Judee Sill - "Sunnyside Up Luck"
Judee Sill released two records during her lifetime - 1971's Judee Sill and 1973's Heart Food. There's a special, easily-shared reverence for these songs by people who know them. Tara Jane O'Neil once told me she'd been covering "Jesus Was a Crossmaker" live because she loves it so much, and gets so much joy out of singing it. But she would only play it overseas, where people were less likely to know the original and hold her's up against it. Vicki McClure, a friend and collaborator of Sill's, said in an interview, "Judee's songs have always been a great source of comfort to me." On one tour, driving from San Diego to Tucson, we played both CDs in a row, no one speaking a word across 140 minutes of the albums and bonus tracks. And then remained silent still until the next bathroom stop, when our minds were re-set enough by the racks of candy and noise of gas pumping to get back to normal.
On that same tour, I made a controversial statement that I "didn't like music about christianity, and didn't like music about drugs but Sill's music is so special I don't notice or care." That declarative attitude and starkly drawn line was so annoying to Ariel he didn't talk to me for the rest of the tour, who could blame him? And though I don't stand by that statement I do think it makes clear something special about her songs. Sill had an especially tough path in her short life, her wikipedia biography lists more profoundly sad experiences than years lived, including homelessness, addiction, prison time, abusive home life, and neglect. The songs are never explicit about these traumas, but they lurk in there for sure. By contrast, her yearning for redemption is right at the surface, and more importantly, infinitely approachable. In "The Phoenix," she sings, "Ever since a long time ago/I tried to let my feelings show/I'd like to think I'm being sincere but I'll never know." It comes from a very dark, exposed place, and the shifts that brought her to it are maybe tough to relate to for most listeners. But the precise, crystalline result of them, evidenced in these couple vulnerable lines, are accessible to anyone. Art Johnson, who played guitar with Sill, said this very clearly in an essay about her: "it was straight from her heart to yours, whoever you may be."
The songs were also inviting in a similar way as the lyrics. Judee Sill worked well with session musicians, and string quartets, horn sections, and wide-grinning drummers augment a lot of her arrangements. There's a way that could feel a product of the era, the way the Emitt Rhodes and Nick Drake records always feel like there's one too many instruments. But Sill pieced things together so carefully, sometimes holding the rest of the band until the end of songs, or backing off herself and letting them carry the melody. I've always tended towards her emptier songs, the piano/voice closeness of "When The Bridegroom Comes" or the emptiness of "Abracadabra" (until the coda I guess) but I can get carried away by the dense ones too.
"Things Are Looking Up," from her unreleased third LP, is one of her most rollicking and lush songs. It's a half step from Carole King/Brill Building pop radio style, you can almost picture Judee swaying from side to side, eyes half closed, lip synching on the Johnny Carson show. It makes a lot of sense, the lyrics have a delight to them, love for the moon and sky. Her darkness is unescapable, of course—"things are looking up/things are finally looking up" signals a lot without actually saying it. But she "can't quit grinning since the lightning struck" which is such a magical way to talk about new love.
There's a less magical but very sweet list of dares she would take to spend time with this new love: "I would scale the steepest peak with you/Just to be by your side/I would dive through hoops of fire/Or cross Niagara on a real live wire." She also offers to "Brave the open sea with you" and somehow this feels the most fitting in the song, as she looks up at the stars and wonders at the world. The shared isolation and wide view offered by time in a boat makes a perfect setting for these reflections.
Songs for this third record were recorded by Bill Plummer in 1974 but never released during her lifetime. A two CD set, Dreams Come True, came out in 2005 with the complete session, along with demos and home recordings. One of these home recordings was "Sunny Side Up Luck," a demo version of "Things Are Looking Up" that's so profoundly weird and hazy it took me years to absorb the connection between the two recordings.
"Sunny Side Up Luck" is driven by seasick harmonium, Sill's nimble fingers picking out a sturdy melody that feels like the Velvet Underground's "Hey Mr. Rain" but also has a clipped repetition that feels like some 8-bit mind numbing. A few guitar sounds appear and submerge like a lazy dolphin or a dickish roommate wandering in and out of the kitchen with a crummy acoustic guitar on his hip. The "Brave the open sea" line from the finished version of the song is expanded here to the entire song, the metaphor extended to include riptide and a lighthouse, and some really specific sailing language revealed: "Over swells we're flying/We go slicing through the surge and we curl the foam... Hear the engines humming/As we're smoothly making knots through the eventide." Both songs share the strangely specific lines, "I would rise through raging water/And get the bends and have to send for a doctor." It shouldn't work, it's too mundane and direct to act as a metaphor or connote any urgency. Even on a level of pure sound, the collected syllables are simply too blunt to sing. But of any part of either song, it's the one that settles deepest into my brain. She's a magician.
The other part of "Sunny Side Up Luck" that I cling to is at the very end where she's repeating the lines, "You bring me sunny side up luck" and laughs a bit, and trying to stifle it, ends up laughing again. It's so rewarding to hear her laughter, such an unabashed glee. It's a very welcome counterbalance to the desperate, unresolved staring of "The Phoenix."
Dreams Come True is an excellent collection, I maybe have spent more time with it than with either of the LPs. She obviously was continuing to grow as a songwriter, and it's part of the tragedy of her short life. I was also lucky to have heard the songs before Dreams Come True came out, via Bob Claster's Judee Sill website. A friend emailed me the link, for a long time it was the only email in my Jackpot Records email account, because I wasn't in front of a computer enough to actually use it, but it was worth it for that one kind email. Over the years, Claster had collected cassettes of Sill's work, and decided to make them all available through his website. The release of Dreams Come True complicated this generosity, and at some point I went looking for it and it was gone. Here's the internet archive version of it [LINK]. Listening to the remastered Dreams Come True, I sometimes miss the unsweetened versions of these songs from the website.
I went looking again todau, and found Bob Claster's new website, which saved a bunch of the text and some of the tracks from the original site, you can find it HERE. Both sites share this explanation of where all these songs came from:
I hope you all enjoy these with my compliments. I've gotten quite a bit of email asking me my involvement with Judee Sill and her music, and here's the story. Back in 1991, I had the idea of putting together a one-hour radio documentary about her for NPR, which I eventually abandoned. Many people have asked me why I abandoned it, and here's the short answer:The more investigation I did, the more I realized that the best memorial possible to Judee Sill is her songs. It's a life that's frustrating to learn about in many ways, characterized by many strokes of just plain stupid bad luck, with some foolish decisions and carelessness thrown in for good measure. So, I think it's probably better left undone. She wrote some amazing songs, and let's enjoy them and leave it at that.
I've been thinking about this a lot. I like stories so much, and I devoured the texts I could find about Judee Sill in the CD reissues or whatever I could find online. People loved her, loved working with her, and they're eager to share their memories, I don't know that I can think of another artist who's made such a specific mark on people. But when I want to talk about Judee Sill, I have a really difficult time doing anything but playing the records for people. The stories about her sex work, bank robberies, or sleeping in her car feel vulgar and unacceptable in the face of these songs. Again, I'm not sure I can think of another artist who makes me feel like this. Which is maybe best articulated by the memory of sitting silently with a bunch of boys who were babies when Sill died, the shared isolation and perspective of time in a van, absorbing these songs like sunlight, like love.