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Broken Scapular: Mike Nessing on Judee Sill

Mike Nessing writes about the short, lustrously creative life of Judee Sill.

Songs of faith, higher power, wisdom and love. Chord progressions and melodic structures that reach to the sky. So how is it that the architect of some of these most holy sounds could live such a tragic life?

But that’s how it goes isn’t it? That’s the other side of the coin. For all her songs of aching beauty, Judee Sill couldn’t save herself. No man could save her either. Jesus is a tough act to follow. Could any one of us have been her “one star in the false darkness”? On the day she needed it most , could any mortal man get between her and that last heroin fix that took her life?

Lyrics are typically an afterthought for me. I don’t put much emphasis on them when first listening to a new tune. There has to be something initially in the music to pique my interest. If it’s good enough, I’ll keep going back to it and the words over time will reveal themselves to me. If those words can resonate on some kind of spiritual or even a sexual level, then that’s just gravy. In the early ‘70’s though, singer/songwriters had to have a message. Think “Wild World” or “Cat’s In The Cradle”. It wasn’t enough to just create good music, there had to be some sort of Aesop’s Fable that the kids could relate to. Sill’s lyrics were just as complex as her music. There is a message, but you’re not going to have it simply handed to you.

The first tune from Judee that I had ever heard was a cover version of “Lady-O”, buried in the depths of a “hits” compilation by The Turtles. It was so different from the rest of the record that it passed swiftly right over my head. It seemed to be just an odd footnote to a band’s star crossed career, their last ever 45. For Judee though, it was her big break. David Geffen signed her to his newly created Asylum Records label along with Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell, hoping to mine gold from the new “Laurel Canyon” sound.

Unfortunately, this music was never going to be “The Next Big Thing”. It was not for the jaded or the disillusioned. It asked that you cast off your feelings of apathy and believe in something. Pet Sounds to the third power. During the post-Woodstock “Won’t Get Fooled Again” era, this music regretfully would find no audience whatsoever, despite glowing critical reviews.

Jesus saved Judee’s life many times over. At least you would think so by reading her Wikipedia bio. As a juvenile, her wild ways landed her in a Catholic reform school where as legend has it, she cut her musical chops learning and playing hymns on the church organ. By the time she was a recording artist, she had already been a junkie, a prostitute, and a criminal. If that doesn’t sound like a late 20th century version of Mary Magdalene, then I don’t know what does.

A scapular was typically given to Catholics upon their first holy communion, along with a rosary. It was a necklace of sorts, with large rectangular images of Saints at either end.. We as Parochial school children were instructed to wear this scapular all the time with the belief that as long as you wore it you’d get to heaven. This type of ez-pass mentality appealed to me, so I wore it. Or at least at first. Scapulars were very un-cool. You couldn’t hide it underneath your shirt, because it showed through your school uniform. Besides, this was the early ‘70’s. Faith was passé. The cord eventually broke and it ended up discarded in a dresser drawer..

Judee Sill left us with two beautiful records, parts of an unreleased third one and some BBC radio sessions. There were also some UK TV appearances on “The Old Grey Whistle Test” that can be found on YouTube. Among those, “The Kiss” is the one above all others that packs the biggest emotional wallop. Giant piano chords cascading down, with no orchestral embellishments like on the studio version. This is only Judee at the piano, singing about how a kiss is the greatest sacrament of all. By the mid ‘70’s she had fallen so far off the pop radar that she was rumored to be dead even while she was still alive. Fiction became fact on November 23rd, 1979. She spent the final years of her life broken, eventually lost forever.
Just like my scapular.singer-songwriter Judee Sill.

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