vanished completely from the music scene, so much so that when word of her death due to a drug overdose trickled down, more than a few people were surprised – they assumed she had already passed.
Now, in what's become an almost common occurrence for earnest, overlooked folkies, a string of reissues over the past couple of years have stirred up attention, and the recent release of her heretofore unknown third album will hopefully allow Sill's story and music to be heard by the wider audience she so richly deserved.
Judee Sill spent much of her adolescence in the Oakland area. Her father, Milford "Bun" Sill owned a bar, which is where Sill spent a lot of her childhood, learning piano in less than idyllic and seedy surroundings. When her father died of pneumonia in 1952, her mother moved Judee and her brother Dennis to Los Angeles, where the former Mrs. Sill took up and married an alcoholic animator named Kenneth Muse. Sill's mother spiraled downward into a haze of drug dependence and alcoholism, and although the two fought and bickered fairly regularly, Judee became more and more of a free spirit, unfettered by any attempts at parental control. She dealt with abuse at the hands of her stepfather and bounced around between family members, staying where she could to avoid the drama at home.
After her mother passed in 1963, Judee bounced around from high school to high school, all the while beginning the descent into darker territory that would color this period of her life. Her experimentation with drugs led her to fall in with a thief. She managed a few successful liquor stores heists before being busted at a gas station and shipped off to a reform school in Ventura. It should be noted that such dangerous activities never left Sill without a sense of humor. Regarding her bust years later, she acknowledged that she was so scared, she fumbled her one line: "This is a fuck-up, mothersticker!"
After doing a brief stint in reform school (where a spell as a church organist taught her many of the "gospel licks" that would later surface in her music), Judee attempted a return to collegiate studies and took a job working long hours in a piano bar. She started doing LSD and promptly moved in with an acid dealer and began exploring some of the psychedelic depths that would inform her later lyrical leanings. She and a friend rented a house from the dealer and formed a jazz trio with a third girl. Around this time, she met and married pianist Bob Harris, and within months both had succumbed to crippling heroin addictions and made their way as junkie musicians in Vegas for a time. When she moved back to California, she resorted to prostitution for a spell to support her massive habit. A string of narcotics and forgery offenses sent her to jail. It was during a desperation call to her brother for some help (as none of her other friends were willing to bail her out) that received the horrible news that Dennis had passed away due to a liver infection. While reaching a nadir in the clink, Sill had recurring fantasies of being a songwriter. When she got out, she immediately set to work. The Turtles recorded her tune "Lady-O," and a short while later David Geffen came calling. He was looking to start a label instead of merely managing artists and wanted to add Sill to his roster.
Judee Sill was released in 1971. Sill took the credit for composition, arrangements and supervision, while the production was split between Jim Pons (of the Turtles), John Beck (of the Leaves), and Henry Lewy (Graham Nash separately produced "Jesus Was a Cross Maker" with an eye toward releasing it as a single). Bob Harris and Don Bagley handled the strings. Listening to the record some 34 years later, it's nearly impossible to believe that this was Sill's debut record – most songwriters today would be lucky to have such an album stand as the crowning achievement in their catalogue, let alone stand as their first public outing. The record dabbles in folk and country figures, buoyed along by Sill's gospel-tinged piano lines, and some staggering baroque string arrangements. She is often associated with the so-called "Laurel Canyon sound" that also included folks like Carole King, but her sound is distanced from those contemporaries by the breadth of her musical knowledge, her stunning attention to detail, and a gorgeous everywoman type of voice, pitch perfect and rendering lyrics that dealt as much with heartbreaking balladry as they did with deep spiritual concerns and cosmos wanderings.
Her life thus far had given her plenty of heartbreak to sing about, but instead of focusing on her damaged childhood and prison experiences, she chose to dialogue with her faith and spirituality, with religious and occult trappings underpinning her lyrics. "Jesus Was a Cross Maker" is probably her best known tune from this set, an up-tempo piano driven number that deals with, according to Sill, gaining higher momentum from the lower periods in one's life, spurred on from the fact that Jesus Christ was in fact (depending upon your views of Jesus as a historical figure) a cross maker. The album is rich with epiphanies, however, ranging from the "Crayon Angel" songs she naively sings about on the album's opener, to the deeply veiled confessional that permeates "The Lamb Ran Away with the Crown." She sings of "Enchanted Sky Machines" coming to take us all away during the apocalypse, and alludes to relationships with "The Phantom Cowboy" and "The Archetypal Man" that have influenced her life. But more stunning than any of these is "Lopin' Along Through the Cosmos," a beautiful, heart-wrenching ballad where she longs for a kiss from God. All of these tracks begin simply, with spare acoustic guitar or piano figures before swelling with the heft of strings and horns. These are all ornate tracks, but never once is Sill's voice or vision drowned out by her instrumentation. Rather, the two combine into a genre-less album length cycle that is, quite frankly, one of the greatest singer-songwriter albums ever committed to tape.
Sill's second record, Heart Food, was released in 1973, once again on Asylum. Henry Lewy resumed his role as producer, but this time out Sill took some of the reins herself. The arrangements and orchestration were all of her own design – the cover of the album features a shot of her in pensive rumination while conducting the string sections. This batch of songs differed a bit from her first album. The country and gospel elements became more pronounced, and although it seems nearly impossible, her voice sounds stronger and more assured. While her self-titled debut has the better individual songs, Heart Food works better as a complete album. Lyrically, she takes up similar themes to the ones she dealt with on her first record – religion, heart break, and her own quest for salvation.
The album begins with a song regarding a "lonesome pioneer" – "There's a Rugged Road." It's hard to tell if Sill's songs are about specific men in her life or represent an attempt to dialogue with God. The pioneer in question is heading for "Kingdom come," and the image that comes through is obviously inspired by Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ, a novel (and later a Martin Scorcese film) that dealt with the image of Jesus as a human being, as flawed as the rest of us. That track is followed by "The Kiss," containing a beautiful lyrical image of locked lips that manages to transcend any overt kitsch implied by the title, an aching vocal paired with a string section that cuts right to the heart of the listener (Bonnie "Prince" Billy recently cut a version for a B-side). She also deals with positive male images on this album, singing about "The Vigilante" who's "fightin' the good fight" and a "Soldier of the Heart" that she joins on an allegorical battlefield who's "pullin' her through." While "The Vigilante" sounds familiar, "Soldier of the Heart" is a rarity in the Sill catalogue – an electric guitar-fueled rocker, complete with solo. She acknowledged that these songs were as much about her own inner male counterpart as they were about any other man in her life, but they could just as easily be viewed as another portion of her fascination with religious figures, the occult and her own attempts to grapple with where she had been and where she was going. "The Phoenix" is probably as close as Sill every came to outright autobiography, working that classic image around what seems to be a recounting of her own trials and tribulations.
As is often the case with some of history's best and brightest musicians, Heart Food sold miserably. In the years after its release, she suffered a wealth of injuries from various car accidents, and what began as an addiction to prescription painkillers led her back down the familiar path of drug addiction. She died on November 23, 1979, from an overdose.
The story didn't end there. Judee Sill may have been fazed by her lack of commercial success, but she continued to write and perform until her death. She amassed an album's worth of demos that were to make up her third full-length, but she died before they could be completed. In the time since her death, her music slipped into obscurity, save for a few prominent fans (Shawn Colvin, Warren Zevon and Jane Siberry all covered her songs at various points in the 1990s). Rhino Handmade reissued both of Sill's albums at the end of 2003, and the 4 Men with Beards label followed suit with vinyl reissues in 2004. (As much as I laud the latter label for their efforts, the Handmade reissues are the ones to seek out. They each contain a wealth of bonus live and demo tracks that are miles above the standard filler.) It also became known in 2004 that none other than Jim O'Rourke was hard at work mixing the tracks that would have made up Sill's final record. The Water label recently issued the fruits of his labor as a two-disc set entitled Dreams Come True: Hi, I Love You Heartily Here – New Songs, collecting together the remaining loose ends Sill left in her wake alongside a painstakingly documented book containing interviews with remaining family and friends.
The first disc of Water's set compiles the eight tracks that were to make up Sill's third Asylum LP (as well as three demo cuts). Produced by Bill Plummer, these songs are vintage Sill, chock full of the types of gospel, country and folk traces that she mined admirably for her first two records. What differentiates this album from its predecessors, however, is the simplistic sound. The instrumentation is basic – guitars, drums, bass, and piano, and no string sections. Although expertly recorded and with a mix courtesy of O'Rourke that makes the tracks feel on par with both of the officially released albums, the songs feel less studied, less agonized over. Sill's first two albums were intense labors of love and devotion. Dreams Come True is a much more casual affair.
By no means does that detract from the quality of the music gathered within. "That's the Spirit" opens the album with those loping, gospel-fueled piano lines that Sill learned in the joint, climaxing with a wondrous chorus of voices chiming in on the refrain. "The Apocalypse Express" is even better, beginning simply with acoustic guitar and upright bass before skipping into a powerful chorus. Lyrically, it's one of the most uplifting songs Sill ever wrote, touching on the notion of facing the end of all things with power and grace. "The Living End" takes up with religious imagery again, with the obvious titular metaphor giving way to lines about archangel "Gabriel's clarion call." This same fixation on iconography continues into the more low key "The Good Ship Omega, Alpha Bound," and the pensive balladry of the near-title track "'Til Dreams Come True" ends the album proper on a rather wistful note, calling to mind Sill's vintage material. While it's definitely strange that the end of days seems to figure heavily on this set of songs, what's even more bizarre is that this motif never wallows. There's a relentless optimism coursing through them, a shock considering that if any singer had the right to dwell on life's injustices, it was Judee Sill, who died at the hands of the demons she tried so hard to escape.
The second disc gathers some Sill rarities from different points in her career (1968 and 1973), plus a live video. The earlier tracks show a writer just finding her stride. "Dead Time Bummer Blues," one of Sill's first songs, feels more self-conscious lyrically than anything else in her canon, although her piano lines resound strongly. "Emerald River Dance" is a poignant solo acoustic home recording, capturing a shot of Sill during a less ebullient moment. Most interesting of all these "lost songs" is the trio of traditional folk numbers that Sill reworks in her image – of these "North Country" is the best. More than anything, these recordings show that as much as Sill could craft memorable songs of her own, she was equally gifted at transforming others.
It remains to be seen just what will become of Judee Sill's legacy. In my mind, she belongs in the great pantheon of singers and songwriters like the aforementioned Carole King, and the other members of Geffen's stable like Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro. She reportedly told David Geffen she wanted to be a star, and while she may have never achieved that lofty goal, she left behind a body of work that will inevitably stand any test time can throw at it. Few other singers can reduce one to tears or lift spirits as easily as Sill could, often within a single song. Whether or not she ascends to the highest levels of posthumous fame on the strength of reissues is almost irrelevant to the nature of her music. Judee Sill's songs will always remain impelling epiphanies, each one an invitation to brave the human experience through the bluest of eyes.
By Michael Crumsho