When Jim Sullivan disappeared in March 1975, he left behind a small but impressive musical legacy. His was a career that showed great promise. A former football star, Sullivan kicked around the Los Angeles music scene for several years, performing at the hippest clubs of the late 1960s and early 1970s. He appeared in the film Easy Rider and counted Lee Majors and Harry Dean Stanton as friends.
In 1969, he released U.F.O.,a record that featured members of the notorious L.A. session group the Wrecking Crew, including Don Randi and Earl Palmer. One can detect the influence of songwriters such as Lee Hazlewood and Neil Diamond lurking between the notes. Still, even a cursory listen to the LP’s titular tune, “Plain As Your Eyes Can See”, “Rosey”, or “So Natural” reveals that none of his contemporaries were writing songs remotely like the ones Sullivan wove from thin air into art. These are songs of connection, disconnection, the sense of someone who was on a trajectory that was, simply put, otherworldly.
No wonder, then, that in the years after his disappearance, some read the songs as evidence that aliens abducted the troubadour. It seems impossible not to hear the lyrics as a prediction on the part of the artist that he would come to some kind of mysterious end. Of course, that end was still deep in the future when U.F.O. was reissued by the Century City label in 1970 and when Sullivan cut a second album for the Playboy imprint in 1972.
When he vanished outside Santa Rosa, New Mexico, with an untouched motel room three years later, he had been demonstrating hope for a different future. In fact, at the time of his final sighting, he was making his way to Nashville, perhaps with an eye on capitalizing on his promise with a new career in a new town.
For the next few decades, Sullivan’s trail essentially went cold. Copies of his recordings passed between collectors as memories of the living, breathing man grew fainter in memory. Then, somewhere around late 2009, Light in the Attic Records’ Matt Sullivan (no relations) happened to visit the website Waxidermy and downloaded a copy of U.F.O. Instantly smitten with the music, he oversaw a reissue of that first album in 2011.
Now, a decade after that initial brush, Light in the Attic presents two new Jim Sullivan titles: The 1972 eponymous album and a collection of previously unissued records titled If Evening Were Dawn. This solo 1969 session finds the singer-songwriter accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and winding his way through materials such as “Roll Back the Time”, “Walls”, and “Grandpa’s Trip”.
Fans of talents as diverse as Blaze Foley and Ryley Walker will find plenty to rejoice in upon hearing this material. Not only do these songs hold their own against what have become bonafide classics, but they also deepen Jim Sullivan’s mysterious biography and ask us to consider the deeper tragedy of his loss.
Light in the Attic’s Matt Sullivan recently spoke with PopMatters about these new releases.
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When you first discovered Jim’s music, did you know his story?
When I first downloaded U.F.O.,I got halfway through the first song and thought, “I have to find a way to reissue this.” I was reading comments on the Waxidermypage, and about halfway down, a guy who worked at Capitol Records was talking about Jim disappearing and wondering what happened. The next few posts were from family members saying that they were happy that people were listening to the music. But it was a way down in the comments. Once I heard about his disappearance, I was intrigued further. Sometimes, when you discover a story like that, you start hearing the music differently and thinking you’re discovering something more.
How long was it before you reached out to the family?
Immediately. I reached out to Waxidermy. They were really nice, and I think I got in touch with Jim’s family soon after. Chris Sullivan, Jim’s son, called me. I saw the caller ID and knew I didn’t have a family member named Chris. He was really excited about the album being reissued.
Who owned the music?
The original label that put it out. Some of our releases can take ten years to put out, but that one came to fruition pretty quick. I heard it in late 2009, I drove down to Los Angeles after Christmas that year, stopped off in Napa and met up with Al Dobbs, one of the executive producers on the U.F.O. record. He had sheet music and old contracts and photos. It moved much quicker than usual. I think people who knew him were excited about him getting his due.
My sense of U.F.O. was that it touched a broad spectrum of people. How did you experience it through the label?
It was very similar. It was one of those records that has a real appeal. It sounds like something you’ve heard before, comforting and familiar but with a melancholy edge. We’ve done about 250 records, and that may not be our biggest seller, but it’s one that people come back to. I think that speaks to the material and Jim’s writing and performing.
Were the other releases on the table from the beginning?
It took time. We knew about the self-titled record for a long time. We wanted to get that out, but making it at the right time was important. The unreleased session was something we stumbled upon at someone’s garage in West Hollywood. It had Jim’s name on the box, and we knew it was his music when we saw it. When we got the tape transferred, it was a no-brainer as to how special it was. It was special to hear Jim by himself without a lot of production around him. It feels personal.
So often with artists like this there seems to be a stumbling block in their career. What was that for Jim?
I don’t know. Jim sure tried. He had a number of brushes with fame. He was in Easy Rider. He had a single on RCA. He gigged at notable places. Making it in the music industry is such a crapshoot. Who knows? For whatever reason, he got lost in the shuffle. There are so many great artists that not everyone can make an impact.
We also don’t know what would have happened after 1975.
It seems like being in Nashville, especially during that era, when there were all these incredible artists popping up and taking power might have made a difference. There was the Outlaw movement in Nashville and Austin. You could almost see Jim being part of Heartworn Highways with Steve Earle, David Allan Coe. But it could have become another road that went dark.
Tell me about the new self-titled album.
He had only two full-length LPs. The first was U.F.O., and this one came about in 1972. The songwriting is phenomenal, and the playing is incredible. Jim Hughart, who played with Joni Mitchell and David Axelrod and Tom Waits, is on bass. Jim was always around an incredible class of players. If anything spoke to who he was as a songwriter and player, that’s it. There are great songs on it. It’s a different type of record, less psychedelic, more of a singer-songwriter album. Then, If Evening Were Dawn shows still another side to him. His wife feels that that represents another type of record he would want to make.
When you’re working on a project such as this one, where the artist has passed on, and you only have the tapes and stories from the people they’ve left behind, do you ever have questions that you’d like to ask that person?
Of course. Sometimes it’s about lyrics or other times it’s, “Where in the hell is this studio?” “Who played on this?” Sometimes we don’t have basic answers. There are records where those things aren’t apparent. With Jim, we have the question of what happened to him.
What are your thoughts on his disappearance?
I have many theories. It depends on the day as to what I think happened. Every day I question that and wonder. I think someone out there knows what happened. If they come forward and tell us, that’s another story.
What’s left of the music of Jim Sullivan that we haven’t heard? Do you have times when you have an abundance of material from artist to release but you say, “To respect the legacy, we’ll hold this back”?
Jim’s family has given us quite a bit of stuff, and we’ve transferred some tapes and have talked about releasing more of it. It is sometimes a struggle with certain artists when you’re a fan and want to hear unreleased music but also don’t want to dilute the legacy or disrespect that legacy. You hope that someone can provide input. There is other material from Jim that is great. But we try not to go the completist route. We want people to enjoy the music and not become overwhelmed.