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Heart Food 

1970s L.A. songwriter Judee Sill: a mystery, a myth, a dream that almost came true

Thursday, May 26 2005
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Photo by Judy Himmel
Many turntables, you know, have turned to dust and have not been resurrected. And the same thing can happen with music. A few years ago, friend Barbara had no turntable and one particular old LP that she needed (needed) to hear: the 1972 first album by an L.A. songwriter named Judee Sill, which had not then been reissued on CD. She asked me to tape it, and I did what I could, given that the vinyl itself was in rotten condition, the way valued things get.

The music at first seemed not for me. Kind of girly, with substantial Christian freight. Still, there was something about it. Something . . .

What was Judee Sill’s magic? The way Barbara thinks about it, Sill’s soulful optimism had a special power to pierce the melancholy we all experience; it worked for her 30-some years ago, and it works now. Quite a few people apparently feel the same. Sill’s first two records were reissued in 2003 via expanded Rhino Handmade editions, and this year arrived Dreams Come True, a double-disc Sill set with video content, transcripts of friends’ biographical observations, and music the singer never released prior to her 1979 death at age 35. It looked like the mythmaker wheels were grinding; Sill was tabbed to become the new Nick Drake–style music saint and martyr.

You’re smelling hype. Shut off the alarm, though, because Sill’s icon fits the niche. Today, really listening to her music and mulling over her insane life story, I found physical things happening to me. With birds tweeting outside on a sunny Sunday morning, I slumped into a chair and heard her sing “When Dreams Come True,” as if to herself. And I got that tugging in the chest, that dampening of the eye, that swelling in the throat. The mind can dodge, but the body does not lie.

“I’d like to think I’m bein’ sincere, but I’ll never know,” Sill sang in 1973 on her second album, Heart Food. Only a sincere person would say that. It’s not like Sill wore no mask, it’s just that the mask was really part of her, stuck tight from an early age. And you can see through it quite easily. The Quicktime video fragments on Dreams Come True, captured from a rough 1973 filming at a solo outdoor USC performance, introduce you to a tall, thin hippie chick in a peasant blouse who seems calm to the point of absence. Her voice, pure and undramatic, reinforces that impression. (She dug Joan Baez.) And her playing, on fingerpicked guitar and R&B-flavored piano, flows easily, borderline unconscious. If you let her in, though, you realize she’s singing hymns, hymns about personal struggle in deep waters, and they’re prayers for redemption. One of the songs is “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” later covered by Warren Zevon. The message is simple and only tangentially religious: We build our own crosses.

Judee Sill needed some redeeming. The original sin she carried was that of her alcoholic Valley mother and stepfather, who beat her up. She escaped as much as she could, killing the pain with drugs and supporting herself by kiting checks, robbing stores and hooking. She got busted for dope and forgery, did a short jail term at age 19. After she got out in 1964, she started taking LSD every day and getting into music. People thought she was weird and funny.

Of such stuff were the flower children made. Sill could’ve been a Susan Atkins — even looked something like the Manson stooge. Fortunately, though, she had talent. Everyone was staggered by her ability to plumb the structures of Bach, pick up instruments, sing and write.

You get a picture of hippie-era Los Angeles from the reminiscences of Sill’s friends, and it now seems like a fairy tale. Total freedom. Drugs all the time. Artists hanging out all over, working and partying together. Gone.

Sill’s debut was the very first release on David Geffen’s ’70s country-rock powerhouse Asylum Records, and hers is very much music of its time. It’s singer-songwriterly, ultramelodic, with strong folk roots. The arrangements’ soul rhythms and tempo surges frequently recall Laura Nyro’s. Grand symphonic touches usher echoes of Jimmy Webb. Sill’s accent has a Jackson Browne–like Americanness: “Fly down low fer me”; “raptcher”; “captcher.”





Prescription meds didn't help
Sill cope as effectively as her
old friend/enemy, heroin.

In retrospect, it’s not hard to understand why, with rivals like Joni Mitchell and Linda Ronstadt around, Sill didn’t sell. The main obstacle was her voice; though it could leap and soar effortlessly, it was a non-competitive instrument, somehow insubstantial. Both on her earlier records and on the newly mixed 1974 songs that have ended up on Dreams Come True, you hear the producers straining to do her right, and too often ending up with vocals that are irritatingly multitracked or buried. That’s why the recent packagings are a gift: They come augmented with bare demo versions that, despite Sill’s genius as an arranger and orchestrator, tend to sound better and truer than the full-on workups.

And her best songs are so, so good. “Jesus Was a Cross Maker” — fatalism somehow wrapped in hope. “The Lamb Ran Away With the Crown” — the apocalypse gets personal. “Lady-O” — just a lovely love song; Sill thought she’d really made it when she heard the Muzak rendition. “When the Bridegroom Comes” — look to the sky, hallelujah; stand back, Elton John. “The Donor” — a “Kyrie Eleison” worthy of Brian Wilson.

Those are from her first two, but Dreams Come True unearths nuggets just as fine. “That’s the Spirit” is gospel R&B that positively cannot be denied. “I’m Over” proclaims, “I’ve been laid down and rose up again” — amen. And “Till Dreams Come True” — my god, my god.

In 1974, that self-belief was born of necessity. Sill was recording through the racking pain of an unsuccessful back operation; for the last five years of her life she would never be fully healthy or fully mobile. Prescription medications didn’t help her cope as effectively as her old friend/enemy, heroin. She died of an overdose that some say was not accidental.

The legend has it that Judee Sill’s back was broken when she was rear-ended in Hollywood by Danny Kaye; she claimed John Wayne drove her to the hospital. Whether that’s true or not, it will serve as a symbol. The counterculture went into a coma right around that ’74 day, co-opted and crippled by a resurgent old guard that would grow ever stronger. Ronald Reagan was governor of California then; a year after Sill’s 1979 death, he was elected president.

All that’s just fancy, of course. As Sill herself would tell you, we build our own crosses.


JUDEE SILL | Dreams Come True: Hi I Love You Right Heartily Here (Water)

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