Any Britisher of my generation who remembers the late Judee Sill will also then probably remember the first of her two appearances on ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’ where, off-script, she made a direct plea to the viewing audience to buy her debut album so that she would not have to open for any ‘snotty heavy rock bands’ anymore… then proceeded to play and sing the tender, deftly crafted and intriguing put-down song that is ‘Jesus was a Crossmaker’. The next day I went to Pete’s Record Shop in Bargoed to buy the aforementioned album. “You’d be surprised how many people have come in as a result of her appeal,” he said, or something like.
While critics praised the way that mystical, religious imagery metaphorically charted her love life and inner conflicts, to me, my ears and eyes youthfully starry with Jesus – many of the songs sounded simply and authentically Christian in their language –‘the Lamb ran away with the crown’ comes to mind- but perhaps I too easily saw Jesus where there were just strange mixed-up pictures from the biblical teaching in the correctional institutions to which her teenage addiction/prostitution horror stories had consigned her. Still, here was a strange, talented girl, whose (reportedly) messed up background had nevertheless led her to a place where the iconic symbols and images of Christian theology, and of Christ himself, had somehow captivated her to a point where they informed and inhabited her creative responses to life. So yes I liked it; I liked her songs.
When I went off to university, Judee Sill took her place in the lineup of the many singer songwriters (several ‘girls with guitars’ among them) that was never far from my vision, though her limited output –just that one great album –perhaps meant that she was not in the forefront, either. Until I came upon her second album – ‘Heartfood’. I snapped it up, and was delighted to find that her spiritual language, her obliqueness, her unusual perspectives were just as alluring and potent. There were even songs that felt like ‘straight’ Christian anthems e.g. ‘When the bridegroom comes’. And then there was the 7 minute extraordinary treasure which is ‘The Donor’…
If ever there was a song whose meaning was conveyed impressionistically rather than through lucid lyrical content, then it was this one. First that long introduction itself seems eloquent: a sequence of ponderous piano notes quickly becomes built upon with what sounds like xylophone accompaniment, and then with a repeated chant of wordless musical phrase (like Hey Jude but at the beginning not the end!), growing in intensity and tiers of sound; from this wordlessness ‘kyries’ begin to emerge with increasing distinctness. At a climactic point, when the kyries have reached unequivocal clarity, the voice begins the song ‘proper’, to a starker piano accompaniment. There’s a profound, elemental feel to the song; and inevitably and instinctively I assumed that it was about the Great Donor, Jesus, with the great ‘donation’ of himself implicitly referenced in typically indirect, esoteric Sill-style. I think that it was the first time I had ever come across the phrase ‘Kyrie Eleison’ (hard to believe now, but bear in mind my spiritually sheltered background of Welsh nonconformity); and its use as a refrain in this song is haunting, plaintive, the layering of voices accentuating the utterly appropriate aching dolorousness of the prayer.
There was no lyric sheet with this second album, and it’s only now, 40 odd years later, that I come to look at them…and find them, like water, hard to hold, without any obvious linear coherence. Take the opening –‘I’ll chase ‘em to the bottom/Till I’ve finally caught ‘em/Dreams fall deep…’ Like I said, sort of, the meaning is more in the sound than the lyric –but what you can say about the lyric is that everything leads to the Kyrie. The hints and implications seem to be that inner impulses (the voices ‘Moaning and a-rhyming/…Ringin’ and a-whining’) and the profundities of human experience (‘Songs from so deep/while I’m sleeping’) and the sadnesses of life (‘Sorrow’s like an arrow… Reaching to the marrow’) all lead us to this prayer –Lord, have mercy. ‘So sad, and so true…’ – and Judee, bless her, on what level of consciousness I don’t know, helped to highlight the bedrock necessity of that prayer. Well, for me, at least.