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

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

“That’s rather unfair, you know, to stop me criticising the whole of western society just because I can’t suggest a better alternative on my own.”
(David Nobbs, The Death Of Reginald Perrin)

I’ve only just started reading the Reginald Perrin novels, which were written before the TV series was made. Although it is impossible not to visualise the just about unsurpassable Leonard Rossiter portraying the middle-class self-gaoler who has had enough within their pages, and the exchanges are as hilarious as they were on screen (and in addition, Nobbs' observations on the increasing yuppification of rural villages, with five boutiques and no grocers, and the locals priced out of the housing market, read as though written last week, rather than in 1975), the books are made of far darker stuff; in the second novel, The Return Of Reginald Perrin, once more himself, his actions cause him belatedly to drop out of the middle England safety net. Ostracised by all his neighbours, he is forced to seek work on a pig farm, and in the bleakest pages he is suspected of being the local rapist - his house is progressively trashed and even his wife is reluctant not to think of him as guilty.

He rises up again, of course, on the basis of selling rubbish, but that is yet another story. There are moments worthy of BS Johnsonian deconstruction, for example when his wife Elizabeth comes to the fore briefly because she feels it’s about time she had her own chapter. But the conflict at the centre of this long unwinding story is how to reconcile the person he dreams of being with the person which, by circumstance and history, he is compelled to be; and beyond that, a greater reconciliation, between his earthbound, lustful self and his attempted spiritual nobility.

As a struggle it is not dissimilar to what Judee Sill faced, although her story was perilously real and circumstance and biology indeed compelled her to lose the happy ending. I don’t propose to go into her biography in any depth here, since the story is told at articulate and compelling length in the essays which accompany the CD reissues of both the albums she released within her lifetime, as well as the catchall package of outtakes and demos for an unrealised third album. But beware; as far as her two studio albums are concerned (and these are really all which need concern us here) it is urgently recommended that you seek out the Rhino Handmade import CD reissues rather than the cheap-looking 2CD domestic package released last year, since the former give her music and soul the compassionate harbour denied to her in actual life.

Nor can I give a thirty-year history of intimate knowledge of Sill’s work; though from the covers I suspect I must have seen them a thousand times in the Glasgow record shop cutout racks of my seventies youth, I never invested – another sensitive American singer/songwriter? The inadequate cup overfloweth; all those Toni Browns and Terry Garthwaites and Essra Mohawks clogging up Listen Records on Renfield Street, when all my punk-retuned ears wanted to hear was NOWNESS. Anyone who thinks I’m an intolerant musical extremist now should have seen me back in 1979 when I was cheerfully screaming out my Sun Ra and Alternative TV discs in music appreciation class at Uddingston Grammar and every fucking body else was still getting off on ELO and Boney M and Motherfucking Rush (with or without the Mahogany) and avoiding me as though I had a big red X painted across the back of my school blazer with the VIRTUTE CRESCAM badge replaced by a splattering UNCLEAN!

And then you live quite a lot more life, and quarter of a century later, after you’ve been hit by everything a human being could possibly have been hit with, except guess what, there’s more, you’re coming up for forty and on your own and end up needing that quiet consolation. Then you despise your rash youthful self for so brief a moment before realising that, actually, even if I had bothered to check out Judee Sill when I was fifteen – when she was just about still alive and could have made a tiny bit more money out of my purchasing – I wouldn’t have got it. No, my 1979 notion of the soul was defiantly long and dark and nocturnal; Unknown Curtis and Metal Lydon my all-too-fallible avatars.

But eventually, just like that Gillian Welch record somehow found me when I was ready to settle beneath the most conclusive of darkness – well, there is a habit which has repeated itself through my listening life, and that is if I need to hear a piece of music, or an album, somehow it will find me, even if I have to be made aware of it by a stray paragraph in a music monthly. Music will come to me when the time is right for me to appreciate it and learn from it.

You pause for a slighter moment and do a microepisodic doubleback: hold on, I’m supposed to be healed and enlightened by this music, but it didn’t do anything for its creator, did it? It didn’t save her! A good job we don’t make that a maxim by which life must be lived; otherwise bang go Plath and Crane and Larkin and Hardy knows who else. And in the end one always has to invoke Larkin’s Law; learn from and embrace the art, and never mind the failings of the artist (even if the latter are more often than not the vital, life-draining fluid for the former).

So I wanted to find those Judee Sill records and listen to them; a characteristically dry irony that in this decentralised age Sill’s albums until recently remained far easier to find on vinyl than on CD; those Rhino Handmade editions cost a bundle. But if you think of it as a life investment, something you’re going to come back to again and again for the next half-century, as opposed to all those Klaxons and Just Jack and Mika and Fall Out Boy albums which you’ll end up bagging and hauling to MVE in 18 months’ time (as someone who, last Saturday, stood in Tottenham Court Road’s Fopp for some time weighing up the pros and cons of purchasing a Val Doonican 2CD compilation I don’t suppose I’m one to talk…and no, I didn’t buy it…but really, don’t those names in themselves read like a pilot contestant list for an as yet unrealised Indie X-Factor? And they sure as hell sound like it, too – maybe if we can force ourselves to forget Marc Bolan for the next ten years, since at the moment we need a lot more Colin Blunstones and Duncan Brownes than we do third-hand glam manglers), then you might agree that the cost is worthwhile.

Most importantly, Judee Sill’s two official albums should be played on heavy rotation in immediate earshot of any dumb right-wing politician ready to condemn societal failures to the lifelong sin bin. Look at her generous, beaming, humble face, her delicate hands, her carefree, cascading hair, listen to that embracing voice (“Oh thank you!” she drawls, elongated and ecstatic, to her appreciative audience during the Boston Music Hall performance which can be found in full as a bonus addendum to her eponymous debut album). You might catch a rare glimpse of it in the corner of an unusually wary eye – certainly if you immerse your ears and soul in her music you will hear it continuously, underneath the peace – but this glorious, articulate, ornate and simple music was the creation of an alcoholic, a drug addict, a convicted robber and a sometime hooker. She had been all of these – and circumstance and drugs would eventually conspire to finish her off – and yet here she is in this version of 1971, fresh, eager and heartfelt, ready to share her art with whoever will receive her, and more besides.

The opening “Crayon Angels” features just Sill’s curiously familiar, vibrato-free but warm voice and acoustic guitar, together with a cor anglais motif which curls around the song like a welcoming cradle…and immediately I think of Gillian Welch; the same delivery, the same expectant aura of doom or glory, the same metaphorical struggle against the “mystic roses” which died, the “magic rings” which “turned my finger green” and the “phony prophets” who “stole the only light I knew.” Yet the door of hope is here left open; it ends with the angels coming back and laughing in her dreams.

Then “The Phantom Cowboy,” the first of several songs concerning her extremely questionable taste in men, though perhaps all of these songs are differingly oblique reflections of the same man, the ideal (“The Archetypal Man” as the following track puts it). Ostensibly a fairly jaunty C&W tune, it soon bends into murkier waters as hissing , threatening low strings accompany Sill’s wary “But the ledge is steep” before resuming its former buoyancy – though the violins end the song with a huge question mark of a curlicue, perhaps wondering whether she has the nerve to “get there in the nick of time” despite her “sittin’ in the grit and grime.”

The orchestral arrangements – jointly done by Don Bagley and sometime boyfriend Bob Harris (emphatically not the DJ who takes morbid people around his musical zoo of a late Saturday evening) – are absolutely crucial to this album and help turn it into something christening the hem of greatness. If the sublime mixture of echoing pedal steel and naturalistic baroque orchestral lines which decorate “The Archetypal Man” – leading from the shocking initial rush of descending violins (those sweet silver angels preparing to fly low?) to the blissful stateliness of the geometric backing to Sill’s vocalisation of a harpsichord solo – suggest we are entering Brian (or Dennis) Wilson territory here, then we are; the same mixture of gee-whiz and noble which has enabled Pet Sounds and the original SMiLE to avoid being pinned down for four decades, and the emergence of a genuinely true beauty. Whereas Joanna Newsom simply buys Van Dyke’s lines off the discount rack and clumsily glues them to her less-than-compelling meanderings, here the strings and woodwind breathe as Sill does, in and out with her, so that we get the feeling of one huge pulsating soul of humanity at work in her art. Shiver at her extended “Fleeter” in the line “Fleeter even than Mercury” and we know we are in the presence of someone who intimately understands the osmosis and give-and-take essential to complete expression of her music.

And all the while, in “The Archetypal Man,” Sill is trying to set this man free and wondering whether it’s worth it. “He flies inside the walls he calls his own” she muses sorrowfully but quickly realises that “He looks like everyone I’ve ever known” and ends up yet another false prophet (“But through the rose in his hand…flows blood” is the chilling end which she gives to the song).

“The Lamb Ran Away With The Crown” continues the inventory of her continued carnal/spiritual struggle; its multitempo fluid swing, its unpredictable chord switches and that seemingly misplaced nightclub alto flute suggest a Nashville Laura Nyro – she is driven by near-uncontrollable desire, but every time realises that goodness will win out (the lamb and crown both being deliberate Biblical images). Eventually the song opens up as her spirit does; bass harmonica and rhythm section enter, as does a French horn, and she ends up improvising a multitracked vocal roundelay (which, on the live segment of the CD, she courageously tries to do live) which gives us an early hint of the song which will so shatteringly end her second album.

“Lady-O” had already been recorded by the Turtles (and their bassist, Jim Pons, acts as co-producer here). It is clearly a hymn of worship and embrace – but of what, or whom? “I’ll see you in my holiest dreams” (and pause your heart as her voice flies slowly low on “holiest dreams”) “Lady-O.” Another woman? God? Drugs? The ambiguity was never resolved, and I hope it never is; as it stands, its acoustic guitar and hourglass strings create a humane drone which makes the song almost the direct antecedent of Julee Cruise – that same spectre of a voice emerging from everywhere but nowhere, but unquestionably coming from above.

“Jesus Was A Cross Maker” was a single (given an appropriately pop-ish production by Graham Nash, who also tipped off his old band the Hollies, who promptly released their own version). In her live reading she explains the prayer for “Sweet silver angels over the sea/Please come down flyin’ low for me” as being an articulation of her belief that “the lower down you go to gain your momentum from, the higher it will propel you.” Written about a fairly well-known ex-boyfriend, the musician JD Souther (“Even that wretched bastard was not beyond redemption” she remarks dryly to her audience), the song seems to summarise all of Sill’s inner struggles; he is a “bandit and a heartbreaker” who pretends to be the answer but really loves the struggle (“Fightin’ [the devil] he lights a lamp invitin’ him”). But then again, if Christ could have been the manufacturer of the method of his own execution – and if he could still forgive – then Sill entertains the notion that she can still forgive him, however little he deserves it. Fittingly the arrival of a tambourine opens the song up, and band and backing singers (including Rita Coolidge) bolster Sill and help her towards the end, along with such sublime touches like the acidic trill of violins on the word “angels” in the second chorus. Here we also find Sill’s voice at its most characteristic – still free of vibrato but preferring long, flowing, bar-vaulting lines of melody, flitting from octave to octave with seemingly the minimum of effort.

“Ridge Rider” returns to the “Phantom Cowboy” territory; the non-archetypal man, the one she really wants to save, riding a ridge that is “mighty thin” and not realising that “he’s travelin’ with a friend” – the “friend” clearly being the same friend whose death-defying virtues Frankie Laine extolled on 1954’s “My Friend,” namely God…or could she mean herself? Musically this is where the album kisses transcendence most clearly; her high, concerned “scared” and “gold” – and the beyond-beautiful chord change which accompanies both – contrasted with the trembling “weight,” one of the few instances of vibrato on the record, but only in the sense that she’s trying to balance herself atop a crumbling cliff edge. Then, paved by another French horn obbligato, the music trails off into ethereality, expressing the inarticulable – a long, eternal fadeout which very much puts Judee Sill, the album, on the same suprahuman plane as Astral Weeks and Pacific Ocean Blue.

“My Man On Love” is comparatively straightforward, musically if not lyrically; an acoustic guitar and multitracked voices with a glockenspiel twinkling like the merciful nocturnal stars. She comes down hard on “tomb” in the line “No sorrow is like yours my friend, though silence is your tomb” and yet manages to extend the “doom” of the following “I’d take your every agony to save you from this doom” to twelve elegantly twisting, arching syllables. “One star remains in the false darkness” she sings, as if slowly revealing the action necessary to complete the intent. It is “most high, most high” (and note how the guitar harmonics bend down unexpectedly here, as though God be crouching down for a chat) “my man on love” – God, or the man she would save, or both?

“Lopin’ Along Thru The Cosmos” might be the greatest song title ever, and the song itself luxuriates in near-indescribable beauty, somehow as simultaneously within this world and on another planet entirely as the Cocteaus at their finest; more heart-bending modulations on the words “slide” and “ripple,” those kissing strings again, Sill’s voice ascending boldly but still sounding like a sob, the way her ENTIRETY crumbles on the word “land” (I mean, I was listening to Kate Bush in 1979; how could I have missed all of this?). Then all of a sudden the strings come into the foreground and adopt progressively more subtle Oriental lines and harmonies; like the end of Massive Attack’s 100th Window, it is akin to a camera suddenly panning out into space to take the whole globe into its view. She cuts it off sharply with a “do-do do-do-do” but not before she has given me a central and key message – “However we are is O.K.” We can live anywhere, on anything, doing anything, and as long as there is a “we” we know we can and will be happy. See what I mean about needing to hear this at the right time, as opposed to even fourteen months ago when I originally promised I’d write about Judee Sill?

It’s nearly time to get going. On the live version of “Enchanted Sky Machines” she prefaces the song with a good 3-4 minutes of rolling gospel piano, learned when she was the church organist at her reform school, and its upbeat message demands deliverance; the metaphorical flying saucers (or sweet silver angels) waiting to “take all the gentle home” after the rest of the world has been destroyed. Salvation of the good.

But also:
“Just needin’ to touch you/Is so hard to restrain/Just waitin’ for the time/Could maybe make me insane/My heart is so hungry/Livin’ on patience alone…”

A better world…but she knows that patience and faith are the keys to that particular kingdom. That final bitonal ring-a-ring-a-roses piano threat at the end…doom or glory? It is up to those of us who want it.

(Prefacing her live reading of "Jesus Was A Cross Maker" she remarks that "this song saved me. It was either writing this song or suicide.")

Then, finally, on the brief “Abracadabra” she performs the act of release. Over one acoustic guitar, she sings, very low so the angels might reach her, “Here’s to the man who forgot his way home. Who silently narrates the confusion of his fight. He fears the great truth that would free him with its mercy. He hates his own darkness. Dare he hide from this light?”

It’s me, isn’t it? Me for all of those five tortured years…well, no wonder I had to wait until now to hear it. And yes but yes oh YES:

“Abracadabra, here’s the key to the kingdom. See thru the eyes that be behind yours.”

And suddenly the curtains and the windows open and the sunshine is let in, allowing first a harmonica, then the strings, and then – perhaps the last and biggest aural shock on the whole record – the full orchestra suddenly emerging into widescreen, brass, timpani, tubular bells and all, and it is not just a Hollywood ending but it is a Scott Walker or a MacArthur Park ending which ends on YES rather than NO, and look what was here in front of you, all around you, all this time and now you have opened the eyes that matter and it is Parliament Hill Fields in the August sunshine and it is Sylvia made right and…well, we know the story by now, and we know enough perhaps to make Judee Sill right, twenty-seven years after she’s gone, know that by our happy ending we just might…we never know, and that’s the excitement…put everything right…

“But put on your crown, my Queen, and we will build a New City on these ruins.”
(Eldridge Cleaver, “To All Black Women, From All Black Men,” from Soul On Ice)

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