Archive for November 23rd, 2007

A bruised reed He will not break, and the smoking flax He shall not quench. -Isaiah 42:3

The young woman in the video is sitting at a piano. She is wearing rimless spectacles, which give her an owlish look. Her eyes are downcast as she speaks: "This song is about the union of, uh, opposites that we all have, and the kiss is a symbol of the union."

Her hands float over the keyboard, producing a mesmerizing cascade of notes. She closes her eyes and begins to sing.

Love rising from the mists
Promise me
This and only this
Holy breath touching me
Like a windsong
Sweet communion of a kiss

I realize with a start that this is a prayer, the soul calling to its Beloved from some deep place where pain and beauty mingle.

Her eyes remain closed for the duration of the song, and she sings with such yearning and sweet sorrow that it hurts to watch. I feel like I have stumbled into something so intimate that I should look away, but I don’t.

Sun sifting through the grey
Enter in reach me with a ray
Silently swooping down
Just to show me
How to give my heart away

When the song is over and the last note has faded into silence I sit awhile, stunned by the beauty of what I have just witnessed. It is as perfect a
song as I have heard.

The woman is Judee Sill, and the video is of a tape that was recorded in 1973 by the BBC. I had heard of her; my friend Maclin had sent me a tape years ago with some of her music, but for some reason I didn’t care for it. He had recently suggested that I give her music another try, so when I was on Google looking up Karen Dalton–another obscure folkie from the same era–and saw the Judee Sill video on a sidebar I clicked it on. And was instantly transfixed.

When I had recovered my composure somewhat I had one question: Who is this woman?

What I found left me stunned again, but in a very different way.

We expect artists to live untidy lives, getting high, sleeping around. But Judee Sill’s history would be harrowing in the life of a black metal musician, or a punk rocker: Armed robbery. Heroin addiction. Prostitution to support her habit. Prison stints. Bisexual affairs.

To put it in perspective, her crimes were in her teens, in the wake of a traumatic, even tragic, childhood. Alcoholic parents, her father’s death when she was 8, her beloved brother’s later death, an abusive
stepfather, then the death of her mother (by her twenties all her immediate family was dead): if ever there was a setup for a girl to make bad choices, this was it. But she kicked her heroin habit in prison and set herself to writing songs. In the time she wrote the songs for the two albums she released in her lifetime she was drug free.

Her albums were critically acclaimed but did not sell well. Her music, which she called "country-cult-baroque", didn’t easily fit into any existing categories. She said her influences were Pythagoras, Bach, and Ray Charles. Reviewers generally consider this comment flippant, but listening to her compositions it sounds like a pretty accurate self-appraisal. The music is complex and finely rendered, shot through with religious imagery. The mysterious figure of Christ is recurrent, appearing in many guises.

While somewhere along the line she was baptized in Pat Boone’s swimming pool–where a few years later Bob Dylan would have his own sins washed away–she wasn’t exactly an orthodox Christian. As her comment about the union of opposites might suggest, she was interested in a more esoteric Christianity; she read theosophy and hermetic texts. In a 1972 Rolling Stone interview she spoke of the astral plane, of numerology and astrology.

However flawed, though, her attraction to the Person of Christ is undeniable. Her music is God-drenched, Christ-haunted.

Stars bursting in the sky
Hear the sad nova’s dying cry
Shimmering memory
Come and hold me
Teach me how to fly

As the ’70s unfolded her career began to unravel. The record company sent her on tour as an opening act for a variety of rock bands. Crowds that came to rock out were not especially pleased to sit through a set of "country-cult-baroque" tunes. "They want to boogie in the lower places," she complained to an interviewer. "They don’t want to boogie in the higher places."

There were other troubles. She mentioned her producer David Geffen’s homosexuality in an interview. At that time closeted, Geffen was furious, and cut off all advertising revenue for her second album.

Besides her growing disappointment over her floundering career, a series of accidents left her in constant physical pain (she was by all accounts a terrible driver). The doctors, in light of her drug convictions, would not prescribe opiates. In her pain, in her discouragement, and no doubt with the demons of her past clawing at her, she turned again to what she called "the black peace" of heroin. And she faded from the music scene that had once held such promise.

Judee Sill died in obscurity in 1979, at the age of 34, from a heroin overdose.

In her final years she was working on songs for a new album, songs which remarkably did not reflect the darkness of her addiction but rather the hope and spirituality which had always been her aspiration.

And so Judee Sill has joined the ranks of what I call "the broken saints", wounded souls of acute spiritual sensitivity who, despite their various madnesses, addictions, depressions and sins managed to create works of luminous beauty. The list is long, and winds down through the ages: Rimbaud, the Pre-Raphaelites, Oscar Wilde, Van Gogh, Dylan Thomas, Theodore Roethke, Jack Kerouac, Nick Drake, to name a few.

I love them because I can relate to them.

Granted, my dissonances are not as dramatic, but that is hardly due to virtue on my part. I have never been, for example, attracted to drugs that are physically addictive or lethal. Nor am I attracted to homosexual lust. It is not particularly virtuous to resist sins that don’t appeal to you.

But I certainly have experienced compulsions to things inimical to the Faith I profess and contrary to my higher aspirations. And I have experienced spiritual failure on a fairly grand scale.

So I honor the broken saints, and I pray for them. I do not think it wrong to pray for the whole lot of them to finally reach a place of light and peace. Some of them–Rimbaud and Wilde come to mind–entered the Church as death drew near. Others took leave of this world in mystery.

(I have not seen any mention of Judee Sill’s relationship with the Church, other than one reference to a familiarity with Catholic mysticism, but she has one song, "The Donor"–on the Bach end of her spectrum–which is structured around the Kyrie Eleison.)

But one and all the broken saints came into the great encounter with God, Who is Love, Who is rich in mercy.

And I certainly do not think it wrong to hope that Judee Sill’s final fall was into the arms of Christ, or to pray that the prayer she sang so achingly in 1973 is answered in eternity.

Love rising in the mists
Promise me this
And only this
Holy breath touching me
Like a windsong
Sweet communion of a kiss

To see Judy Sill’s 1973 performance of "The Kiss" click here.

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