Remembering Judee Sill: A Mystic Walked Among Us

A selfish motivation is the genesis lurking behind the creation of this post. Simply put, this writer feels oddly compelled to add to the emerging canon of articles and documentaries about the late singer/songwriter Judee Sill. Sometimes a story idea will haunt the writer until it is completed.

Sill described herself as a "genderless angel." The patina of years has me convinced that Judee Sill, if not an angel, was truly a mystic walking in our midst, and we all overlooked that fact. Certainly the music business did. She wrote as if she were not part of this earthly plane; inhabiting exploding star clusters while riding ten crested cardinals and enchanted sky machines. Who could write like that if they were not exquisitely aware of something beyond, something extraordinary, and something worth the telling?

For Sill, it was November of 1979 and not T.S. Eliot's April that was the cruelest month. She passed at the age of 35 of a drug overdose.

This fascination with Judee Sill began when one of the grande dames of the Chicago folk music scene called and invited me to stop by and listen to a new singer on a new record label called Asylum. It was 1971, and in those days college students eagerly stalked record stores for the latest releases. We shared listening sessions while reading liner notes held in our hands as if they were Scripture.

The cover photo on the eponymous Judee Sill must have been a sly joke on her part. She is hunched over a guitar with a crucifix hanging prominently around her neck.

After the needle dropped onto the vinyl track of "Crayon Angels," a folky, pretty strumming with a classical horn overlay on the first few bars reverberated through the stereo speakers. The hook that snagged me for life said it all: "Nothing's happened, but I think it will soon; So I sit here waiting for God; And a train to the Astral plane." Sill wasn't waiting on a nameless street corner with Vladimir and Estragon for Godot. Her destination was the classical, mysterious and esoteric astral world, and she knew exactly what train would take her there.

Sill's lyrics were mystical but not religious. She dwelled in a world of red midnight ravens that ruled imaginary battlegrounds. There, she drew a sword "to get ready," only to have a regal lamb run away with the prize before she could fight. Sill wrote with an intensity that suggested she had once lived in those transcendent terrains where good vanquishes evil.

Judee Sill was released by Asylum Records in 1971. "Crayon Angels," "My Man on Love," "Lopin' Along Thru the Cosmos," "Enchanted Sky Machines," "Abracadabra," and "The Lamb Ran away with the Crown" were included on the tracks.

The Hollies, Warren Zevon, and Linda Ronstadt covered her songs. The Turtles recorded "Lady-O" in 1969, two years before Sill's 1971 debut on Asylum.

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Screen Grab from YouTube

Her second album, Heart Food, has a wonderful photo of Sill clad in denim, ears wrapped in huge headphones, eyes closed and conducting with baton in hand. Ever the maestro, she looks enraptured and transported. No one could fake that pose. "The Kiss" is one of the tracks on Heart Food and one of the most beautiful songs ever written.

There is a 2014 BBC documentary in which Bob Harris recalls meeting Sill. He describes her as "looking like a librarian." After getting through an awkward introduction in which she asked people to buy her record, magic happens and the librarian transforms into an otherworldly messenger as she performs "The Kiss." Universal truth emerges with a soaring piano underlay that must be heard and not explained.

Watch the transformation and see if you agree.

Could anyone but an angel or mystic have written these lines?

Stars, burstin' in the sky
Hear the sad nova's dyin' cry
Shimmerin' memory
Come and hold me
While you show me how to fly

Who knew in 1971 that exploding novas make a sound in the vast emptiness of space? It happens that scientists can now translate electromagnetic radiation produced by a supernova into sound.

OK. I'll take off the tinfoil hat and suggest that anyone who has not listened to Judee Sill give her a try. There is comfort to be found in the way that her genius taps into the universal soul in all of us. We don't need magical interventions. Let's just say for now that Sill was ahead of her time. Way ahead.

If I had known then that the music of Judee Sill would surface at odd, but appropriate intervals in life's adventures, I would have put my 21-year-old self on a bus for LA and camped outside of the offices of Asylum Records and snagged an interview. I remember arguing with the producer of a program at WLS Radio on the history of women in music and almost getting fired. I kept insisting that we could not possibly leave Sill out of the commentary.

Even in the days when Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne shared her label, Judee Sill was not part of the lexicon of "women songwriters and singers." We interviewed Grace Slick and Yoko Ono for that broadcast, but even the queen of folk, Judy Collins was left out. Part of the "problem" with Sill was that her music was unclassifiable in a 1971 music industry. It was simply unacceptable to put out an album that was not folk, country, or gospel; and which also featured a strong classical influence. In addition, rock was beginning to transcend the folk music scene.

Bob Claster has carefully archived Sill's unreleased concert recordings including grainy VHS links, and mp3s made from analog reel-to-reel tapes recorded with microphones placed near TV speakers. The remarkable thing about this archive is that you can hear Sill speak in her halting, heavy twang. Hearing the speaking voice of a singer who has passed is a relatively new experience for those of us who did not grow up with the Internet.

Originally a musician and songwriter, Claster is currently the teleprompter operator on Jimmy Kimmel Live and worked on a radio documentary about Sill when he had an 80's show on Southern California's NPR outlet KCRW. The documentary was never completed.

Claster, in an email, says, "There's a degree of musical and lyrical sophistication to her writing that transcends the genre." He also urged me "not to wallow" in the more sensational aspects of her life. That will not happen here. Sill's story is hers and hers alone, and she never got a chance to tell it.

Judee Sill's backstory is tragic, extremely interesting, and overwhelmingly sad. But it is the music and her otherworldly insights on the human condition that offer redemption and a glimpse into what lies beyond this world. Her discography endures, and along with it, her musical genius and vision.

Was Judee Sill an angel walking amongst us? Or, do her loyal fans have a burning desire to believe that angels do indeed exist?