A Brief Life, an Enduring Musical Impression

The singer's intensely devotional lyrics soared above a deeply troubled life.
The singer's intensely devotional lyrics soared above a deeply troubled life. (Warner Music)

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By Tim Page
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 30, 2006

On the day after Thanksgiving 1979, Judee Sill, a 35-year-old, deeply depressed and physically broken singer-songwriter, took an overdose of opiates and cocaine in her North Hollywood apartment. The Los Angeles coroner ruled Sill's death a suicide, but those who knew her better have always contended that the "note" found near her body -- a meditation on rapture, the hereafter and the innate mystery of life -- may just have been part of a diary entry or, perhaps, another one of her haunted, haunting songs beginning to take shape.

When Sill died, both of her albums for Asylum Records -- "Judee Sill" (1971) and "Heart Food" (1973) -- were long out of print; eight tracks recorded in 1974 for a third album had never been finished. Such was the obscurity to which Sill had fallen in 1979 that no obituary was published, and a number of her friends never knew what happened to her until many years had passed. Not that she was ever any sort of "star" -- to this day, her name has never appeared in the New York Times, and she has been mentioned only twice (and then only in passing) in The Washington Post. Tom King's "The Operator," a 650-page biography of David Geffen, who founded Asylum and signed Sill as the first artist to record on his new label, devotes only one sentence to her, calling her "a former prostitute and reformed junkie."

King might have added "stick-up artist," "drug dealer" and "street hustler" to his capsule biography, for Sill led a troubled and unsettled life. And yet, as a new two-CD reissue from Rhino Records U.K., titled "Abracadabra: The Asylum Years," makes clear, she was also an artist of extraordinary gifts, one whose best songs are suffused with a radiant, prayerful and excruciatingly tender innocence, all the more affecting because it must have been so hard-won. (Children -- some children, anyway -- come by this naturally; adults, especially those with histories such as Sill's, have to fight for it every day.)

The immediate temptation is to classify her with some of her more famous contemporaries -- Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Carole King -- and, indeed, the similarities are there. Yet Sill's body of work is both more limited and more perfect. Virtually all of her songs are intensely devotional; along with J.S. Bach and Mahalia Jackson (two of her acknowledged influences), Sill believed that the purpose of music was the glorification of God. Instead of sharply etched social vignettes or cosmopolitan evocations of modern life and love, she wrote her own sort of hymns -- guileless, urgent, naked, absolutely personal.

Her following, while still small, is a distinguished one, including Andy Partridge from XTC and Liz Phair; the late Warren Zevon was also a fan. The American singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin included Sill's "There's a Rugged Road" on her album "Cover Girl." Sill's music "didn't sound like anybody else," she told the London Guardian. "It was streetwise and yet it was religious."

Sill's lyrics might be described as high hippie Christian, cries of "Kyrie eleison!" melding with references to angels and astral planes. Her words are very much of their time and place -- and yet, even at their weakest, they more than suffice to decorate her unpredictable and irresistible compositions, which are nowhere near so easy to pigeonhole. According to Michele Kort, the author of Rhino's excellent liner notes, Sill insisted she wrote "country-cult-baroque -- country for the pedal-steel guitar, clip-clop Western beats and the twang in her voice; cult for the esoteric nature of her concerns and her small-but-fervent audience; and baroque for the Bach-like melodies she favored."

But there is sun-splashed, deliciously over-marinated California pop here, too. Brian Wilson would have been proud to have written "The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown" (and the arrangement is so slick and pitch-perfect that he might have served as its producer). "Ridge Rider" proves a heretofore undreamed-of hybrid of Heitor Villa-Lobos's "Bachianas Brasilieras" and cowboy music. "The Archetypal Man" swerves from straightforward balladry to jazz-baroque scat singing right out of the Swingle Singers. And "Lopin' Along Thru the Cosmos" is an anomaly -- a popular song that actually earns the full orchestra that accompanies it. Yet it never seems overdressed: to the contrary, this is one of the most spare and evocative love songs ever written, addressing aging, rootlessless, exhaustion, need, loss and resignation in a few lines that must have been cut from the heart.

"Many artists refer to hard living in their work, but few had the experiences Judee Sill had as a child and beyond," says Sean O'Hagan, the leader of the British band the High Llamas. "Family breakdown, petty crime, penal service, drugs -- and yet she overcame it all to write as she had always wanted to."

* * *

She was born only a few miles from where she died -- in Studio City, Calif., on Oct. 7, 1944. When she was still very young, the family moved to Oakland, where her father owned and operated a tavern called Bud's Bar. "That's where I started playing piano and found out I could harmonize with myself," Sill told Rolling Stone in 1972. "But even back then I knew something was wrong, that I was missing out on having a normal life. It was so seedy in the bar, you know -- people were always fighting and puking, there was illegal gambling, and my parents drank a lot."

Her father died in 1952, and Sill moved back to Southern California, where her mother married Kenneth Muse, an animator for Hanna-Barbera who had shared in an Academy Award for the Tom and Jerry cartoon "The Cat Concerto" (1946). Sill hated Muse from the start: She called him "mean, dumb, narrow-minded -- he used to beat dogs."

She began taking LSD in the early 1960s, when it was still legal, and then moved on to heroin, which most definitely was not. With a partner, she held up liquor stores and gas stations throughout the Los Angeles area. Finally, she was arrested for forgery and sent to a reform school, where she developed her musical skills to the point where she was permitted to serve as the organist at the mandatory religious services.

Both her mother and her beloved older brother were dead by the late 1960s -- the one from alcoholism, the other from a liver infection -- and Sill hit bottom, living with a drug dealer on Central Avenue, turning tricks to support her habit, and finally going cold turkey, shaking and crying, alone in a prison cell.

After her release, a friend named Jim Pons, then the bass player for the Turtles ("Happy Together") and somebody who recognized talent when he heard it, hired the unknown Sill at $65 a week to compose for the band's production company. Better still, the Turtles recorded one of her songs, the luscious "Lady O," which became a minor hit for the group in 1969. At that point, Geffen -- who was already managing Nyro, Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Crosby, Stills and Nash -- came along and offered Sill the chance to make her own album.

"Judee Sill," an album of 11 original songs issued in 1971, was respectfully received by the few critics who chose to write about it, but sold only moderately well. With a few exceptions, most of them not Sill's fault (a ghastly climax of brass and saccharine strings added by the producer that overpowers the ending of "Abracadabra"), the album continues to hold up wonderfully. From the beginning of the first track, "Crayon Angels," it is obvious that we are in the presence of a unique stylist, somebody who knows exactly what she wants to do and is doing just that.

"Heart Food," released two years later, was, if anything, even better, with achingly beautiful melodies such as "The Kiss" and "The Phoenix." While I continue to find the gravitas in the last cut, "The Donor," with its extended length and sudden transition into the language of the Latin Mass, a little puffed up, other listeners think it her masterpiece. In any event, taken in full, "Heart Food" is an album that, in its mixture of formal adventure and searing spiritual intensity, can rank with Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks" and the Velvet Underground's self-titled third album.

But by now, Sill was feuding with Geffen, who dropped her from his label after "Heart Food" sold wretchedly. The eight further songs she worked on recording sometime during 1974 were never finished and would be released only in 2005, in a respectful and loving completion by the endlessly versatile musician-composer-producer Jim O'Rourke. (This two-disc set, titled "Dreams Come True," was issued on the Water label and is well worth investigation, as it also contains a rare film of Sill in performance.)

From there, it was downhill all the way. A series of automobile accidents -- by all accounts, Sill was a terrible driver -- destroyed her back. Surgery made things worse, and she spent the rest of her life in chronic pain. Because she was a convicted drug user, doctors were reluctant to prescribe medication strong enough to ease her suffering, and so she took to the streets again for a long and lonely limbo. And then she died.

But the music remained, her legend continued to grow, and now, with the reissue of her life's work, Sill has triumphed beyond the grave, as she always believed she would. O'Hagan compares her to the late Arthur Lee, who founded the Los Angeles group Love and made the fabled, ethereal psychedelic album "Forever Changes" before descending into a terminal cycle of drugs and violence. For O'Hagan, Lee and Sill shared the same precious, contradictory qualities -- they were, he says, "two West Coast desperadoes who ended up invoking the sound of angels."


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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