Struck by case/lang/veirs’ beautiful “Song for Judee,” we were compelled to get to know a bit more about Judee Sill, the remarkable musician who inspired the track.
Judee Sill lived her whole life in the shadow of death. When the “country-cult-baroque” folk musician fatally overdosed (acute cocaine and codeine intoxication was the official cause of death) in 1979 at the age of 35, living in a candle-strewn, black-draped apartment, she had no immediate family left to mourn her passing.
Sill’s trauma was a second skin. Born into addiction — both her parents were alcoholics — her father died when she was eight years old. Her mother remarried another alcoholic, an allegedly violent and abusive animator for Tom and Jerry. Sill left home and fell in with a bad crowd, started using drugs, and was involved in a series of armed robberies before eventually getting caught and sent to reform school. Her only brother died, and then her mother, all before Sill turned 22.
She tried to exorcise her demons — the guns, the robberies, heroin, prison — and chase a different life. She turned to songwriting and composing, and she was good. In the heady, early days of Sill’s career, her name tumbled around alongside the likes of Joni Mitchell and Judy Collins. She had friends and a label and two records that tangled together themes of love, Christianity and esotericism. In 1972, she garnered a major feature in Rolling Stone. Seven years later, she was found dead with a needle in her arm, escape in her veins.
Since then, Sill’s life has become something of a cautionary tale, at least for those who remember her. Every few years, like a flare gun lighting up the dark, her name resurfaces and Sill makes another headline, stories that reference “the lost child” and the “mystic” who walked among us, a cobbled-together tally of the “tragedy and triumph” of her “mysterious life.”
The particulars make for a hell of a story: a forgotten genius ripe for rediscovery; crime sprees and prostitution; jail and addiction. Sill’s whole tortured and tragic existence endemic of the now-cliched, ’70s-era Laurel Canyon music scene: sex, drugs, and a host of beautiful, young artists with money, power and egos as big as their visions. But an actual person lived through all of those things. A young woman whose sensitivity and ambition spilled loose and wild from her heart and into her songs — songs that took years to write and arrangements that took just as long to perfect.
Her music is generous and bold, weird and complex, so specific to her sprawling intellect and its numerous influences that nothing quite like it existed before or since. Sill released her eponymous full-length debut in 1971, the first record from David Geffen’s then new label, Asylum. She followed that up with Heart Food in 1973, her second and last release. Both albums are full of wondrous contradictions, mapped perhaps by her two stated biggest influences: Bach and Ray Charles. The songs are dense, esoteric and dreamy, full of brittle grace and hope, even in their darkest moments. The clarity of her voice, as a songwriter and a singer, is evident from the very first track, “Crayon Angels.”
Here are five Judee Sill songs everybody needs to know.
"Phony prophets stole the only light I knew,
And the darkness softly screamed.
Holy visions disappeared from my view,
But the angels come back and laugh in my dreams."
‘Jesus Was a Crossmaker’
"One time I trusted a stranger,
Cuz I heard his sweet song.
And it was gently enticin' me,
Tho there was somethin' wrong.
But when I turned he was gone,
Blindin' me, his song remains remindin' me.
He's a bandit and a heartbreaker,
Oh, but Jesus was a cross maker."
‘There’s a Rugged Road’
"Come on, the light is gone, hope's slowly dyin',
Tell me how you come ridin' through.
Still surveyin' the miles yet to run,
On the long and lonely road to kingdom come."
"I've been tryin' hard to keep from needin' you,
But from the start my heart just rolled and flowed.
I've seen where it goes,
And still somehow my love for you grows,
“This song is about the union of opposites that we all have, and ‘The Kiss’ is a symbol of the union.” — Judee Sill
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