The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Wednesday, February 21, 2007
JUDEE SILL, PART 2: CURSED IS THE LONESOME PIONEER

Could we have saved Judee Sill if we’d been nicer to her, more open to and celebratory of her art? That was one of many thoughts which went through my head following the
latest semi-barbed critique aimed at music bloggers from a middle-aged veteran – and I’m a middle-aged veteran, so I speak with some authority– who reads me, or at least glances at me, eulogising Emily Haines and then accuses me of being too frantic, too hysterical, too anxious to be first on a non-existent writers’ block. Apparently we must be slower, more considered, less outwardly passionate, all so that we can save him wasting an evening going to a concert by someone I could have warned him against – if he really trusted me, which frankly at this late stage he ought to. I imagine that previous editors hawked the same distress signals over his furrowed head as he serially proclaimed, at a time when he was half his age and had double his enthusiasm, Was (Not Was) and Penthouse And Pavement and Dare and Sulk and Force The Hand Of Chance – and I am being extremely selective with his selection here – the greatest album ever made. Moreover, since I was around at the time and therefore qualify to attest, he was absolutely bloody right about every one of these. Should he have buckled down to Rationalist Neil and moderated his luminous blanket of hysteria? If so there would have been no ZTT, no anthologies of his writing, no monthly Observer Music Monthly columns which see him heading rapidly towards IMac martyrdom – he hasn’t yet said how damned are we who weren’t aged between 14 and 30 when Spiral Scratch came out (I was two weeks off my thirteenth when that happened, so I can attest that I shall truly never understand) but we’re waiting. Some of you might be, anyway.

But if you are LIVING through the greatest time of your life, then (a) isn’t it the only possible reaction, if you are a music writer, for you to eulogise and beam beckoning beams of semi-perpetual ecstasy, and moreover are you not uniquely placed to be the ONLY writer who can TRULY understand that music’s contemporaneous and future greatness?; and (b) who for a start said that such a time could only happen once in you life, when you’re young and fuelled? I can attest to being living proof that you can somehow survive into your fifth decade, despite having lost EVERYTHING and nearly EVERYBODY along the way, but then by some combination of magic, purpose and nature you can end up finding EVERYTHING and EVERYBODY again, even if it’s a different EVERYTHING, even though its constituents be exactly the same as the previous one, because even in terms of EVERYBODY it just takes that ONE PERSON with the key to open up your gate, defrost your windows and get you living again? Physically you might not have precisely the same degree of energy and tolerance as you would have done a quarter of a century ago – but here again, if magic and purpose and nature can work in the most sublime of ways, somehow that energy and tolerance can find their way back into your body, illuminating the soul, empowering the heart.

What’s the alternative? End up like Eleanor Rigby or Ian MacDonald, cloistered and shut off and already dead, living for – and worse, IN - a past which you can NEVER get back, and even now I decry living in the past as I prepare to talk about a near 34-year-old album by a woman gone from the world for over 26 years.

But there was plenty of moderation and impersonal box-ticking in those distant, unlamented days of the listed music press; I can’t recall Judee Sill being especially talked about, though undoubtedly she was mentioned, and interviewed, and her records reviewed somewhere, undoubtedly deploying words such as “solid,” “folky” and “nimble,” and she certainly did an In Concert for Radio 1, and appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and I don’t recall a second of it at the time. She was one of many, rather than a more obviously approachable and identifiable figure like Joni Mitchell or Carly Simon, with their shrewder public shields and their rock star connections.

And let’s face it; even if we had been nicer to her while she was here, her music was not the type which announced its glory by bounding towards you and licking your face energetically like an over-eager Labrador puppy – to an important extent you had to go out to meet her music, to find it, to duel with it, to conjoin with it and to find your own meanings and mantras in its subtotally-defined heaven. Gradual pleasures were as roughly dismissed then as now; partly to do with the accursed turn-of-a-dime nature of music reviewing, when records have to be assessed NOW or what’s the point of releasing them, or leaving them for six months until you approach a definite verdict on it, by which time there has been no promotion, the record hasn’t sold, the artist has been dropped and staff at the pressing plant have been laid off? The idea of simply releasing a work of art, like a caged butterfly, into the wilderness and letting it find its own audience, or its own audience find it, remains anathema; look at the disgraceful treatment of Stef Penney in her recent ill-advised newspaper interviews. Many of us – self included – simply want our words and feelings to let themselves discreetly into the world, without having to do laborious interviews or pseudo-cordial bookshop tours to people who will never know us, or particularly want to know us; and so eighteen months after I started building this Church, readers from all over the nooks and crannies of place discovered it, commented on it discreetly, and then it travelled eight thousand miles until it found its desired and ideal Reader.

But you know all that, and I’m supposed to be talking about Judee Sill here so let’s get on with it. The first album was reasonably promoted and she got her name about to a certain lowish level, but it didn’t particularly sell, despite being the first release on Asylum Records. Some say that Sill torpedoed her chances by making wisecracks about David Geffen – remarks about his “pink shoes,” or worse, calling him a “fat fag,” and we turn our heads away from that particular strand of militant Christianity with some difficulty. However, they clearly believed enough to bankroll a second album – and with a collective personnel involving the likes of Spooner Oldham, Louie Shelton, Jim Gordon, Doug Dillard and their not-exactly-base-rate ilk, as well as the expanded orchestra (which Sill herself is portrayed as conducting on the inner sleeve of Heart Food), they were not yet ejecting her into the bargain basement.

Heart Food is now regarded as Sill’s masterpiece, I suspect largely on the basis of its two admittedly overwhelming setpieces. But close listening betrays the uncomfortable truth that, although it is a more “musical” and professional-sounding album than its eponymous predecessor, that doesn’t necessarily make it a better one. Indeed, there are several suggestions within its grooves that Sill was perhaps already running out of ideas, and with these two startling exceptions, to which I shall come presently (and there may be a partial third), her general approach here is disappointingly conservative.

This play-safe policy manifests itself most strongly in the trilogy of songs which return to her old theme of the lonesome rider who may be cowboy, or may be Jesus, or may be her Other. In addition, despite her noted vibratoless vocal style, she does incline towards the vibrato quite frequently throughout Heart Food, and not always successfully. “There’s A Ragged Road” with its simple fiddle and horses’ hooves and complex pedal steel accompaniment, works reasonably well because of the colouring which the instrumentation provides; the vibrato, however, makes Sill’s voice more agitated and uncertain. At times (e.g. “sun goes down” and “color all my weary days”) she sounds as though she’s falling off the edge of the world, and the pedal steel echoes her appositely with downward slides or incandescent, purplish hazes of chordality. But the album sags audibly in the dreary middle section of “The Vigilante” and “Soldier Of The Heart,” where she basically revisits the same theme (though “Soldier” deploys a more robust, rockish approach musically) with decreasing levels of passion and interest. Indeed, a fourth song off the same, tiring block, “The Desperado,” was also recorded for the album but left off; possibly because of titular overlap with the contemporaneous Don Henley song but more probably because it trod the same wearying ground.

Or perhaps a symmetrical approach, as on Time (The Revelator), was intended, since rather more complex acoustic ballads appear at either end of the record; “The Pearl,” whose strings astutely veer as her emotions do – still looking for salvation and trying to avoid the obvious last temptation (“I saw the dealer and his friend arrive/But their gifts looked grim”), echoed by more sublime chord changes (e.g. right after “sells them by the pound”), and “The Phoenix,” which despite its serene surface contains one of her most tortured lyrics (“And when I tried to speak, the sun imploded/And the war will wage in my guts”).

She shows somewhat more purpose when she switches from guitar to piano; “Down Where The Valleys Are Low” is a terrific C&W gospel doowop number (should such a thing exist) and the interplay between Sill and her backing singers (including Gloria Jones, the future Mrs Bolan) is highly reminiscent of Nyro and Labelle on Gonna Take A Miracle, with adroit accompaniment from vibes, clean, single-note lead guitar and a fairly querulous organ. As the song progresses towards its hoped salvation, the backing singers become breathier, more excited, freer. Still…”push me on from the danger that’s pullin’ me”…

Similarly, “When The Bridegroom Comes” has just a straightforward, hymnal piano accompaniment; the lyric, the only one on either album not to be written by Sill herself, was composed by her then partner, and perhaps her truest love, David Bearden. Despite its sometimes parlous Biblical tone (“By the Pharisees cursed”) the song, largely because of Sill’s plaintive delivery, is very moving indeed, beckoning the Other not to remain locked in her own darkness – “With your door opened wide/Won’t you listen in the dark for the midnight cry?/And see when your light is on/That the bridegroom comes.” Well, reverse the gender and that story’s true enough, even if the bride had to get that door open somehow…and that holy tremble on the “let their” of the line “let their poor hearts complaint” makes you want to clutch the planet to your bosom.

I have of course left “The Kiss” and “The Donor” until last because in this context, and for that matter in the context of singer-songwriters of the seventies, they sound as though beamed down from another planet, certainly not from any notion of “folk” or “country” or even “pop,” and despite the unevenness of the rest of Heart Food they are the reasons why the record would have to be prised from the proverbial cold dead hands. There were precedents for “The Kiss” in the first album, particularly in “Lady-O,” but this song’s loving stasis is the expression of a soul and spirit complete – with its near-motionless strings, at least until the final verse, when they turn pizzicato, as the heart begins to beat again, and its divine, almost ahuman vocal from Sill, it stands in fit company next to Julee Cruise’s “Mysteries Of Love” (one of the three musical axes on which Blue Velvet spins, and without doubt the most important, signifying as it does the spring flower, perfect, in the cracked vase atop the rotting sill) – yet here it is so utterly pure, the sun now taking the place of the first album’s “sweet silver angels” to come “silently swoopin’ down/Just to show me/How to give my heart away.” Sill’s trademark vocal tactic of dragging the song through elongated sustenatos half a beat behind its tempo gives “The Kiss” an especially dreamlike quality (it sounds at times as if the vocals are being played backwards). And then the glorious, humbling, ascending triad occurs twice; first on the lines “sayin ‘dyin’ is done’/Then a new song was sung/Until somewhere we breathed as one” and second on “where our poor bodies lay/Soothe us gently and say/’Gonna wipe all your tears away’.” While PiL’s “Theme” admittedly does come close, “The Kiss” is just about the best musical argument against suicide that I can think of at this not-at-all late stage.

But then there is “The Donor,” the long, patient, desperate seven-and-a-half minute prayer with which Sill achieved her own closure. No mention of donors in the lyric, but again it is about what to give in order to avoid an end. The song – if song it be, and not roundelay or hymn - very slowly and methodically constructs its fugal lines; the “Kyrie Eleison” prayer materialises from the right channel amid the wordless counterpoints until suddenly the camera zooms in on Sill and her piano…and she sounds as though she’s losing the battle. “So sad…and so true, that even shadows come and hum the requiem” which she sings with approximately equal amounts of compassion and agony. And now, rather than the sun or sweet silver angels, it is the songs themselves which now come “sweepin’ over me” as they come “from so deep…/while I’m sleepin’”…she sees the eclipse of the Moon and the arrow of sorrow “reachin’ to the marrow/Silence cries.” The plea of “Leave us not forsaken” gives it away; this is despair as black as Drake’s black-eyed dog, she knows that the light at the end of the tunnel is most likely her own coffin, and still she cries quietly for mercy (“Kyrie Eleison” – “Lord help us”). Even if she can’t save herself, she might be able to preserve others. The massed overdubbed chorales are elegantly and emotionally orchestrated; not so much harking back to Thomas Tallis but looking forward to the Enya who would make her fortune fifteen years hence with much the same approach, albeit with the advantage of far more technology than was available in Sill’s day (I can see a surviving Sill walking into the New Age light – perhaps she would have been Jane Siberry first, and yes I know Siberry covered “The Kiss”). A final florid piano flurry with the kind of bells which tinkled at the peaceful end of Pharaoh Sanders’ albums of the period seals either her doom or her salvation. Not to be outdone by herself, Sill then adds a brief, jerky fiddle ‘n’ Jew’s harp jig right at the end as a vaguely ironic “That’s all folks!” signoff.

And if “The Donor” represented the bleakest of all mirrors into which Sill could have dared to peer, then no wonder she tried to run away from it thereafter; little surprise that on the unreleased 1974 album which would eventually come out as Dreams Come True she reverted to flighty knees-up hoedowns to disguise the near bipolar nature of her words; songs called “The Apocalypse Express” and “I’m Over” coexist with songs called “The Good Ship Omega, Alpha Bound” and “Sunny Side Up”; words like “I’ll die pointing in the direction of my own resurrection” cohabit with words like “And love comes to lead us home.” Of course it wasn’t to be, and not necessarily because she badmouthed Geffen, but, in partial collaboration with Bearden, she authored her own long demise through a cocktail of bad driving, back pain, drugs, drink, stupid affairs, her preprogrammed parental fucked-upness, drink and drugs. In her notes to the Rhino Handmades reissues Michele Kort understandably glosses over her final moments; the fact remains that it is impossible, even in possession of all the facts, to adjust the quiet, welcoming authority of something like “The Kiss” or the sophisticated musical majesty of something like “The Donor” with the raped junkie who ended up existing in a trailer park, bombed out to oblivion. Maybe she should have come to Britain; but then punk might have wiped her out instantly. How hip would “Lopin’ On Through The Cosmos” have sounded in 1977? How gloriously out of its time did “Wuthering Heights” sound in 1977?

All if, if and more if, and none of it’s going to bring her back (if only she had hung on a little longer, long enough for an Eno or a Lanois to find her). However, the art remains; and to those who would wish to put a considerate full stop to enthusiasm, passion and light in music writing I would merely reply that anyone who listens to “When The Bridegroom Comes” and cannot see a direct spiritual and aesthetic link with Emily Haines’ “Winning” has maybe lost the ability to listen. Honour your ghosts by all means, but live for those who would live for you…because you really never know what pearl might be waiting for you just around the next bend.


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