“A Train to the Astral Plane”: The Cosmic Folk of Jim Sullivan and Judee Sill

Annie Parnell / March 10, 2021

Originally released one month after the Apollo 11 moon landing, Jim Sullivan’s psych-folk hidden gem UFO (1969) is characterized by a drifting kind of hopefulness. Over the floating strings and upbeat horns of The Wrecking Crew, who famously backed The Beach Boys and Phil Spector, the album’s lyrics consider alien abduction and psychic links with loved ones with a curiosity tinged with despair. Sullivan weaves these unearthly themes together with transitory imagery of highways and train stations, a cosmic American landscape that calls to mind Gram Parsons, who he is frequently compared to. Throughout, he searches earnestly for connection, in “Whistle Stop” asking, “Do you know the feeling? Can you love someone you’ve only met a while ago?”

UFO paints love as an otherworldly link with another person who can “hear what I am thinking,” and the album’s title track extrapolates this idea further to consider the notion of divine love. Sullivan, who was raised Irish Catholic and is described by his son Chris as having grown up in an “age of exploration,” wonders in the song if the Second Coming of Christ might arrive by UFO, an idea that’s since been amplified by his better-known space-rock contemporary David Bowie. Jim, however, is no Ziggy Stardust—where Bowie’s odes to an alien messiah are jubilant, “UFO” is inquisitive and a little guarded, with a refrain that insists that he’s only “checking out the show.” For Sullivan, it’s not only hard to comprehend the seemingly telepathic sense of connection that true love offers—on both an interpersonal and a godly scale, it’s almost impossible to believe in it.

It’s a potent sentiment, and Sullivan’s idiosyncratic, wandering lyrics parallel the mystery that surrounds his life. Chris Sullivan explained to the New York Times in 2016 that Jim resented “the idea that he might have to be a square and go work for someone else,” but despite attracting the attention of Playboy Records and celebrity fans like Farah Fawcett and Harry Dean Stanton, his music career failed to pick up steam. This struggle between the talent he so clearly possessed and the recognition that stayed out of his reach is preternaturally visible on his debut album: in the song “Highways,” Sullivan is both dogged and lost, clearly stuck but stubbornly rebuking a world that refuses to let him live by his own rules. 

Six years after UFO’s release, Sullivan decided to drive cross-country to try and catch a break in Nashville. Along the way, he checked into a hotel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, bought a bottle of vodka at a local liquor store, and disappeared without a trace. His Volkswagen Beetle was found abandoned at a nearby ranch. In the passenger seat were his wallet, his guitar, and a box full of copies of both his sophomore release Jim Sullivan (1972) and UFO. The latter’s listing on the label Light in the Attic’s website describes a conversation in which he claimed that if he ever had to disappear, “he’d walk into the desert and never come back.” Others point to a stop by police near Santa Rosa, which, as Chris notes grimly in an interview with FLOOD Magazine, has “a way of making people disappear.” A short documentary made by Light in the Attic touches on another theory: that he was abducted by aliens. Regardless, as his son points out, Jim was “great at what he did,” and the music on UFO is as intimate as it is enigmatic, asking questions about existence, the universe, and our place in each.

Sullivan’s quip in “UFO” that “too much goodness is a sin today,” as well as his gaze towards the stars for salvation, might have resonated with Judee Sill—another unsung singer-songwriter whose debut album Judee Sill (1971) is stuffed with references to aliens and the paranormal. A former church organist, she mixes these occult images more explicitly than Sullivan with Christian spirituality, crafting an intimate assortment of lyrical confessions that she once described as “Country-Cult-Baroque.” On “Crayon Angels,” the album’s opener, she sings gently that she is “waiting for God and a train to the astral plane.” Throughout the album, Christ continues to appear to her in a variety of far-out forms, including an “archetypal man” who’s “fleeter even than Mercury” and whose “moon mirage is shining.” 

In “Enchanted Sky Machines,” a gospel-influenced ballad near the album’s close, Judee is especially hopeful, blending salvation and spacecraft in a way that distinctly evokes “UFO.” On the live album Songs of Rapture and Redemption, she explains candidly that this song is “a religious song about flying saucers coming… to take all of the deserving people away.” Her Live in London BBC recordings reveal a deep-seated belief, explored through this alien metaphor, that “deserving people will be saved.” Unlike Jim Sullivan’s passive and cautious “checking out the show,” however, Judee’s hope for an alien, ’70s-style rapture is yearning, open, and at times deeply anxious. Early on, she admits—to God or to us?—that she “could easily love you if you’d just let me feel”; by the second chorus, she begs the titular “sky machines” to “please hurry.”

This urgency behind Sill’s search for space-age saviors seems intrinsically tied to the adversity she faced during her life on Earth. Sill began her career after spending time in jail for forgery and narcotics possession; a letter she sent along with her demos to Asylum Records detailed the ways her struggles with addiction had informed her music. She died at age 35 of an apparent drug overdose that was controversially ruled a suicide. A musing note about life after death that was found on the scene has been contended by those who knew her as a misinterpreted diary entry, or else the first draft of a song. 

Just as there’s more to Jim Sullivan than his disappearance, though, Judee Sill’s music goes well beyond a reflection of her personal tragedies, and her transformative ideas about God, love, and the universe are intrinsic to her work. Openly bisexual, she had public relationships with both men and women, and once described to Rolling Stone a fluid vision of gender, sexuality, and religion drawn from Carl Jung’s masculine force of the “animus” and feminine force of the “anima.” Her music is preoccupied with radical philosophical senses of redemption and acceptance, each with its own unearthly tint. “Jesus Was a Cross Maker,” for instance, delves into the grueling process of forgiving a former lover, written while she read Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ. “Lopin’ Along Through the Cosmos” portrays her searching for answers among the stars, all the while insisting serenely to her listeners that “however we are is okay.” 

Outer space seems to suggest some of the same possibilities to both Sullivan and Sill: acceptance, transcendence, the possibility of leaving behind a flawed world where good and deserving people who chafe against societal norms are punished for it. Turning to the universe for solace when the world rejects you is an intrinsically reclamatory act—not only does it argue that the bindings of normative society are escapable, it also suggests that they’re not inherently natural or inborn. Jim Sullivan’s search for love and freedom within a repressive capitalistic framework is perhaps most zealous on “Highways,” when he insists that “my world is real, yours a dream,” while Judee Sill’s earnest belief in a better place is clearest on “Enchanted Sky Machines,” as she reassures the listener (or herself) that it “won’t be too far away.” 

This idea of a futuristic alien society more accepting than our own is certainly not a foreign one. In fact, it’s now a hallmark of the way that science-fiction themes have been explored in modern music, from Janelle Monáe’s Afrofuturist android-centric concept albums to The Butchies’ audacious queer punk anthem “The Galaxy is Gay.” Sullivan and Sill’s metaphysical pickings, however, came long before the social justice crossroads currently faced by modern country music, a realm that’s historically been considered a bastion of American conservatism. Like fellow ’70s trailblazers Lavender Country, UFO and Judee Sill not only call this characterization into question, but turn it on its head, using interplanetary imagery to imagine an open-minded world of country and folk decades before Nashville’s Music Row began to catch up with them. The holy connections each artist makes lend an additional layer of sanctity to the search—Sullivan and Sill suggest that not only is it natural and acceptable to diverge from the prescribed earthly norm, but it’s also righteous, sacred, and true.

In the decades since its original release, Jim Sullivan’s UFO has gone on to inspire folksy indie darlings like Okkervil River and Laura Marling, who have carried his ruminations to a new millennium of listeners. On the 2016 collaboration album case/lang/veirs, artists Neko Case, k.d. lang, and Laura Veirs paid tribute to Sill with “Song for Judee.” Another tribute album, Down Where the Valleys Are Low: Another Otherworld for Judee Sill, is due to come out this month. The modern resonance of these artists’ messages, half a century after they slipped into relative obscurity, is both tragic and hopeful. We certainly haven’t reached the utopia of Jim Sullivan’s UFOs and Judee Sill’s sky machines, but perhaps their songs provide their own kind of deliverance—a soothing, abiding prayer that a better world may be out there after all.

Annie Parnell is a writer and student based in Washington, D.C. who hails from Derry, Maine.

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