By Jessie Lynn McMains
You never talked about your past
About the drugs and walking in the streets
They found you with a needle in your arm
Beloved books strewn around at your feet
—case / lang / veirs, “Song for Judee”
I’d not yet heard of Judee Sill when I first heard “Song for Judee,” but it instantly became one of my favorite tracks on the case / lang / veirs album. What can I say? I’m a sucker for odes to tragic figures, their tragic lives and tragic deaths.
Two years later, listening to Spotify’s recommended-for-me playlist, I came upon “Crayon Angels,” and it was like nothing I’d ever heard. Oh, there was a similarity to the early-seventies folk-pop my mom loved and raised me on, but there was a quality to the singer’s voice that made it just different enough to stand out. Something off-kilter and otherworldly, haunting and haunted. And the lyrics:
Crayon Angel songs are slightly out of tune
But I’m sure I’m not to blame
Nothing’s happened, but I think it will soon
So I sit here waiting for God and a train
To the Astral plane
(I’ve ridden astral trains with fallen angels. I, too, have waited for God.)
I looked at the name of the singer: Judee Sill. I’d never heard that name, didn’t know anything about her, but I knew I had to hear more, know more. I listened to more of her songs, a self-made sampler built by choosing the songs whose titles I was drawn to. Three or four songs in, I was weeping. Not sad weeping, mind you; the kind of weeping you do when art moves you so deeply you break open. Who was this Judee who sang me to tears? I did an Internet search, and after reading about her wild and tragic life I fell even deeper in love.
I see a young girl teaching herself to play piano in the dim dust-light of an Oakland barroom. I see a skinny colt of a teenage girl, robbing gas stations all over Los Angeles, getting caught and becoming an organist in the reform school church. I see an art college dropout playing jazz on acid; a young woman discovering the dark peace of heroin, turning tricks and scheming scams to support her habit, getting thrown in jail. I see a young thing getting clean and finally, finally writing songs. Judee, inventing a sound all her own. Baroque country, she called it, her own heady blend of country, classical, folk, and pop.
“Lady-O,” what a song. She sold it to The Turtles before recording it herself, but I prefer her version. Her haunting voice harmonizing with itself. The swell of strings behind the folk guitar.
So on my heels I’ll grow wings
Gonna ride silver strings
But I’ll see you in my holiest dreams,
(Baby I love you, but I’ve gotta leave.)
I see her on the cover of her first album, draped in blousy black, long hair hanging in her face, a big golden cross hung around her neck. She looks like an androgynous priest/ess. (She once referred to herself as a genderless angel.) And in her face in profile I see something else: something in the angle of her nose and the way her bottom lip curls down reminds me of photographs of my mother and my aunt from that same era. I see them in her. I see myself.
Sweet silver angels over the sea, I see her. Hear her voice tumbling over her piano, a swing that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Carole King album. Hear her sing. (One time I trusted a stranger cuz I heard his sweet song.)
Judee sang about Jesus as cosmic lover. As a bandit and a heartbreaker. Her religion was one of occult mysteries, of Blakean mysticism, of love. And Judee loved men and women. Women who hung around like her lovesick angels, men who stole her heart and broke it then moseyed off like cowboys down the rugged road.
There’s a rugged road on the prairie, Judee sings. I see that dusty road at sundown, laden with cowboy sadness, steel guitars and lonesome strings. I see myself in Colorado and California, walking into the sunset alone, dust on my cosmic silver cowboy boots. Blessed is the lonesome pioneer, sings Judee.
Oh, lonesome Judee. Critically acclaimed but never finding the success of her peers. Lashing out at those she once cared about, blaming them for the bummer of her life.
“Dead Time Bummer Blues,” recorded for her never-released third album, is a jailbird swing. The jazzy piano reminds me of Tom Waits’ early stuff and—Jesus, I think—they were contemporaries. Labelmates, both releasing albums on Asylum Records at the same time. What happened to Judee?
Oh, Judee, crashing cars. Getting back into heroin and prostitution, once again seeking that dark peace to try and ease the pain. I see her in a darkened room, with the flicker of candles and the reek of incense and burnt wax. I see Bela Lugosi looking down on her as she succumbs, finally, to a needle full of cocaine and codeine. When she died, at the age of 35, she had fallen so far out of the world that most of her friends didn’t even know she was gone. Her obituary was never published. It makes me weep because I see myself in her: struggling bisexual artists drawn to self-destruction, drawn to needles and to heartbreakers. If just a couple things in my life had gone differently, her story could’ve been mine.
It makes me weep because she was a wildly talented songstress, like her contemporaries Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Laura Nyro, but she never found the success or fame they had. Had she been just a little more traditionally pretty, a little more feminine, a little less queer, would she have succeeded, would she have survived? I’m a sucker for tragic stories about tragic people, but sometimes I get angry for all of us sad women, tortured artists, tragic queers. The world only seems to love us when we’re dead. I’d like to write a different ending for Judee Sill, but I can’t. So I imagine her as an androgynous angel, a hobo of the cosmos, riding that astral train. I see her in my holiest dreams.