Presented by David Geffen’s Asylum label as the archetypal singer-songstress of the period, Judee Sill’s background differed markedly from those of her self-absorbed peers.
While Joni Mitchell and her willowy sisters worked their way around the folk circuits of Greenwich Village, Judee was being arrested for stickup jobs in the corner stores of LA’s San Fernando Valley, driven to such desperate measures by a $150-a-day heroin habit.
Sill was born in Studio City, California on 7 October 1944, her background respectable Hollywood.
But her father, a cameraman at Paramount Studios, died of pneumonia when she was only eight and her mother remarried and relocated to LA. Sill’s family life then disintegrated.
Her mother succumbed to downers and alcohol, her stepfather, Ken Muse – an award-winning animator for Tom & Jerry – allegedly abused her, and when her brother, the only stable influence in her life, left home during high school, she transformed into the proverbial wild child.
Judee and a partner began a series of gas station hold-ups that saw her wind up in reform school. Already experimenting with drugs, on release in 1964 she moved from dope to daily LSD consumption and ended up back in jail for narcotics offences and passing forged cheques.
Her drug-world connections, and the time she spent hanging out in jazz and folk clubs, now drew her into musical circles.
In jail, she began writing songs, one of which – Dead Time Bummer Blues – was recorded by LA garage band The Leaves. Sill met them through pianist Bob Harris, whom she later married, and with whom she first started dabbling with heroin.
Before long she was dealing again, and turning tricks to support a serious habit that she combated for the rest of her life. By this time, Sill was performing herself in local dives while studiously writing songs.
When Jim Pons left The Leaves and joined The Turtles, he continued to champion Sill – their final single in 1969 was a wondrous version of her tender ballad Lady-O, on which she played guitar.
Her intricate, mystical songs started to attract admirers on the LA scene of the late 60s, by which time she was clean and keenly focused on her career.
The sublime albums Judee Sill (1972) and Heart Food (1973) have prompted many to ask why Sill was never elevated to the heights her label mates enjoyed.
“I knew very little about Judee,” says Graham Nash, who produced her most famous song, Jesus Was A Crossmaker – the very first single released on Asylum, allegedly inspired by her affair with JD Souther. “But I do know that she was a bright, talented, funny lady. I had no idea she was taking drugs on that scale.”
Songs such as The Pearl and The Phoenix are as exquisite as Nick Drake, but more schooled and complex. Classically trained, Sill combined her love of Bach and other composers with her taste for the mellow, countrified sound of 1970s California, melding them into a unique style she termed ‘country-cult-baroque’.
Yet there is something mathematically perfect about her best songs, which she invariably arranged – and even conducted – herself.
After being dropped by Geffen in 1974 – following her public revelation of his homosexuality on the radio in Britain – Sill wrote and recorded a new set of songs in a single day at Mike Nesmith‘s Countryside studio, but these did not appear until 30 years later when the tracks were released as Dreams Come True/Hi – I Love You Right Heartily Here.
By 1975, after a bad car accident in Hollywood in which she seriously injured her back requiring a series of operations, she was re-addicted to opiate drugs, of both the legal and illegal variety.
On 23 November 1979 she was found dead at her house on Morrison Street in the unglamorous North Hollywood area where she had spent most of her life. Cause of death was given as “acute cocaine and codeine intoxication”.