Listening to: Judee Sill

judeesillYou cannot possibly seperate the life-story of Judee Sill, its armed robberies, and drugs, from her hauntingly beautiful, fragile music. Its a story that almost doesn’t make sense – she could have been one of the biggest singer/songwriters of the 1970s, as big as Joni Mitchell or any other of her contemporaries. Her story is one of enormous talent and the bitterness of commercial failure, a dysfunctional, almost self-destructive life that could only end one way- not well. She was, literally, a junkie and a prophet, like a line from some song, or the title of a movie waiting to happen someday.

Lets begin at the end, then- Judee died in November 1979 of a drug overdose, by which time her musical career was so in the toilet her music business lawyer Bill Straw didn’t hear about her passing until nearly twelve months later. Backtrack a few years: in the early ‘Seventies, she released two albums;  Judee Sill (1972) and Heart Food (1973)- the critics largely adored her but the public was strangely indifferent. Her frustration and disappointment led her to lash out at her label boss, David Geffen, who subsequently cut her loose. Her one shot was done.

I’m not going to suggest that Judee Sill is some kind of lost musical genius, a prodigy who made two perfect records, suffered a terrible end and was forgotten (well, that last part is largely correct). Neither am I going to suggest there is anything bitterly poetic about her life or that it should be glorified in any way. But it cannot be argues against that some of her songs are achingly beautiful, containing obtuse lyrics with religious references and insights into the human condition, music with sophisticated form and orchestrations that bely her youth behind them. I first heard one of her songs on the radio – it was The Kiss, the second track from her second album, and that song is so arresting, so beautiful, I just stopped everything I was doing and just listened. I thought it was something new, some new talent on the music scene- only a while later did I learn that, incredibly, that song was already over forty years old, and that the songstress behind it already dead for almost as long. I think the beauty of her music is the truth behind it, the fascinating life-story behind it. Her near ten-minute opus The Donor is like a requiem, a complex composition that includes wordless vocals, and a chorus chant of latin text like some medieval mantra, so ahead of its time it sounds new today, and hints at what she might have yet been capable of in a future that was both stolen from her and that she foolishly threw away,

heartfSo lets go further back, to the beginning- Judee was born in Oakland, California, on 7th October, 1944. Her father owned a bar, and as a child Judee would play on the piano there. Unfortunately when Judee was eight her father died of pneumonia – a loss that shattered her. Her alcoholic mother subsequently married Hanna Barbera animator Ken Muse, also an alcoholic and allegedly abusive towards Judee.

At 15, Judee finally fled the abuse and violence at home into the arms of an older man who was, it turned out, an armed robber. I mean, really, you couldn’t make this up- he and Judee held up gas stations and liquor stores at gunpoint until they got caught by the law. Her boyfriend wound up in jail, she in a girls reform school where she learnt to play a church organ.

After then enrolling and flunking out of  junior college (where she took art and played piano in an orchestra), she was orphaned when her mother died of cancer in 1965. By now her downward spiral included an heroin addiction, which she financed through a small income from her mothers shares in a Texan oil company, and when  that wasn’t enough, turning to prostitution. She married Bob Harris, a keyboard player who was also an addict. Eventually she was arrested for forging cheques and thrown into jail.

This appeared to be the turning-point; surely she couldn’t fall any lower. Getting out of prison and off drugs, she decided that her future was in her love of music. Homeless, at one point sleeping in a ’55 Cadillac in shifts with four other people, such a dream likely seemed as crazy as any drug-fuelled trip, but she started reading books about religion and the occult, finding inspiration there and in her past experiences in the reform school listening to church music. She wrote a song, Lady-0, that was recorded by a band named The Turtles in 1969- while not a huge hit, it got enough attention that Judee got a deal with music agent David Geffen, who was starting his own music label. Using the advance to make a down payment on a house, she settled into some kind of bohemian music-guru lifestyle. Bill Straw recalls visiting the house and finding four or five women, sunbathing nude- Judee, openly bisexual,  had several female lovers during this period, and also fell in love with the musician JD Souther, who then broke her heart and inspired one of her most famous songs-  Jesus Was a Cross Maker.

Here’s one of the fascinations about Judee- she was hardly perfect, how could she be, with the background she had? Her flaws and ability for self-destruction are clear, and yet her music, which she described as “country-cult-baroque” can be so beautiful and timeless it’s almost painful considering the life of the woman behind them.

Straw described her as “a typical self-centred artist who treated everybody around her like they were servants.” When her two albums failed to set the world alight, she lashed out at Geffen who cut her loose and ended, effectively, her recording career.

What happened next seems to be rather vague as she fell completely off the radar. It seems she was involved in a car accident or two (she was, it is said, a lousy driver) and badly injured her back. Because of her criminal record, doctors would not prescribe legal opiates even after two failed back surgeries so she inevitably went back to her old escape, scoring drugs on the street to ease her pain. On  November 23rd, 1979 she was found dead at her home from a drug overdose. The death certificate declared it as a suicide, but those that knew her maintain it was surely an accidental overdose. In any event, it would take several months for many of those that knew her and worked with her on those two albums to learn of her fate.

So much talent, so many possibilities, unrealised. Largely forgotten today, had circumstances been different, she might otherwise have been one of the most famous women on the planet. But her music remains, two finished albums that only hint at what might have lay ahead of her, and the demos for an abortive third album that surfaced decades after her death. The dichotomy of her life and the fragile beauty of her music, with its heartfelt religious subtexts, is endlessly fascinating. Her story is like one of those movies too crazy to be possibly true: a doomed Californian drug-addict from a broken home who found a strange immortality through her music. I guess that’s the American Dream in a nutshell.




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