Posts in Category: In Love With

Lost Angel: the Genius of Judee Sill

Hey Karen, Who Was Judee Sill?

This past Thursday night, I took a seat in a full auditorium at Cinema 21 to watch Lost Angel, the Judee Sill documentary. For those of you unfamiliar with her work, Sill was the first artist David Geffen signed to Asylum Records. She released two records, Judee Sill and Heart Food, neither of which sold very well. She died of a heroin overdose when she was just 35.

It is nearly impossible to describe her music because Judee Sill was singular. Her influences were classical, jazz, and sacred, which made her hard to market as an indie-folk singer/songwriter. Geffen had tremendous belief in her and her talent, but she didn’t catch on a the big way, or at all, even. She had fans like me, people who heard her in the seventies and never forgot her.

Who was Judee Sill to me?

Judee Sill felt like my own special secret. I didn’t own either of her records, but her songs were imbedded somewhere in my brain stem. Brother Steve brought her first record to me from his art school days in Minneapolis. He cranked up her eponymous debut and her overwhelming harmonies gave me the shivers. Orchestral and eerie, unsettling and beautiful.

I was not a religious kid by any means, but I experienced these songs as sacred. Soaring, swooping, then weirdly cowboy, with steel guitar and horse-hoof-clopping. Was it Western? Was it gospel? What exactly was this? Who cared, when the harmonies were so lush, the lyrics so compelling. Whether or not I believed in Heaven, I believed in music, and I knew this music was spectacular.

Part of it was her voice: beautiful tonally, but strange because it was a great big head voice forced out through a tiny opening, nasal with all the final syllables shut down tight. This live clip, where she’s singing with just the guitar, is a great way to hear what I’m talking about.

And I know she didn’t look like a star; that owlish demeanor and waif’s body, and that strange voice and unique songs. What a combination.

Who was I when I first heard her?

I was a lonely and miserable young adolescent, isolated on a ranger station and completely baffled by the idea of finding a place in the world. I talk about that here: A Hard Time. With my brother’s help, I was turning away from the teenybopper music of my childhood in search of something deeper. My favorite non-Cat-Stevens records were Ladies of the Canyon, and Something/Anything. Judee Sill fit right in.

Like Mitchell, Sill wrote intelligent, poetic lyrics, but Sill’s wandered into a mystical territory I’d never encountered before. Like Rundgren, she seemingly could write or play anything. ANYTHING. And like Todd, she was funny. The irony of her song, Jesus was a Crossmaker, delighted me at age 13. For decades, those four words echoed in my mind as the most ironic phrase I’d ever encountered.

She had a story so dark a person would be forgiven for wondering if it was made up. Brother Steve subscribed to Rolling Stone, and I read and reread the interview in which she gave the unsparing facts of her life. Teen runaway, knocking over liquor stores and shooting up in motels, reform school, conversion, then walking the streets to earn money for heroin. Another stint in jail got her clean. She came out determined to be a musician. 

A broader tale of her life would include a wealthy stepfather, time in college studying art, playing in the school orchestra, and an eventual inheritance.

Hearing her speak, reading her words

The movie showed pages of her notations, how she broke her “pop” songs into orchestral movements. The woman was writing symphonies, and, for Heart Food, conducting them. The producers who worked with her said there was little arrangement needed because she came in with all of it worked out.  

I was able to hear her speak for the first time. About half the voiceover is drawn from a long taped interview. She spoke so fast and tight, I almost missed some of what she was saying. The rest of the voiceover was a voice actor reading at a more measured pace from her journal; her dreams, her loves, her addiction and inspiration. Good God, her world was painful, but like most artists, she knew that heartbreak fueled her creativity.

The filmmaker, Brian Lindstrom, took enormous pains to corroborate the facts of her early life by showing records, press clippings, and the like. Judee Sill was exactly who she said she was. She might have expressed her goal to save humanity and be the most famous musical star there ever was, but as to her past, there was no self-mythologizing.

He spent years interviewing the many peers and friends who agreed to speak about her, her life, her music. I’m not sure the younger audience members knew who these people were, but I did. When he spoke after the film, Lindstrom shared that Linda Ronstadt spent an hour and a half on the phone with him.

He was invited to David Geffen’s home, I think in part because Geffen wanted to set the record straight. The Wikipedia page says, “Sill and Geffen’s personal relationship also deteriorated during this period, with Judee allegedly camping out on Geffen’s front lawn to protest his lack of support for her album Heart Food”. To which Geffen stated, “I don’t have a lawn.”

Sharing Judee

It was a thrill to sit in that packed theater and experience Judee Sill’s life and work with all these other people who actually knew who she was. I think you could compare it to going to church (yes, I freely blaspheme). She’d been my own for so long, It was wonderful to share her. In the fifty years since I first heard her, I’ve tried and failed to find other people who knew her work. All I had was Brother Steve.

Shawn Colvin spoke of her as an influence, which reminded me that on Cover Girl, she covered a Judee Sill song. That was back in the nineties, and when I read her name in the liner names it triggered a rush of longing in me. I called my brother and asked if he still had her album. He told me he’d sold his vinyl back when he was in college. Her music was gone. Out of print. Vanished.

Then, I think in about 2005, my brother found her music online and made me some copies. I was thrilled to have her first record, but I hadn’t heard Heart Food. I put it on, cranked it up, and thought, “Holy Christ, what has she done.” I was confused, gobsmacked, enchanted. It is stunningly beautiful and commercially unclassifiable. Her music is like nothing else. And the danger with that is, it’s not easily accessible. I understand that it is definitely not for everyone.

One of my daughters came with me on Thursday. She found the documentary fascinating and the music really strange. It is strange. It’s EERIE. The only thing I’ve ever found to compare her to is the Beach Boys, in that they were driven by one songwriter’s exacting, specific artistic vision, and have strange and swooping harmonies that sound like nothing else.

I have a friend who can’t stand the Beach Boys. They creep her out. Accordingly, I don’t expect everyone to love Judee Sill. She wore her faith on her sleeve, and crosses around her neck on the covers of both her records. I came home and asked my husband, “What if Brian Wilson had wanted to sing about God instead of surfing? What kind of career would he have had?”

What is her legacy?

During the Q&A after the film, someone said words to the effect that many artists live long enough to have a hand in crafting their legacies—she mentioned Joni Mitchell. She asked Lindstrom what she thought Judee Sill’s legacy was. The woman who asked this question didn’t seem to remember that before her health crisis and recovery, Joni Mitchell had secluded herself in the hills of LA county, embittered because she considered herself forgotten.

I told my husband about this question, and this led to a long discussion about whether or not an artist has any say at all in crafting his or her legacy. Some actively dismantle it by hanging on too long when they need to evolve with age (I brought up Madonna, in contrast to Rod Stewart, who stopped asking us if we thought he was sexy, took off the leopard Spandex and put on a suit, and moved on to standards).

Others have managed to endure with their original style long enough to survive the punchline phase of their supposed obsolescence (he brought up Cher). We wondered about artists whose legacy is so compromised by their personal behavior (Woody Allen, Michael Jackson). Their unquestionably brilliant bodies of work are tainted, as is the audience enjoyment of them.

So does the artist really have a conscious hand in crafting his legacy beyond the work left behind? Or will it be determined by the audience, not the artist?

I saw Mozart’s Requiem at the Oregon Symphony last weekend. When the choir sang out “Kyrie Eleison,” I didn’t think of the ancient mass. I thought of Judee Sill’s strange, haunting The Donor.

That’s a legacy, isn’t it? When Mozart reminds you of someone newer, instead of the other way around?

I heard The Donor in the mid 2000s, forty years after it was released. That’s about the time a friend played a song on YouTube for Brian Lindstrom, and he was hooked. Fifty years after her first album, he has released a labor of love that celebrates her. I hope this film will solidify her legacy and grow her fan base.

I can’t help but wonder which Judee Sill song Lindstrom heard first. Thursday night he said, “I can never fast forward through The Kiss.” Maybe it was that one. It’s a wonder.

More reading if you’re curious

A friend describes her life, and answers the mystery of how she supported herself when the music career failed:

Features on the documentary:

Mister Rogers? I love you.

How I came to love Fred Rogers, and why I didn’t at first.

Source and permissions

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Mister Rogers & Me

There was Children’s TV before I knew there was such a thing; public television existed, but hadn’t reached the prairies of South Dakota, where I spent much of my first ten years. By the time we lived in a town large enough to have PBS, I was eleven years old — far too old for any of the lessons involved. Even so, I loved the frenetic nature of Sesame Street, the rhythmic phonics of The Electric Company. I’d secretly switch over from Gilligan’s Island to public television, watching for the songs, animation, puppets, and Morgan Freeman’s beautiful voice.

The undersaturated retro simplicity of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood did absolutely nothing for me. The strange hand puppets? The dinging trolley car? An unapologetic opera singer? And above all else, someone with the last name of “McFeely”?

No thank you, I was not having it.

Mr. Rogers embarrassed me, to be truthful. The cardigan. The sneakers. Feeding the fish. And my god, the songs. His voice reminded me of my grandmother singing hymns beside me in the basement of the First Church of Christ Scientist in Aberdeen, South Dakota. When he came on, I’d switch back to whatever other rerun was on during the day. Something like Green Acres.

And then at age 14, I was left behind by my parents during a move. I wouldn’t live with my parents again until I was almost 20. I couldn’t afford a TV during those teen years, but I kept current with the state of children’s TV through my much younger brother, who watched a lot of Nickelodeon. The early Nick was commercial free and full of animated European shorts.

I loved it.

I moved back in with my family in 1980, the year Mount St. Helens erupted and covered the city of Portland with a rain of volcanic ash. My parents sent my younger brother to stay with grandparents in Minnesota for a month, until the ash settled down. He was eight years old, and baffled by an afternoon ritual there in Minnesota. At 3 PM, my grandmother would call him in from wherever he was playing, sit him down in front of the TV with a Wonder Bread and Cheez Whiz sandwich, and turn on Mister Rogers.

We did not grow up with Wonder Bread, Cheez Whiz, or Mister Rogers. But we were raised to be endlessly, achingly polite. So my little brother sat down and ate the sandwich and watched the show, not really liking either one. He endured this wonderful, awful pairing without a peep of protest. Was it a relic from my uncle’s childhood?


I dismissed Mister Rogers, and went on with my young life. When I was twenty, I enrolled in the local university and got a job as a nanny to augment my BEOG money. I worked for a doctor, watching her three kids after school into the evening. She told me they all sat down at 3 PM for snacks (carrots, cheddar and Triscuits) and Mister Rogers.

I probably scoffed. Mister Rogers?

I remember the warm twinkle in my employer’s eyes, her sweet and squirrelly smile. “Oh,” she said, “He’s so gentle.”

This employer taught me many things when I was 20. She taught me how to prepare chicken and fish and brown rice and magnificent salads, lessons I put immediately to use. She taught me how to relax on beach vacations, which takes practice. She tried to teach me that intelligence would be the most important attribute to seek in a man, and I eventually did learn that one, but not for a while. And by example, she taught me that a single woman in her forties and fifties could be vital, attractive and pursued, a lesson I wouldn’t realize the importance of until I was in my forties and fifties.

She also taught me to watch Mister Rogers.

The keyword was gentle. He was gentle with his viewers, and his viewers need to be gentle with Mister Rogers. We need to quietly anticipate the regularity of his entrance, his changing into his cardigan, the occasional plucky toss of a shoe from one hand to the other. We need to mildly care that the fish are hungry, and that he enjoys answering that hunger with just the right pinch of food. We need to approach Mr. McFeely with interest, since he delivers items of interest to Mister Rogers. We need to listen to the songs, because they contain surprising and beautiful messages about the anxiety children feel when they discover that boys and girls are a built little different from each other. We need to wait patiently for the dinging of the trolley, since it’s going to deliver us to the Neighborhood of Make Believe.

I had more fun than expected while visiting the Neighborhood of Make Believe with my young charges. I learned about the traits, the voices and the psyches of each and every one of the hand puppets; Daniel Tiger’s fearfulness, King Friday’s pomposity, and the selfish, grabby narcissism of Lady Elaine Fairchild. I experienced all kinds of happenings, but my favorite was an opera about a cow who wanted to be a potato bug. See some of it here. It was the very worst, and the very best. I couldn’t believe how perfect it was.

Only one of my own children loved Mister Rogers. And she was the child I took to see the Mister Rogers documentary. We watched this wonderful portrayal of a singular, strange man who shared his personal vision of love and kindness with the world. I had a shiver over his attachment to the number 143, because I fear that this formerly chubby child only felt lovable when he weighed exactly 143 pounds. He was prescient, he was kind, and he believed he was doing important work.

Guess what? He was.

I am so sad that that “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” was completely shut out of the Oscars. But I’m not sure that Fred Rogers would have cared. He was too busy with his imagination and his belief in kindness to care too much about awards.

But it would have been the best acceptance speech ever.

In Love with the Books of Elizabeth Strout

Let’s talk about Elizabeth Strout. Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing, but I’m more comfortable talking about anything rather than my own work. So let’s go talk some Strout.

Finding Elizabeth

Photo by Leonard Cendamo (source) – Have you ever seen a more open and inviting gaze in your freaking life than this?

I came to Elizabeth Strout a bit later than many readers. She had already published Amy and Isabelle and Abide with Me before my book group read Olive Kitteridge. My daughter had loved Amy and Isabelle, but there was something keeping me away. Sometimes that’s nothing more than professional envy. Someone writes the kind of book I want to write, and she’s published and acclaimed and I peer at the title through a haze of spite and decide to sit this one out. Very often, the book in question turns out to be fantastic and completely worthy of all praises heaped upon it, like, for instance, Angela’s Ashes. At other times, (and my apologies to those of you who love it) it’s more like The English Patient, which I didn’t love when I finally read it.

Amy and Isabelle was everywhere, all bookstores, all my friends’ bookshelves, even at Fred Meyer and Target. I kept not reading it. I also didn’t read her second novel, Abide with Me, but this is okay because apparently no one else did, either.

Olive Kitteridge

And then came Olive, which is a collection of linked short stories that function as a novel, which seemed bold and daring and wonderful before everyone else started doing it. Everyone in my book group loved the book, everyone who read this book loved it, and we all recommended it to everyone we knew, and a big web of love for Olive Kitteridge spread across the country. It couldn’t have happened to a better book.

Things happen in the book–even some shocking stuff, heart-hammering events. There is a plot, but this is a novel of character, and that character is Olive. Olive in some ways reminds me of my mother–her largeness and her sensitivity, her love of flowers and her care with/masking of her own physical presence. It is difficult to be a large women, it’s something of an indignity, and my mother felt that quite strongly, as does Olive. In other ways, of course, she is nothing like my mother. Olive is not particularly likable or socially adept, and everyone loved my mother, who was a brilliant conversationalist. But they could both be so spiteful. I loved Olive’s spitefulness. That one passage where she is having a lie-down after her son’s wedding, and hears someone mocking her mother-of-the-groom dress, a dress Olive loves because she has this secret love of colors and flowers, and the dress has a lot of both–well, it just breaks my heart. I cheered her on as she took her small and spiteful revenge.

If you were wondering, I did watch the HBO series of Olive Kitteridge. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t love it like I loved the book, because I felt Olive was miscast. Frances McDormand is brilliant–her performance in Three Billboards is magnificent–but Olive is an ocean liner of a woman, and FM is not. Size is such an integral part of who Olive is.

The Burgess Boys Lead to Amy and Isabelle

I wanted to love The Burgess Boys but I only liked it, and I don’t remember much about it. Since it was the follow-up to Olive, I was disappointed and had to go looking. That’s when I read Amy and Isabelle, and of course I loved it. If you were to ask me what I think Strout’s main underlying theme is, I would say it’s women trying to get out from under their mothers; trying to be someone besides your mother, trying to understand that your mother is a person, flawed, a mortal human failure. Ridiculous at times. Frustrated. But loveable. And you can hurt her deeply.

Mothers are still objects of puzzlement and resentment after they die. They never make sense, because, of course, they are just people. And people mess up. But of course, as children, we have no idea that our moms aren’t superhuman and infallible. As a child, I didn’t question my mother’s words or her choices. As a young woman, I decided with brutal finality that my mother had never taken my needs into account once while making those choices. But as a young mother, I understood that I’d be messing up every single day, myself, and I’d better forgive my mom, because one day I would have to humbly ask forgiveness of my own children. Those are the terms of endearment.

Lucy Barton

So when  friend loaned me My Name is Lucy Barton, I read it swiftly. And I have to say that it’s such a slip of a book that I read it, then gave it back, then borrowed it again a year later and reread it, and was two chapters in before I remembered that I’d read it before. I don’t think it’s a flaw in the book; I think it’s the style of it. Lucy is so glancing, so evasive as a narrator. She is simply not going to say things out loud. She’s given slip to a past of poverty and humiliation and community scorn. Rather than being embittered, she finds her new life wonderful. She is a true innocent who Is determined to stay that way, and a lovely Candide quality colors all her perceptions. But you feel an undercurrent of tremendous darkness, and you are left needing more.

It’s like–living your entire life as a poem by Emily Dickinson. “Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.” I have a family member like this. She is the most oblique person I have ever known, other than my maternal grandmother, who was determined to see life as “lovely” even when there were horrors opening under her feet. But my grandmother’s denial kept her stepping so lightly that she never fell in. It was a complex balance of choosing where to look and where to step and what not to see. Life, to my grandmother, was a wonderful thing, and she simply chose not to deal with anything that contradicted this view. This can be supremely frustrating to the people around you, people with pain, questions and complaints, but for the most part we all choose what we deal with, and in the case of my grandmother and my unnamed female relative, they probably chose wisely.

So did Lucy. Elizabeth Strout wrote Lucy Barton with such luminous kindness that I read this book twice, and I still didn’t know the deepest, darkest truths of her life. And I think, in truth, Lucy didn’t know them either. But I was sitting around with my book group friends in June, and one of them had brought both Abide with Me and Anything is Possible to loan me, and she told me that Lucy’s story is revealed more in this book (yes, after reading Anything is Possible, Lucy and I are on a first-name basis, just like me and Olive).

Anything is Possible

I don’t want to ruin anything about the stories in Anything is Possible. Just–read Lucy Barton first, and then know that you’re going to get the skinny on all the people that Lucy and her mother gossip about while Lucy is recovering in the hospital. Lucy is present in many of the stories in Anything, as her memoir has hit the shelves in her home town’s bookstore, prompting reveries and regrets on the part of people who treated her with kindness, scorn, or as if she were invisible. She is not the main character, as some reviews have stated. The town is the main character. The book really lifts up a rock on its secrets, and you should be prepared for the exposure of a lot of squirming, grey, unattractive things. It is a FASCINATING look at small town living, and fills in the blanks of Lucy’s story in a heartbreaking chapter that left me cheering her on with however she chooses to deal with a past so ugly.

Abide With Me

So then, of course, I had to read Abide with Me. Which is wonderful, by the way. It’s set in 1959, and it also peels back the lid on a small town. The book didn’t do well, though it appears to be doing okay, now. Kirkus Reviews said,”most of the characters in this novel are fundamentally bewildered, and many of them are quite bitter as well. The narrator’s folksy tone does nothing to enliven this dispiriting story; the overall effect is rather like listening to a slightly cantankerous maiden aunt dispensing local gossip.” I fear this reviewer doesn’t see anything valiant, universal or worthy in the struggles of small town people. I do. I also love books about religious men, like Gilead (which sold a gajillion copies) and Leaving Ruin (which didn’t, but should have–it’s an older book, shoved over into the Christian section and it deserves a wider readership). Abide with Me is the story of a small town pastor, and it’s a big story about self-forgiveness and frustration. It’s moving and a nicely seamy between the religious ruminations.

In Conclusion/s

Elizabeth Strout books connect–this innkeeper is Lucy Barton’s cousin, and this actress was probably molested by a character who shows up as a father-in-law in another book, and on and on in ways small and large that I wasn’t tracking in the first three titles I read. This is my absolute favorite thing for writers to do, this interconnectedness.  I’d like to read Elizabeth Strout’s books from beginning to end in sequence and make a spreadsheet that links the who and where and what in each book, but that would take a lot of time and energy. I have other books to read and other books to write.

Also, here I go, urging you toward books not by me. So I will plug mine: RANDOM AND CLUMSY PLUG 

Also, I could use some Amazon reviews if you can take the time!

Also, the next time I do this, it will probably be Haven Kimmel.