Tag Archives: John David Souther

Judee Sill’s first album

The greatest 35 minutes in the history of recorded music is the first (eponymous) album by Judee Sill. A big claim, but I’ll stand by it.

To go into the particulars of her life story would take more time than I have here, but a brief summary may put her music into context. She was born Judith Lynn Sill in 1944. Her father and older brother both died when she was a young child. Her mother remarried, to a Tom and Jerry animator, and both her mother and stepfather had alcohol problems. She fell in with the bad kids at school and her situation at home became increasingly strained; she couldn’t stand her stepfather, whom she saw as mean and narrow-minded. At fifteen she ran away from home and met a boy a couple of years older who made his money as an armed robber. The pair of them held up liquor stores and petrol stations across the San Fernando Valley until they were caught and Sill, still a minor, was sent to a reform school, where she learnt to play organ, piano and guitar.

On her release, her mother by this time dead, Sill married a man named Bob Harris (not that Bob Harris) and the pair became addicted to heroin. Sill was arrested and sent to prison – a real one this time – where she was left to go cold turkey, puking and convulsing in solitary confinement. Once out of jail, she began using again, working as a prostitute to fund her habit. It was at this time that she began writing songs, songs that would eventually bring her to the attention of David Geffen, manager and mogul-in-waiting, who made her the first signing to his new label Asylum.

Despite this tumultuous personal history (I have only time to mention in passing her bisexuality; her time spent writing for the Turtles, who discovered her living in a car; her crush on Geffen (who is gay); her shatteringly unsuccessful relationship with fellow songwriter John David Souther (who has had the good grace to admit her dazzling artistry – ‘She’s school for all of us’); her later car accidents (one of which she was rescued from by a passing John Wayne); and many other episodes besides.

But really, none of this is the point. None of this makes her music any better or worse. Knowing it probably doesn’t even really help us understand her any better.

The point is that there has never been a songwriter who handled the big stuff with as delicate a touch as Sill. The really big stuff. Existence. God. The universe. Everything.

A Christian of deep but unconventional faith (she was an avid reader of apocryphal, mystical, and Rosicrucian texts, which all fed into her writing, and perception of God), her religious songs were shot through with erotic imagery, while conversely her love songs have a holy reverence to them. Yet her music is substantial without being weighty. It’s deep but seldom heavy. It is free of the self-seriousness that characterises even the best work by, say, Joni Mitchell or Neil Young,

Sill released two albums in her lifetime of the most astonishing quality, the influences of Bach chorales and early church music clear in her chord structures, her lyrics reflecting the theosophical texts she eagerly devoured, her melodies like no one else’s in the history of popular music – the end result not that far removed from the work of her contemporary Laurel Canyon singer-songwriters sonically and formally, but elevated by a grace that none of them could achieve.

A junkie armed robber and former hooker who looked like a librarian and sang like an angel, Judee Sill was the greatest singer-songwriter who ever picked up a guitar.

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Judee Sill, conducting. Pic from Heart Food sleeve

The author’s recent EP, to download or stream for free:

Rock & Roll Doctor – Little Feat

Popular music is full of songs about medical practitioners. From Cypress Hill’s Dr Greenthumb to Gloria Estefan’s Dr Beat. From Aqua’s Dr Jones to Steely Dan’s Dr Wu. From the Beatles’ Doctor Robert, who helps you to understand, all the way through to Dylan’s ‘best friend my doctor’, who can’t even tell what it is he’s got. There have been Frontier Psychiatrists, Night Nurses and Witch Doctors.

But has any doctor in pop music ever had two degrees in bebop and a PhD in swing? Only Lowell George’s Rock & Roll Doctor.

George was one of the heroes of Laurel Canyon. There were several artists out of LA in the early seventies who were hugely popular with the mainstream audience (Young, Mitchell, CSNY, Taylor, King, Eagles, Ronstadt), and then there were artists who were hugely popular among other artists: John David Souther, Lowell George and Jackson Browne – guys whose songs everyone covered, who pretty much everyone believed were really talented, but who didn’t particularly catch on themselves commercially (Browne of course did later, but his first album took four years to go gold and he was never a major star like Taylor, King or Young). As late as 1975, David Geffen was still trying to make JD Souther a big name by putting him in an instant supergroup with Chris Hillman and Richie Furay. It duly went nowhere, with Furay and Souther openly loathing each other. Hillman, as is his lot in life, was caught in the middle.

Little Feat had a cult audience Souther would have envied, and like Souther, Lowell George could afford all the coke he could snort thanks to covers of his songs by artists such as Linda Ronstadt, but far too few people heard George singing his own songs, backed by his own band, several of whom were in-demand session players, like Richie Hayward – a great drummer who played with Ronstadt, Dylan, Robert Plant, Tom Waits and many more. George himself was known for his slide guitar – and he is one of the very finest, completely himself and instantly recognisable – but he was also a decent singer, much admired by Van Dyke Parks among others,  and at his best a great writer too.

He died in 1979 from a heart attack, 34 years old and weighing over 22 stone (quite a gastronomic achievement for a man who was high on coke almost constantly), leaving behind a wife and young daughter (Inara George), and a reputation that’s still not really spread beyond fans of seventies LA rock. He’s not obscure, exactly, but he’s not a cult artist either. I’ve never met a fan of Little Feat my own age or younger. I’ve never met a fan of Inara George my age either, come to that. His profile might yet be boosted as, say, Judee Sill’s has been in the last five or six years, but it’d take someone to stand up for him and argue the case.

If you find yourself caught up in the groove of this one – and really, you should – check out the live version they played in 1975 on The Old Grey Whistle Test (easily found on YouTube); if anything it cooks even more.

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Lowell George — heavy slide, natural Strat