Decades after her demise, Judee Sill whether thief, whore, or saint still steals hearts
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"I used to joke sometimes that I'm Judee's last boyfriend," concedes Patrick Roques, producer of Dreams Come True, Water's two-disc 2005 compendium of Judee Sill's unreleased 1974 third album and demos. "I don't mean to sound egotistic or anything, but I loved this woman like I'd love a girlfriend or wife."
Sill has that effect on listeners. Over the past few years, the onetime hooker, junkie, armed robber, bisexual reform-school girl, and all-around archetypal bad apple has realized the revelation visited on her while incarcerated in the Sybil Brand women's prison: her music has been etched into the consciousnesses of passionate followers around the world who know her as a singer-songwriter of uncommon musical and metaphysical power. Even 27 years after her death from a cocaine overdose, it seems like Sill still hasn't quite passed. Water has done its part to keep her musical reveries alive with the landmark Dreams Come True, mixed by Jim O'Rourke and including Roques's obsessively researched, invaluable 68-page booklet and a 12-minute QuickTime movie of rare performance footage; reissues of her two Asylum studio albums, Judee Sill (1971) and Heart Food (1973); and the newly released Live in London: The BBC Recordings 19721973, an impeccably recorded document of Sill performing solo on acoustic guitar and piano, chatting with the audience and an interviewer, and in the process revealing snatches of a nervy yet nervous urban cowgirl in her blue-collar SoCal drawl.
For too long, before her rediscovery in recent years by a generation falling back in love with the folk songs of their parents' youth, Sill was simply the lost girl from an age of singer-songwriters, a victim of her lack of stateside commercial success though she's been covered by artists ranging from the Turtles to the Hollies, Warren Zevon to Bonnie "Prince" Billy and her will to transcend the bounds of the earth and everyday troubles, growing up in her father's rough Oakland bar and later sexually abused by her stepfather. Clues to map out her art or potential escape routes, which included a brief stay in Mill Valley's Strawberry Canyon were found in the sacred texts and music of Rosicrucianism and other forms of Christian mysticism, her studies of Pythagoras's music of the spheres and occult modes like numerology, or simply the moment's drug of choice, whether it be a daily tab of acid or the $150-a-day heroin habit that led her into prostitution and eventually check forgery.
Her decision in prison to devote her creative efforts to songwriting led her to truly reach for the sublime, in the form of songs that still touch listeners' cores. Always-immaculate intonation, a deft sense of harmony, and elegantly composed songs informed by AM radio, folk, R&B, blues, gospel, and classical music were framed by Sill's own arrangements, leading competition like Joni Mitchell to stop by and check out the Heart Food sessions. "I defy anyone who's a high school dropout ex-junkie reform-school person to do that," Roques declares. "This woman was brilliant and plugged in she had the energy, and it flowed through her." If you want to know and love Sill, she is, remarkably, still available her spirit can be found all over her music.
So why didn't Sill become a household name like Asylum labelmate Jackson Browne? "Judee didn't get along with [Asylum head] David Geffen, and David Geffen isn't someone you give shit to," Roques says. After recording two moderately successful LPs, "she was in debt to him, and Jackson Browne came along, and he was just easier to deal with, I think, from a corporate perspective. Browne hung out in the close inner circle and had hits. She didn't hang out with the Asylum record crowd too much. She hung out a little with Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles, and she had a lot of strange friends that she had had for a long time in LA."
One of Sill's exes and old pals, musician Tommy Peltier witnessed the disconnect between the worlds Sill ran in and remembers accompanying her to a Warner Bros. Christmas party right after her debut came out. "We went in my beat-up old car to the Beverly Hills Hotel, and that was first time I saw her cringe," recalls Peltier, who first met Sill onstage at a 1968 jam session ("It was love at first song"). "Here she was the new starlet there were all these Rollses and limos, and then this clunker drives up, and the new starlet comes out! That was the only time I saw her really uncomfortable, but she just went in there and took over the room."
But as difficult or out of her element as Sill could be, she was within her rights to complain about her handling when she went from opening for kindred souls like Crosby, Stills, and Nash to fronting rock bands. "If you listen to the BBC sessions, she talks about lower chakras and people who just want to boogie, and it's true," Roques explains. "The rock crowd just wanted to drink wine and take mescaline and get fucked up and party, and there's Judee singing 'Jesus Was a Cross Maker' and making references to esoteric literature. People who went out for a Friday night didn't want to hear that, just like they didn't want to hear Charles Mingus. Americans just want to partay that's cool but that's why she did better in England."
It's no surprise, then, that Sill obsessives like O'Rourke and Roques still feel protective of her, careful about sharing their love for the dark lady of a sunlit Topanga Canyon whose revelations were forged on the grittily glamorous, sadly battered streets of Los Angeles and who, ironically, seems a perfect fit for yet another turn through Hollywood. "She was out there on the edge," Roques says, "and though I don't think she ever talked about women's lib, she was a very ballsy chick and knew what the fuck she wanted and just went and did it. And she evolved into a fantastic person there's no one like her" although, apparently, listeners keep looking. "I search for tapes and talk to musicians endlessly," he continues. "And if you go on these sites, you'll see everyone wants to find the next Judee Sill and none of them can even touch Judee Sill." *