I’m never quite sure how familiar folks outside the midwest are with Destroy All Monsters, but if you haven’t given them a listen yet, I highly suggest you do. There are no “real” albums, but in 1994 Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore released everything they recorded on a three-disc set called 1974-1976. Unfortunately, the Detroit punk outfit is most often mentioned in passing, usually as a reference to a more famous band; guitarist Ron Asheton of The Stooges and bassist Michael Davis of the MC5 were also members of Destroy All Monsters. The late Mike Kelley did his time in the band as well. Jim Shaw, too. Destroy All Monsters were an art/rock supergroup of sorts, albeit an awfully obscure one.
But not only did they produce some really interesting music, DAM boasted one of the great punk frontwomen in Niagara, who still performs in various projects. The only Punk Magazine centerfold besides Debbie Harry, Niagara has an incredibly compelling, raw presence, and she’s a total fox. It makes perfect sense that her paintings depict beautiful, brazen, dangerous women. In a 2010 interview, she said her work was a response to “women in art being treated like still life,” going on to say, “I wanted them to start saying what they are thinking, I wanted to see that mix of beauty and hardness in incredibly caustic women. And there is humor, you can see the humor.”
Niagara’s first exhibit was in 1996, with the fabulously misandrist title, “All Men Are Cremated Equal.” While her noir femme fatales are her most popular work, her most recent stuff evokes more of a “dreamy, druggy ladies in absinthe ads” kind of vibe. Still, the super-saturated colors, campy, menacing femininity, and an old school sign-painter’s instincts give Niagara’s canvases the same exciting and distinctive edge she brings to the stage.
An early photo of Vargas, focusing on her beautiful face, and cropping out whatever masculine clothes she might have been wearing at the time.
A word of comfort to non-Spanish speakers: Mexican toddlers have a stronger command of the language than I do, but the first time I heard Chavela Vargas’ “Paloma Negra,” I knew exactly what she was saying. There are some artists that convey such an intense pathos without the benefit of a common language, even attempting to write about them leaves one feeling a little hackneyed, but I’ll do my best.
Chavela Vargas was born Isabel Vargas Lizano in Costa Rica in 1919. In the midst of an unstable childhood, she moved to Mexico at the tender ago of 14 to pursue a singing career in the burgeoning Mexican arts scene. For years she busked, wearing men’s clothing and smoking cigars. She carried a gun and embodied the machismo of her artistic idiom. Though she covered quite a bit of ground stylistically, Vargas was mainly known for her rancheras- traditional Mexican music performed with a single voice and Spanish guitar. Rancheras are often mournful torch songs sung by drunken men; alcohol provided a socially acceptable loophole for Mexican machismo to be shrugged aside for emotional and vulnerable performances. On the more rare occasion that rancheras were performed by women, gender pronouns were obviously switched to keep everything tidily heterosexual. Vargas simply sang to the girls.
Vargas in full poncho
It wasn’t until her 30s that her career began to flourish, kick-started by a brief but successful visit to pre-Castro Cuba. By the time she became popular in Mexico, she was as much known for her bombastic persona and unapologetic sexuality as she was for her powerful voice and intense performances. She would come to shows on motorcycles, smoke cigars onstage, imbibe heavily, and openly flirt with men’s wives during performances (many swear she took a few home with her). All of this was during a time when even wearing pants was scandalous behavior for a woman in Mexico. While she had a rich sense of humor, one of her stylistic trademarks was slowing down cheeky tunes, transforming what were originally dirty little ditties into something intensely erotic. The scandals cost her a lot of work, but Vargas had no interest in catering to anyone’s notion of respectability.
Much of her life is shrouded in rumor and half-truths. It’s said that Vargas walked with a limp due to an injury incurred while attempting to climb in the second story window of an ex-lover. (Given Vargas’ difficulties with alcoholism, this isn’t particularly difficult to believe.) It’s known that she was incredibly close to Frida Kahlo, even living with her and her husband, Diego Rivera, for a time. I’ve never found absolute confirmation that they were lovers, but it’s largely accepted as fact by fans of both artists. Vargas even made an appearance in the 2002 Frida Kahlo biopic, singing a ghostly version of one of her signature songs, “”La Llorona,” (“The Weeping Woman”). I urge you to listen to both versions back to back; Vargas’ age and alcoholism seasoned her voice with a quality I can only describe as post-beautiful.
While Vargas’ career was fraught with ups and downs, she virtually disappeared for about 15 years starting in the late 70s. Intense depression and alcoholism finally sent her into a long seclusion, but in 1991 she returned to the stage, happy, healthy and transformed. With her famed trademark innuendo, the 74-year-old butch lesbian declared her never-ending commitment to music at a concert in Madrid, saying, “When you like something, you should do it all night long.” She officially came out in 2000, at age 81, and played Carnegie Hall three years later. She continued singing and recording up until her death in 2012, at age 93.
Vargas and Frida Kahlo
Below is some rare early footage of Vargas performing her famous rendition of “Macorina,” a poem that she set to music of her own composition. During the refrain, “Put your hand here, Macorina,” Vargas’ own hand would wander between her thighs. It was her first hit, and it was originally banned in Mexico, a country that now reveres here as one of its great daughters. The lyrics:
Put your hand here, Macorina
Put your hand here.
Put your hand here, Macorina
Put your hand here.
Your feet left the mat
And your skirt escaped
Seeking the boundary
On seeing your slender waist
The sugar canes threw
Themselves down along the way
For you to grind
As if you were a mill.
Put your hand ...
Your breasts, soursop fruit
Your mouth a blessing
Of ripe guanabana
And your slender waist
Was the same as that dance
Put your hand ...
Then the dawn
That takes you from my arms
And I not knowing what to do
With that woman scent
Like mango and new cane
With which you filled me at
The hot sound of that dance.
Put your hand ...
It’s outsider music’s Greatest Story Ever Told: at a visit to a palm reader, the mother of Austin Wiggin, Jr. was told that her son would someday marry a woman with strawberry blonde hair, have two sons after she (the mother herself, not the strawberry blonde) died, and that his daughters would form a celebrated band. Once the first two things actually came to pass, Austin hustled (or strong-armed, to hear some tell it) his teenaged girls Dot, Betty, and Helen into a band called The Shaggs, despite their showing little prior interest in or aptitude for music performance. Much money was spent on instrument lessons, voice coaching, recording studio fees, and pressing, all to realize The Shaggs’ wholly incompetent 1969 debut album, Philosophy Of The World.
This doesn’t happen very often, so when it does, it’s a thing to cherish. Sometimes, artists who have no idea what they’re doing and no conventional artistic gifts can still make profound, enduring and enchanting work, simply by being themselves.
Thanks to the cheerleading of folks like NRBQ, Frank Zappa, and Dr. Demento, Philosophy became a phenomenon years after its very quiet release (the label owner absconded with all but 100 copies). If you’ve somehow missed out on it, understand that this great album is in no typically understood sense a good album. Instruments and lyrics careen around each other, lurch into each other, fracture each other, and generally do everything except sync up. And yet, the Wiggin sisters’ ineffable and completely unaffected cheer and charm elevate it tremendously. Certainly, plenty of people listen to it and hear nothing more than the clatter of inept kids, and I will not deign here to invalidate that viewpoint. But those of us who hear magic in it - myself ardently included - swear by that album. Zappa famously hailed The Shaggs as “Better Than the Beatles,” and one can hardly imagine most of the K Records roster existing without them. The entire album is here:
Or if you don’t have a half hour to spare, just check out the representative (and legendary) single that launched a thousand ‘90s emo-chick tattoos, “My Pal Foot Foot.”
When their father died in 1975, The Shaggs called it quits, but now, 38 years later, The Dot Wiggin Band has emerged with a new album, Ready! Get! Go!, on the Alternative Tentacles label. The musicianship - to answer what must surely be the first question to cross a lot of minds - is perfectly competent. Seasoned players like Jesse Krakow and Laura Cromwell appear throughout, but they keep things much, much simpler here than in the work they’re otherwise known for, allowing Wiggin’s undiminished charm to show through. The album includes previously unrecorded Shaggs songs “Banana Bike” and “The Fella With A Happy Heart” along with new material, and culminates with a fantastic cover of Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World.”
The long and the short of it all is that maybe The Shaggs weren’t just some flukey accident of naive dumb luck; if you liked them, there is so much to enjoy in Ready! Get! Go! that one has to be open to the likelihood that this is simply what Dot Wiggin sounds like, that she essentially possesses a tremendous uncontrived appeal. As she’s been a relatively anonymous wife and mother for decades now, this is not a comeback anyone would have expected, but it is most welcome.
This too-brief promotional documentary has some great clips and sound bites from the people involved in bringing Ready! Get! Go! to fruition. Enjoy.
There’s precious little that I could find out about Las Dilly Sisters, a singing duo comprised of two young Mexican girls who often appeared on The Banana Splits Adventure Hour. As readers of a certain age will recall, the Mariachi moppets chirpy repetitive songs were used on the program like maddening musical water torture.
But when Las Dilly Sisters wanted to rock, they could rock out like the best of ‘em, as heard here on their curious—but freakin’ genius—cover of The Standells’ “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White”(!)
Whoever had the idea for them to sing this, I salute you. This song appears on volume 3 of the legendary Girls in the Garage comps.
Pioneering female rocker Suzi Quatro was on tour in the U.S. in 1974 when the call came.
She was touring to promote Suzi Quatro, her debut album for Mickie Most’s RAK Records in the U.K., which had been produced by the unparalleled, fabulous, evil-genius songwriting team of Mike Chapman and Nicky Chinn the year before. The album contained the well crafted Chinnichap compositions “48 Crash,” “Primitive Love,” and “Can the Can” but also included a cover of “All Shook Up,” chosen as the third single. Quatro had loved and emulated Elvis Presley – strikingly in her trademark black leather – since seeing him on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956 when she was six years old. From that moment, unlike other little girls who went nuts upon seeing him for the first time, she wanted to be Elvis.
She was in a Memphis hotel room when she received a call from Elvis’ “people.” And, bless her heart, she had a panic attack. Talk about being “all shook up”!
I was on tour in Memphis and he had heard my version of “All Shook Up.” His people got in touch with me in the hotel room. Then he came on the line [open-mouthed shock] and he invited me to Graceland. He said, “Your version is the best since my own. How would you like to come to Graceland?” And I said I was very busy, no thank you.
The situation was, as BBC producer Mark Hagen later described it, complicated. Elvis was once again a bachelor, but Suzi was already romantically involved with her guitarist and songwriting partner, Len Tuckey (Surely a one-time pass could have been granted so that Suzi could hang out with the King?!)
Suzi discovered that she had been given the part of Leather Tuscadero on Happy Days on the day that Elvis died, August 16, 1977. She was devastated that she had turned down his invitation and would never have another chance to meet him. The regret has haunted her ever since.
During her memorable seven-episode stint on Happy Days from 1977 to 1979, Suzi sang “All Shook Up” and “Heartbreak Hotel” on the show, wearing a $2000 fawn jumpsuit made by Ukrainian “rodeo tailor” to the stars (including Hank Williams, Porter Wagoner, Gram Parsons, and Elvis), Nuta Kotlyarenko, a.k.a. “Nudie” Cohn. Her trademark jumpsuits were actually Mickie Mosts’s idea, not a tribute to Elvis.
[Mickie] came up with the jumpsuit idea, which I thought was a great idea. I wanted leather, without a doubt… I swear to God, I had no idea it was going to be sexy… It didn’t occur to me. I remember saying to him, “Oh, that’s really sensible. I can jump around and nothing will come out and I don’t have to iron it.” And then when I saw the pictures back, I went, “Ohhhhh.”
In 2009 Suzi finally made it to Graceland, when Mark Hagen made the documentary Suzi Quatro’s Elvis for BBC Radio 2. Suzi visited Elvis’ birthplace, all of his homes, talked to many of his childhood friends, and stopped in at Sun Studios on Union Ave in Memphis. It was already an emotional experience before she even reached the front gate of Graceland.
Kurt Cobain was loud and proud expressing his admiration for The Raincoats when asked about his favorite music. Another all-girl band he championed was Shonen Knife. [Honestly, the guy seemed to have a lot of favorite bands]
Shonen Knife is a much-loved Japanese punk-pop trio that formed in Osaka in 1981. The original lineup was guitarist and vocalist Naoko Yamano, drummer Atsuko Yamano, and bassist Michie Nakatani. There have been several line-up changes over thirty-two years and Naoko is the only remaining original member.
Singing in English and Japanese, they write songs influenced by The Ramones and other early punk bands, surf music and garage bands, with catchy, sometimes silly, frivolous lyrics. They’ve written about cats, catnip, brown mushrooms, candy, sushi bars, mango juice, bison, banana chips and Barbie dolls. Their song “One Day of the Factory” appeared on a Sub Pop compilation in 1986. Early fans included Thurston Moore, legendary English DJ John Peel, and Redd Kross. Twenty alt-rock bands recorded a Shonen Knife tribute album (Every Band Has A Shonen Knife Who Loves Them) in 1989, but their American fame grew exponentially two years later.
Kurt Cobain saw Shonen Knife play in L.A. in 1991 and immediately became an enthusiastic fan. He told Melody Maker in September of that year:
We saw Shonen Knife and they were so cool. I turned into a nine-year old girl at a Beatles concert. I was crying and jumping up and down and tearing my hair out - it was amazing. I’ve never been so thrilled in my whole life. They play pop music - pop, pop, pop music.
He asked them to open for Nirvana on their nine-date 1991 UK tour shortly before the release of Nevermind. Not many people had heard of Nirvana at that point, but Shonen Knife agreed. Naoko Yamano described Cobain as being very quiet but friendly.
We toured with him twice in U.K. and U.S. One day when we were touring, he asked to me how to play the guitar chords of our song ‘Twist Barbie.’ So I told the chords to him. Then I heard that he played the song at Nirvana’s secret gig. I’m very proud of it, because he is a great rock artist.
Grohl endeared himself to Naoko’s sister Atsuko by acting as unofficial drum roadie and helping them to set up each night. While in the UK they recorded their first John Peel Session on BBC Radio
Shonen Knife signed to Capitol Records in 1992 and released Let’s Knife, their sixth album. They played the Reading Festival with Mudhoney and Nirvana that year. In December 1992 they joined Nirvana on their midwestern American tour.
In early 1993 Dave Grohl and Cobain enthused about Shonen Knife on MTV:
Dave Grohl: They went into their first song and everyone seemed sort of baffled…They won over the audience by the end of the night. Every show, people were like almost in tears.
Kurt Cobain: I was an emotional sap the whole time. I cried every night.
Dave Grohl: You couldn’t help it!
Shonen Knife performed on the Lollapalooza side stage in 1994, the year Nirvana had been scheduled to headline.
The original Shonen Knife line-up onstage in 1992:
Joan Jett, a very young Billy Idol, Pleasant Gehman (of the Screamin’ Sirens), and Theresa Kereakes’ roommates’ little sister. Photo credit: Theresa Kereakes
Joan Jett’s Runaways-era apartment on San Vicente Blvd. in L.A. is one of the ten homes of “countercultural icons” featured in Emily Temple’s recent Flavorwire photo compilation. She used two photos by Theresa Kereakes, including the one above. Kereakes was one of the major visual chroniclers, along with Jenny Lens, of the glam rock, punk rock, and New Wave scenes in southern California in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.
Kereakes described Joan’s apartment as a major party location and gathering place:
Joan lived in the mint-green painted stucco two-story apartment building on San Vicente Blvd. right behind the Arco gas station on Sunset. A year after this photo was taken, I would move into the other famous West Hollywood apartment I inhabited: 1140 North Clark St. (Motley Crue would eventually move in downstairs; Lita Ford would be a frequent visitor). But before there were two party palaces on either side of the Whisky, Joan pretty much hosted them all.
There were always visits from punks Joan met on the road.
Runaways songwriter Kari Krome recalled some of the mischief Joan and her friends got into at the apartment:
The Runaways were just teenage girls. That’s what rock’n’roll’s about,” says Krome. “The hookers, at that time, were on Sunset down by Rodneys. Joan, [roadie] Kent [Smythe], and the rest — I think [manager] Scott [Anderson] may have been involved — would harass the hookers. You know, it was the stupid shit you do when you’re a kid for fun. Hose somebody down. Except you’re on Sunset with a seltzer bottle and a crazy tranny is chasing you. Bad girls, beep beep!
Other icons whose homes are featured then-and-now are Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol (his Lexington and 89th apartment in New York), Steve McQueen, Jack Kerouac, Owsley “Bear” Stanley (of LSD fame), Kurt Cobain, Freddie Mercury, and Kurt Vonnegut.
The exterior today of Joan Jett’s onetime Sunset Strip apartment.
For every one glossy guitar magazine’s Orianthi cover, rockabilly goddess Rosie Flores should be featured on ten.
Rockabilly singer-songwriter and guitarist Rosie Flores started out in the L.A. punk scene in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. She came from a Mexican-American family in San Antonio, Texas and started playing guitar at sixteen (“I thought I was really cool playing the guitar because no other chicks were doing it.”) having fallen in love with Jeff Beck. She played in an all-girl psychedelic country band, Penelope’s Children, as an acoustic solo performer, part of a duo, and several variations of Rosie and the (fill in the blank). Then she joined the all-female cowpunk/rockabilly band ¡The Screamin’ Sirens! with frontwoman Pleasant Gehman in L.A. in the early ‘80s. Members of the Sirens had brief cameos in The Vendetta and Reform School Girls and appeared in Runnin’ Kind.
Flores was part of the Americana roots music revival, with musicians like the Alvin brothers from The Blasters, X side project The Knitters, and Mike Ness from Social Distortion delving into original American country and folk music, acoustic instruments, and older recording techniques. It was musical fundamentalism, going back to the original sources. Flores, already an accomplished guitarist, started a rockabilly solo career in the mid-1980’s, releasing her first solo album in 1987. She has recorded with fellow rockabilly guitarist and singer Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin. Last year she released her thirteenth album, the magnificent Working Girl’s Guitar.
Despite the resurgence of female singers in country music throughout the ‘90s, Flores had little in common with performers like Shania Twain and Faith Hill. She told No Depression in 1999:
I don’t want to say I complain, except to my close friends, but it does feel like the record industry has become more about how young and pretty you are than what you have to offer. Why does it have to be all about how you look? And I’m talking about the guys, too. To me, Lucinda Williams is one of the most gorgeous people I’ve ever seen. Her personality is so great; why can’t that be what she’s judged for? Why do people have to look like models?
Flores was inducted into her new hometown Austin’s Music Hall of Fame in 2007. Last year Venuszine named her one of the Top 75 Best Female Guitarists of All Time.
Rosie playing at NAMM 2008 in Anaheim, California, celebrating 65 years of Fender guitars, below:
You’ve definitely heard her play guitar and bass. Statistically, you’re likely to own albums she played on. Your parents almost certainly did. According to her, she is responsible for many of the famous Motown bass lines usually attributed to James Jamerson, including “Bernadette,” “Reach Out,” “I Can’t Help Myself” and “I Was Made to Love Her.” She influenced The Beatles’ musical direction from Revolver onward. And it’s quite probable that you’ve never even heard her name.
Carol Kaye was one of the most prolific session musicians in American music in the ‘60s and ‘70s. In the male-dominated world of Los Angeles session players (sneered at in The Kinks’ song “Session Man”), Kaye was a rarity and a powerhouse. She began playing music professionally at 14 in 1949, playing guitar in big bands and bebop jazz groups, playing in clubs and giving lessons around Los Angeles. Her first recording sessions, beginning in 1957, were on guitar for Sam Cooke, Richie Valens, and the Righteous Brothers. From 1964-1973 she primarily played bass and appeared on over 10,000 recordings of pop songs, jazz standards, television show themes, and movie scores. She was one of the few female members of “The Wrecking Crew,” the name given by drummer Hal Blaine to the mostly anonymous first-call L.A. session players in the ‘60s.
Some of the best known songs featuring Carol Kaye’s work are Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” (on guitar), Simon and Garfunkel’s “Scarborough Fair,” Lalo Shifrin’s themes to Mission: Impossible and Mannix, The Monkees’ “I’m A Believer,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “River Deep, Mountain High,” The Lettermen’s “Going Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons,” Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’,” the Righteous Brothers’ “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’,” Sonny and Cher’s “The Beat Goes On,” and The Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” “Sloop John B,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Heroes and Villains.” She also played on Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention’s Freak Out and Absolutely Free albums. All this while raising a family.
Carol Kaye was confident, reliable, and able to keep up a rough studio schedule that sometimes stretched into 12-hour days. She was also very opinionated and known for refusing to take any shit from her male colleagues. When session guitarist Tommy Tedesco once insulted her in the studio, she verbally ripped him a new orifice.
Note Carol Kaye in background during this mid-Sixties Beach Boys session
Even today, there are those who simply refuse to believe some of Carol’s assertions, such as her claim to have played on Motown songs credited to James Jamerson and on Beach Boys songs like “Good Vibrations,” where a different bassist’s work may have been used on the final version. Detractors claim that she is either a bitter, jealous liar or a senile old lady with a failing memory. Whether that is misogyny/sexism or a blinkered refusal to admit that the sun did not always shine out of Jamerson’s ass alone is an ongoing matter for debate.
“Smile was originally conceived as an extension of the experimentation of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the album that Paul McCartney acknowledges as having transformed his approach to the bass, in addition to prodding The Beatles to employ the studio more adventurously. McCartney has repeatedly cited Wilson’s bass playing in the era of Pet Sounds and Smile as the inspiration for the lyrical, contrapuntal bass style that he developed around the time of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The problem is, the bass player on nearly all of both Pet Sounds and Smile was not Brian Wilson. It was a jazz musician and studio pro in Los Angeles named Carol Kaye.”
And so Paul McCartney once said of Carol Kaye’s bass technique (without, apparently, knowing that it was her talents he was admiring):
“It was Pet Sounds that blew me out of the water. I love the album so much. I’ve just bought my kids each a copy of it for their education in life ... I figure no one is educated musically ‘til they’ve heard that album ... I love the orchestra, the arrangements ... it may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of the century ... but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways ... I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried. I played it to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence ... it was the record of the time. The thing that really made me sit up and take notice was the bass lines ... and also, putting melodies in the bass line. That I think was probably the big influence that set me thinking when we recorded Pepper, it set me off on a period I had then for a couple of years of nearly always writing quite melodic bass lines. ‘God Only Knows’ is a big favorite of mine ... very emotional, always a bit of a choker for me, that one. On ‘You Still Believe in Me,’ I love that melody - that kills me ... that’s my favorite, I think ... it’s so beautiful right at the end ... comes surging back in these multi-colored harmonies ... sends shivers up my spine.”
Outside of her years in the studio Carol worked as a music teacher, including a seven-year stint as on-staff Bass and Jazz Educator at the Henry Mancini Institute at UCLA and teaching courses at other universities as well. She’s written over thirty bass education books (Sting told talk show host Arsenio Hall that he had learned how to play bass from one of her books), made instructional DVDs, wrote a column for Bassics magazine and given hundreds of bass seminars. Carol continues to teach and offers bass lessons via Skype.
There are only a few artists in existence that can actually communicate truth. I know them because their work can immediately cut through the fog of my daily life, force me to drop whatever I’m doing, and command me to listen, slack-jawed, as if struck with an arrow. The list is small—there’s a few songs by Nick Drake in there, some of Daniel Johnston’s 1990 album—but neither of them comes close to the otherwordly power, the angelic fury of Judee Sill at her best.
Judee Sill was born in Oakland in 1944. She worked the same folk scene as Joni Mitchell, perhaps her closest contemporary, but never found the spotlight. She never found the light at all, at least not the light of fame. She found a different light, an inner illumination, in Rosicrucianism, astral travel, Aleister Crowley and heroin.
After an early life spent streetwalking and playing in cafes, she got her chance at success—she was selected as the first artist for up-and-coming mogul David Geffen’s Asylum Records—a chance that was then dashed when she outed Geffen as gay on the radio and he canned her in retribution. (Geffen is now one of the most prominent out gay men in the world—Out ranked him the most powerful gay person in America in 2007.)
Sill, herself bisexual, spent her salad days in a Hollywood mansion surrounded by adulating female fans she kept around like slaves, sunbathing naked in her backyard. Soon all of that was gone. By the mid-seventies she was living in a trailer park and back to prostituting herself. At 35, she overdosed.
Though cited by many as an influence—Warren Zevon, Andy Partridge of XTC and David Tibet of Current 93, for instance—Sill remains unknown, even when similarly overlooked (but far less threatening) figures like the aforementioned Nick Drake have been resurrected for car commercials and posthumously canonized.
She was a genius, or, rather, she had a genius, as Socrates might have put it, a transcendent connection driving her on. Her second and final album, Heart Food, released in 1973 to almost no attention whatsoever (a condition that hasn’t changed), contains what Pythagoras might have identified as the Musica universalis, the Music of the Spheres. Sill, steeped in both mysticism and Pythagorean number theory, was able to produce songs like “The Donor,” precisely striking a raw nerve of human experience with complex musical arrangements that were almost beyond the scope of the merely human.
Prefacing “The Donor” when she played it live for the BBC in 1972, Judee Sill told the audience “Most of my songs, I always try to write them so they’ll make people feel better, or make them feel that their warm, human spirit is affirmed… but I thought one day when I was depressed, you know when you’re real depressed and you see everything comes to nothing, well, I thought, maybe I ought to take a different approach, and write a song that, instead of directed at people, would somehow musically induce God into giving us all a break, cause I was getting a little fed up by this point. So I put some combinations of notes in there that I worked on a long time hoping it would work… since that time I’ve decided that I shouldn’t get any more breaks, cause I already squandered them in weird places. But I’d like to sing this song for you in the hope that you’ll get a break.”
When she sings “I’ll chase him to the bottom, till I finally caught him,” she is talking about Christ, redemption, god, who dwells just as surely in the depths of Hell Itself as in that great gated community in the sky. Perhaps more so, there among the broken and the outcast, the last light in the eyes of the homeless and cold.
In those perfectly struck notes she captures that feeling of exquisite heartbreak that is god moving over the face of the waters, shattering the temple that it may be rebuilt. Or never rebuilt, in Judee Sill’s case, and that of many others. Not in this lifetime and world. In those chords you can hear every single broken life, every acid casualty or otherwise wrecked traveller on the road of higher consciousness. Every one that did not come back. Kyrie Elision.
In 2013’s occult-saturated pop culture, where club kids smear witch house affectations across their Tumblr accounts, it can be easy to forget how real and terrifying the occult can be for those who approach it with self-destruction in mind. It is certainly not that way for everybody—but it is undeniable that for those already enmeshed in life’s dark and entropic side, who are already chasing their own death, it certainly can be. How quickly all sense of perspective or common sense can be lost upon the occult’s event horizon, and how quickly they vanish therein.
Judee Sill was such a person. Her life and her music stand as a guidepost, a statement of truth to those who come looking for the light, and lack the discrimination needed to know where to look. Down the rabbit hole they go, the black hole, after the promise of something-or-other, some kind of God, some kind of power.
To those who have never seen where that hole leads, may you remain so blessed. May it remain an abstraction for you, a nightly news image of a child starving to death. But for those who have seen it, you Know. No glib phrase could do it justice.
But you can hear it in every note of every Judee Sill song.
The Donor is the heaviest thing I have ever heard. And the best.