Judee Sill the Flight of an Angel - Part Two
This is my personal experiences with her and not an historical account of her life. Her history has been, and continues to be mentioned in many books written on the pop music scene, as well as websites dedicated to her and about her from the thousands of fans that still remains true to her soul, and miss her very much. Judee Sill was truly unique. In my over forty five years of experience in the music field I have never know anyone with more talent.
She played the guitar really well in her own style of finger-picking which was carefully arranged and designed to accompany her original vocal music with counterpoint, both bass and treble which would offer the ear three part harmony on most of her songs. This skill was directly derived from her studies of classical music, formally and informally. Her piano playing was natural, highly influenced by gospel music and flowed out of her fingers. She could make a bad piano sound good: the true mark of an artist.
Her voice had wonderful range, and even now when I hear it on recordings, it still sounds like an angel from heaven. Her vocals were always honest, never forced the way things are today. There was no “phony-baloney” show-biz attitude to her singing, it was straight from her heart to yours, whoever you may be. Her lyrics were not just that. She was a poetess whose constant revision or her “vision” was non-stop.
Once I sat with her in her Mill Valley house that David Geffen had acquired for her and watched as she made a list of words. She was looking for a very special rhyme. She made lists of words long into the night searching for just the right symbol, the right moment in time and space. The intent of her lyrics and songs in general was cathartic—she wanted to change you, for better or worse, that was not the point, the point was all about change!
Judee dug deep for her songs, taking in all life had to offer whether it was relationships, people’s sorrows, paintings in a museum, drugs, sex, the music of Gabriel Fauré which she was extremely fond of, or the simplest of life’s experiences. Her “radar” was always up. The “receiver” was always tuned in. She lived to observe and write about what it meant to her, whether in journals, songs, poems or even in her sketches and paintings which were of a professional quality. She was simply a creative machine with an enormous gift to entice people and make them laugh. The world was basically her canvas, she could use it or abuse it—nothing mattered but the end result: Art.
For a brief time we were lovers. She had an insatiable hunger for experiences with others. Her life was full of incongruities. She was a dope addict, at one time a “hooker” and for a brief spell a criminal. She once told me laughing herself silly, that while in the midst of robbing a liquor store to get some drug money that she ran in with a gun in her hand and yelled at the owner, “...raise your hands mother sticker, this is a fuckup!!!” Judee was something else!
Even the least sensitive of listeners can easily hear the spirituality in Judee’s music—she was always playing for God, hoping he was listening.
Her song “Jesus was a Cross Maker” focused a lot of attention upon her when the English group the “Hollies” covered it in the early seventies. Rock and roll gospel as heartfelt as it gets. That’s what Sill was all about. She aptly named her album for Geffen records, “Heart Food.”
I remember being at A&M records when she recorded the tracks and had some of Hollywood’s finest on overdubs. One of her spiritual and musical mentors Lynn Blessing, the vibraphonist talked about a lot in this book, played drums on some of the sessions. Lynn and Jim Keltner, studio/tour drummer to the stars, often played the drums with towels draped over them to soften the sound. Lynn used this technique on Judee’s album to be “....out of the way of the music!”
I think I sang a background part or two on the album, under Judee’s scrupulous direction, but the memory that sticks out the most is this:
One day I arrived at A&M with Lynn Blessing to observe Judee conducting her own string parts for the album.
Yep, that’s right, she was so schooled that she could write a string arrangement for forty or more strings in counterpoint and also conduct it.
We’re not talking your average “Hippie-sixties” guitar strummer and singer here. Judee was also a great electric bass player and along the way in her musical background she played the clarinet professionally. But with all of her talents and the capacity to be one of the most outrageous people on the planet earth, I remember her most for her kindness and encouragement towards others.
Everyone around her became an unofficial disciple. She, who was eager to learn, was always teaching in an open way, with a smile, just suggesting a melody, or a chord or a way to phrase a rhythm. She was totally spontaneous. If you were driving around LA together and all of a sudden she saw someone or something you missed, boom! She’d yell,
“...Hey, stop right here, right now!”
Most of the time, you wouldn’t know what the hell it was all about until she pointed it out. Maybe a painting barely visible in a window: a small church no one had noticed: a street person with a guitar playing out of tune and singing worse, but there you’d be, watching Judee observing, taking it all in with her eyes closed, listening to the moment, watching God in action. She had a great saying that always stayed with you if you heard it.
“Upwards and onwards, fuck the odds!”