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To fans of her music, Judee Sill is hardly a person at all. She is a spirit and a voice; a phantom; an icon. Her music is far less personal, say, than Joni Mitchell’s or Laura Nyro’s – more ethereal and composed, like a cathedral in the sky. Her lyrics reveal little of her life or personality, stirring the mystery with parables of ridge riders and enchanted machines. How strange then to find a life bursting with material, lived with fervor and recklessness, just begging to be told.

The incredible details come piling on top of one another. After an early childhood ducking fights in her father’s roughneck bar, Judee lived in Los Angeles with an alcoholic mother and an abusive, Oscar-winning stepfather. After high school she took up armed robbery, then spent time in reform school, where she played organ for the church choir. Back on the streets, she worked as an itinerant bassist and ingested daily LSD. Then she moved onto heroin, and prostitution to feed a $150 a day habit. Busted for forging checks, she spent three months in prison, where she experienced a magnificent vision of transformation.

Upon release, Judee committed herself to songwriting with blinding devotion. “I got out of the drug thing,” she told the Los Angeles Star, “and started using all this fierce gusto within me for something – in a direction.”

Amazingly, her plan worked. Within a couple of years, she was writing the best songs anyone had ever heard. “She was light years ahead,” singer-songwriter J.D. Souther told journalist Barney Hoskyns. “I thought Jackson Browne was the furthest along at having learnt songwriting, but then I met Judee and thought, ‘Fuck, man, she’s school for all of us.’”

When Judee first visited Britain in 1972, she was riding a crest of expectation. Her first big break had come in ’69, when the Turtles covered her song “Lady-O.” Soon she signed with über-manager David Geffen, who handled acts like Crosby, Stills & Nash and Joni Mitchell. Geffen booked her to open for Crosby & Nash across North America, and she began to find an audience. He also made her the inaugural artist on his era-defining Asylum Records. Her shimmering, note-perfect debut, Judee Sill, hit shops at the tail end of 1971.

In advance of her spring visit, practically every British music paper raved over the album.

“This is a beautiful album in every sense of the word,” said Sounds,.

“Highly recommended,” wrote Melody Maker,.

“Destined to develop into a powerful force,” proclaimed NME,.

Over the weekend of March 18, Judee opened for folk-rock stars America (another Geffen act) at London’s Royal Festival Hall. She proved a great hit, and soon the music papers came knocking. On March 25 Melody Make, r ran a feature interview.

“I actually write my songs backward,” she told journalist Chris Welch. “I take a climax and then I build up to the introduction.”

On April 8 she managed a hat-trick, featuring in new issues of NME, Record Mirror,, and Disc & Music Echo,.

“I like playing in Britain,” she told NME,. “People over here are much nicer. I think maybe their taste is more culturally mature.”

During her month-long stay, Judee recorded two sessions for BBC Radio. The first, cut March 23 at London’s Paris Theatre, aired eight days later on the In Concert, program. Introducing her songs, Judee sounds hopeful, nervous and little breathless. “Excelsior, onward and upward,” she declares before introducing “Enchanted Sky Machines.”

Musically, however, she delivers with dead-eye precision. She sings confidently and powerfully, and even manages an impressive imitation of a vocal round on “The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown.” Other highlights include a floating, angelic “Lady-O” and an excellent version of her single “Jesus was a Cross Maker.” Performed on acoustic guitar, rather than at the piano, the song sheds the gospel flavor of its studio version, emerging as an epic folk number and a sly showcase for her distinctive finger picking. Without the lush embellishments of the studio, her songs succeed fully by their own merits. What’s astounding is how little they lose of their crystalline grace. If anything, these performances reveal more clearly than ever the structural and melodic precision of her songs: even raw and unvarnished, they shine like diamonds.

“In solo performance I thought she was terrific, more saintly and not so technically oriented,” says her lover and musical collaborator David Omer Bearden. “Especially at home when there was nobody around… She did blow your mind.”

Two weeks later, on April 5, Judee returned to the BBC for In Session with Bob Harris. She performed mostly the same set of songs, though this time without a live audience. In addition, Harris conducted a short, illuminating interview, included on this disc. It provides a rare opportunity to hear Judee in conversation, where she sounds focused and somewhat defensive. When Harris asks why she dislikes opening for rock bands, she replies, “I’m trying not to think about that now,” and then adds, as if casting blame, “I’d almost forgotten about it.”

Remembering Judee today, Harris says, “I liked her music immediately. There was a vulnerability about her voice that I found very endearing.” But he adds, “She wasn't the easiest, loosest person to be with. She'd had a rough time in her life and seemed suspicious of people. She was keen to mention financial hardships in particular… My memory of her performance is of her imploring the audience to buy the album because she needed the money.”

The power of Judee’s story rests on an essential juxtaposition: she lived the most chaotic life but made the most orderly art. More than most artists’, Judee’s music displays a crystalline perfection. She lets loose no wasted words, no stray notes, no willowy asides. And yet her life was full of false starts and wrong turns.

While her first trip to England caught her on the cusp of major success, her second trip, in early 1973, saw the start of a long and tragic downward turn. Judee had recently completed her sophomore album Heart Food, a dark and rumbling tour de force, and Asylum booked her to tour Britain with cult folksinger Roy Harper. She left in January, now traveling with David Bearden, to whom she had become profoundly attached. (Their incredible, passionate and volatile love deserves liner notes of its own. Suffice to say, the gloomy majesty of Heart Food would have been impossible without it.)



 


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On the trip, David and Judee kept a collaborative journal, which proves worthy here of transcription, especially for the way it suggests a shadow drawing over Judee’s career:

David: Today (January 20) Judee & I leave to tour England…Arrived in London… The streets seem to be full of beautiful tough young skinny people dressed fit to kill in the finery of the men of old…

Judee: Bought clothes, ate at Hiroko, and loved David a google or more today. Last night I had bad nightmares and threw up. David helped me. Today we are going to Portobello Road. I love David more and more desperately. I hope I don’t go insane…

David: In the train (February 20) from Leeds to London drinking Courvoisier in coffee…Train passes cygnets on brimming canals… Plots of Brussels sprouts in backyards & we are pulling into what appears to be a bomb-damaged back end of London…

Judee: Last show: Oxford. David was wildly cheered again. I just returned to the Chelsea Cloister and David is out. I hope he is not getting drunk or carousing somewhere. I just did a radio interview and I told the whole truth… Most of it was about David and how great he is and how I worship and love him… I hope he comes home soon…

David: Judee & me smoking “Parson’s Pleasure” in the longstemmed churchwarden. Smoking a Player. Smoking opium. Smoking “cut golden bar” in the white clay pipe. Smoking a Rothman. Smoking too much, Judee…

Judee recorded her final BBC session February 15, 1973 at Golders Green Hippodrome, a 700-seat converted music hall in North London. The performance aired March 12 on In Concert. She plays six selections from Heart Food, including a plaintive rendition of opener “There’s a Rugged Road,” which introduces the darker, more mournful quality of the new material; and a radical solo version of the album’s magnum opus, “The Donor.”

Introducing “The Donor,” Judee says she wrote the song to “musically induce God into giving us all a break.” (“Since that time I’ve decided that I shouldn’t get any more breaks,” she adds candidly, “because I already squandered them in weird places.”) In its studio version, “The Donor” sounds the part, with its dense choral wall lifted to the heavens. At the BBC, she performs it solo on piano, unadorned and unprotected. It proves equally compelling, starker and more frighteningly alone. Judee was first and foremost an extraordinary songwriter, and even her most aesthetic studio concoction, shorn of its choral dress, stands up structurally, melodically and emotionally.

For some reason, Judee appears to have done far less press on her second British visit, and even reviews of Heart Food seem scant. It was almost as if Britain, initially her most welcoming audience, had quietly turned its back. Or maybe Asylum Records, now busy with booming acts like Jackson Browne and the Eagles, just couldn’t find time to get her name in the papers.

In any case, Judee thought there was a problem. Irked over growing debts to Asylum and convinced that David Geffen’s closeted homosexuality was hurting her career (in that he paid more attention to certain male artists on his roster), she made an ill-advised remark in public in the UK. Accounts vary, but she either called Geffen a “fat fag” on stage or referred to his “faggoty pink shoes” in a radio interview. Word got back to Geffen, who felt betrayed and exposed. He pulled support for Heart Food and never released another note of Judee’s music. Back home, Judee camped out on his lawn for days to apologize, but he wouldn’t see her.

Soon matters went from bad to worse. Judee injured herself in a car accident, then suffered a series of botched back operations. The hospital cruelly refused her painkillers, on the grounds that she had a history of addiction, and so she fell back into heroin to ease the pain. With no label behind her, her career simply slipped away.

Judee died of a cocaine overdose the day after Thanksgiving, 1979. The second tour of Britain had been her final public stand.

Judee Sill’s life and art traced two very different paths – the one careening and chaotic, the other clear and composed. Her celestial studio albums tell only half the story; her biography and interviews the rest. The wonder of these BBC recordings is that they manage both tales, side by side. While her songs shine more brightly than ever, sharper even for the stripped-down presentation, her conversation presents a wary, struggling personality.

Listen to the way she introduces “Down Where the Valleys are Low,” the final song from her first BBC appearance in March 1972. She seems hardly able to begin playing, interrupting herself with one remark after another. She tells the audience she just wrote the song. She says it’s about the place “where romantic love and divine love meet.” She jokes about ’50s R&B. But when she begins playing, her jittery persona disappears. In its place, the music arcs and flows eternally.

Judee lived a difficult life. At times she made terrible judgments; at others she demonstrated great courage. It’s a life that lends itself to a parable of redemption and salvation – themes she embraced in her songwriting – except that, in the end, she was not saved.

But that was only the life. In her art, Judee achieved grace on a grand scale, crafting a space of divine beauty where the gentle are always saved, sailing away on enchanted sky machines.

Michael Saltzman
Los Angeles, 2007

 

 

 

 

   
 

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