Hear the sad nova’s dyin’ cry
This disc draws from two shows and a radio session, all from England. Judee Sill accompanies herself with just guitar or piano, on stripped–down versions of songs taken from her first two albums. At the time, Sill was both on the brink of the commercial success that would elude her, and just half a decade from her obscenely young death. All that and an interview with “Whispering” Bob Harris!
Judee Sill’s life is a strange paradox. It’s easier to work out the classic chicken and egg conundrum than determine the seeds of either her demise or her salvation. As a child, Sill despaired of finding someone in her family who she could sing harmony with, but then discovered she could harmonize with herself on the piano in her father’s bar. After his death, her mother remarried and Sill was abused by her alcoholic stepfather. Fleeing, she experimented with drugs and robbed liquor stores. Busted into reform school she played church organ and learned the gospel phrases that would later adorn her own music.
Sill married pianist Bob Harris (no relation to “Whispering”) and the pair became heroin addicts and moved to Vegas where they ground out junk money as musicians. Upon her return to California, Sill was jailed for drugs and check forgery. Using her one phone call to speak to her brother, she discovered the news of his death. At that personal nadir, Sill decided to devote all the time and energy she spent on drugs to song writing. She poured everything into creative self-expression, and, miraculously, it worked. The Turtles hit with her song “Lady-O” and David Geffen signed her to Asylum Records.
Live in London should lead newcomers to seek out Sill’s first two studio albums and its beguiling intimacy certainly won’t disappoint those already familiar with her work. She talks quite fascinatingly about the process of composing and arranging, of the frustration of playing on bills with rock bands, and we also hear clues as to her mental state and off-stage experiences. On the intro to “Enchanted Sky Machines” she discusses her belief that deserving people will be rescued prior to Armageddon, before returning to begin the New Age. At that moment, and when she speaks of playing the church organ in reform school, there are few audible chuckles and no uncomfortable shifting in seats so it’s hard to know if the audience was slightly bemused or merely glad to be in her presence.
On second thoughts, since we are talking about England in the early 1970s, they probably thought she was bullshitting, loaded, or trying to be funny. More than 30 years later, “The Phoenix” still sounds deceptively simple, hopeful, and defiant. “The Donor” is more elaborate, majestic and complex, even in this stripped-down form. Sill’s singing of the key phrase “Kyrie Eleison” is transcendent, even as it makes me think of Easy Rider and “Kyrie Eleison Mardi Gras” by The Electric Prunes. “Jesus Was A Cross Maker”, written after a romantic rejection, launches into a round of yearning for redemption. The line, “Sweet silver angels over the sea /Please come down flying low for me” is a plea to be released from pain. It’s hard to know, though, if she is asking to be obliterated by bombing planes, abducted by UFOs, or rescued by celestial spirits.
It could be a gripe that several songs are repeated on Live in London but I enjoyed listening for nuances in the performances, even though they were less than 12 months apart. As a sign of the enduring quality of her work, Jane Siberry, Warren Zevon and Will Oldham have recorded her songs, and Jim O’Rourke has mixed an album of her previously unreleased material. However, back then, on the cusp of success and stability things soured and Sill began a downward slide. Personal comments about David Geffen proved ill advised. Though maybe she wasn’t to know not to mess with the man who would later sue Neil Young for making an album that did not sound like Neil Young.
Despite her protracted apologies Geffen pulled all backing for her music. Ironically, given that she had previously found solace living in a car when running from her stepfather, Sill suffered an injury in an auto-accident. Unsuccessful back surgeries aggravated the condition and her previous narcotic offences meant that she was denied painkillers. Unsurprisingly, she turned back to heroin and, without a record label, died in obscurity in 1979, the day after Thanksgiving. Lord have mercy, indeed.
Judee Sill drew creative energy from her struggles but they are not made explicit in her music, which was a quest for harmony. The most thrilling moment on this disc is when Sill says, ‘Here’s a song I wrote seven, eight days ago… called The Kiss”. The few spine-tingling minutes which follow show her quest to have been an absolute success. Despite blurring the line between sexual, romantic and spiritual concerns, “The Kiss” is light-years from the hellishly bland “Jesus is My Boyfriend” music of contemporary Christianity. Not even Van Morrison has managed to merge spirituality and human love so exquisitely. Andy Partridge has spoken of Sill’s influence on XTC’s later records, particularly the arrangements and layered vocals. Partridge notes that many boys only got into singers like Carly Simon and Melanie because they wanted to get into their pants. By comparison, Sill was gawky looking, but her music contains “some of the most achingly beautiful melodies and chord structures I have ever heard and I’d even say that ‘The Kiss’ is the most beautiful song ever recorded.”
Incredibly, all members of Motorhead have a tattoo stipulating that “The Kiss” be played at their funeral. OK I made that last sentence up, but many other people have tagged the song as their choice of exit music. Trust me; I know a bit about salvation. My father underwent a Road to Damascus religious experience, though in his case it was Road to Burton upon Trent. This turn of events was a bit embarrassing for a teen hipster to endure, but I understand that attaining a state of harmony with the universe allowed him, though already a strong and courageous man, to die an obscenely early death as cheerfully as if he were being knighted or accepting the Nobel Prize. I hope that Judee Sill slipped as easily from this world.