'A Sill-y Story' - published in Disc and Music Echo, April 8, 1972
Judee Sill is quite a remarkable woman. When you consider her past it becomes apparent just how remarkable. She lost both her parents and her brother, suffered a heroin overdose during her years as an addict, spent time both in a reform school and prison and is in the process of getting her second divorce.
But all this is in her past and Judee has now set herself only one ambition; to make herself "the greatest songwriter in the world".
At 27 Judee has put all her personal tragedies behind her in an attempt to establish herself, particularly in Britain on this her first visit.
Her style on stage is quite unique, She comes out and firstly makes a direct plea to the audience to go out and buy her album (when the show's over, of course). This, she reasons, will bring her enough fame and money to save he from a fate she considers worse than death, "going out as a warm-up act to rock bands".
"You wouldn't believe what they've had me open for in the States", she said. "And in Winnipeg I had to open for Three Dog Night. We were in an ice stadum and the temperature was 35 degrees below zero. And all these young girls shouting for the lead singer to take his pants off, and there I was, warm-up for them!".
She married first when she was 17, but it wasn't to last long. She split from her husband after a year. He died some time afterwards.
"How did he die? You're going to love this. I don't mean to sound callous but somehow it always does when I see it in print. Larry was killed going down the Kern River rapids in a rubber raft, high on LSD. He was a Scropio and real adventurous. He died as he lived."
"I decided to become a criminal", she said. Her manner is so deadpan that I thought she was sending me up, but not so. "I was in the armed robbery line with a partner. I was 17 and kind of crazy then I suppose. I just went out and did those bizarre actions, robbing liquor stores and the like. I robbed several stores, but I never hurt anyone. Anyway I was caught".
"I was only 17 when the robberies were committed but I was 18 by the time they came to trial. However, my father had left me some money, so I was able to get a real good lawyer, who gave extenuating circumstances and so on, and so I got sent to reform school instead of prison. I was there for a year".
As the eldest girl there, she didn't have an easy time, because of the resentment from the younger gils. However, the experience did have one saving grace. She discovered Baptist hymn music and worked out how it managed to control emotion and create feeling. She did not become religious, only working out the effects of the religious music. She also learned how to play the organ. The album which has been released here has several religioun-based songs, which Judee thinks are going to be misinterpreted - or at least will give people a false idea of what she means by them.
"I would never talk about it or try to convert anyone. If I could talk about religion, I wouldn't need to write songs about it. The album didn't explain enough. I'm going to write my own sleeve notes the next time. I'll still make allusions to religion in my next album, but I'll explain them".
In leaving the reform school, she had to live alone as all her relatives were dead. She began to attend the Valley College in Los Angeles, where she met Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. They both studied harmony and musicianship.
She then started work in a saloon, playing the piano. When they found out that she was only 18, they fired her, so she decided to take up playing bass. She married again, this time to a piano player.
"I'd heard a lot of people playing bass lines and they were all the same, so I thought, shit! I could do better than that, so I learned. I also began to take heroin. My husband did, and I supported him in that until it became too expensive, so I left him. I was a heroin addict for three years. I wasn't productive at all during that period".
"Finally I was caught for forgery - necessitated by having to get money to buy dope - and various narcotics charges. I can't blame what happened to me on circumstances like losing my parents. I used to be able to get off on that, but not any more. Prison was terrible. Much harder than reform school. I was put into a dirty cell to puke my guts out. Nothing as humane as getting you to kick it slowly, not even an aspirin. They make you kick it hard."
"I had been pretty bad, up to $150 a day. I overdosed once and was technically dead for three minutes. My heart stopped beating. I remember waking up, but I had amnesia and I couldn't remember even the words for ceiling, wall".
Instead of being sent to a rehabilitation centre for narcotics, she managed to get off with the help of her lawyer. In a kind of probation system, she just had to bear with having unexpected demands for her to present her self for anti-opiate tests, to find out if she was still fixing.
"At that point I had only written a few songs but then I started writing seriously. I wrote "Deadtime Bummer Blues" about prison. "Deadtime" is the time spent awaiting trial, because it's not counted in the sentence, so it's just dead time. I also started working as a bass player again. Then I thought, well why don't I pool my resources, all the things I did for ultimate thrills, use the hungry monsters, and become a great songwriter?"
Also at about that time she began to get into magic. The principles crept into her music too. At first shee took it like a religion, but it was making her crazy so she let up a bit.
I began to suspect that certain sounds evoked certain emotions, like the Baptist hymns. Pythagoras laid it all out how a combination of notes would produce a certain effect, and then went on in combinations of two. I read up on it for a ling time and am still thinking about it now, although I'm more into just listening to an inner voice that guides me. I was never into nay of the black magic, only the good stuff. I'm a double Libra".
"My songs are sometimes religious but I detest the overt tacticts like the Jesus Freaks. They're terrible. The block your way in the street trying to convert you, and they kick you. A kick in the ass for Jesus".
"I still want to be the greatest songwriter in the world, because the aim gives me something to strive for. I'm happy if there's some hope of reaching a high place".
As you might expect, Judee's somwhat eccentric life has led her on occasions to psychiatrists, one of whom was recommended by her lawyer.
"I was told he was very good. To do with the Primeaval Scream you know. I had to take off my clothes, lie under lights, and them scream. This guy touched the pressure point to make you scream then he didn't know what to do when you did. He was shit. And he charged $35 an hour. Expensive shit".
Despite all this, Judee's songs have little to give them away as being the result of her experiences. She did the arrangements for the songs herself although she had some trouble with the guy who was putting them together and leading the strings.
"I sang all the bits to him, but I caught him putting in bits of his own. I'd come out of the recording and say "Play that bit again?" and I'd find he'd put in some of his own notes, making sound like a soap-opera or movie music. I cought him doing that about 20 times".
She has a few songs ready and hopes to have another album out by September. The visit to Britain was particularly welcome for her because she felt she needed a change of audience.
"I really prefer playing in a folky bill. It's funny how a lot of people won't admit to being folky. But sometimes, they don't even put my name on the bill. I had to grow my hair long because it looked so awful. I couldn't sell records looking like that!".