Phoenix – All the rooms at the Holiday Inn are provided, but of course, with Gideon Bibles, and as a nice homey touch, the hotel maids leave them paged open somewhere towards the middle on end tables beside reading lamps. The Good Book in Judee Sill’s second-floor suite happens, by oblique chance, to be open to Psalms, the passage that reads:
Cease from anger, and forsake wrath; fret not thyself in any wise to do evil. For evildoers shall be cut off: but those that wait upon the Lord, they shall inherit the earth.
Judee, in disguise with lemon-tinted glasses, sits beside the table with the Bible on it, feet propped up on the unmade bed beside a suitcase exploding with rumpled clothes, her back to the view of hot Sunday sky and distant, bruised-purple mountains visible from the sundeck. Judee has…special gifts. She writes and performs songs as severely beautiful as the small gold cross she wears at her throat, as severely beautiful as her own severe beauty. Given the proper time and place, she will swallow a burning roach, or several. Right now, though, she is exorcising ghosts. It is eerie in the room’s muted, saffron light.
“I remember tryin’ to numb myself when I was a real little kid,” she says to a visitor, drumming a nervous tattoo on the open page of the Bible. “My father owned a bar in Oakland, and I used to hang out there when I was, oh, about three – that’s where I started playin’ piano and found out I could harmonize with myself. But even back then I knew somethin’ was wrong, that I was missin’ out on havin’ a normal life. It was so seedy in the bar, you know – people were always fightin’ and pukin’, there was illegal gamblin’, and my parents drank a lot, too. They always managed to take care of business, though. In those days.
“Well, that went on for five straight years, and I knew that wasn’t the regular way of things. By the time I was seven, I was pretty numbed-out. Then, in 1952, my father died of pneumonia, and my mother and brother and me moved to L.A. Not long after that, mother married this other guy – he was an alcoholic – mean, dumb, narrow-minded, he used to beat dogs and stuff like that. I never understood what she saw in him, but she married him, anyway, and they weren’t happy together, and she started drinkin’ a lot more herself. Me, I just kept tryin’ to go on – I was playin’ the ukulele by that time, and gettin’ into some other stringed instruments, and writin’ some songs and takin’ piano lessons and so forth. I didn’t know what I was gonna do, but I thought maybe I wanted to be a star. Only I didn’t know what I wanted to be a star at.”
Judee smiles ruefully at the recollection and brushes a swatch of butterscotch-colored hair away from her face. “Well, things kept gettin’ worse, though, and I was very unhappy. My stepfather was dumb and cruel, and my mother began to get more unreasonable herself. Then my brother, who was the only reasonable person in the whole family, got married and moved away, and I was left all alone. I was a teenager by then, and pretty big and strong, so I started fightin’ back. If my mother hit me, I’d sock her back. It was a pretty even match with her, but not with my stepfather. When I finally let myself feel the injustices of my life, I’d become uncontrollable. So there was violence all the time. I always had scars on my knuckles. We had such violent fights at our house that the police and newspapermen would come.
“Then I was so miserable I flipped out in public school and had to go to a private one. All the rejects from public schools went there, if they could afford to. Two innocent little old ladies owned the place, and, ah, they didn’t know what was goin’ on. We used to have stag movies at recess, get high at lunchtime – there was always good grass around. One of the senior guys ran guns to Cuba, stuff like that. I had a good time there. I was student-body president. Of the ree-jects.”
Clasping her gold cross, Judee rocks back and forth, convulsed with hoarse laughter. “Anyway” – she’s still laughing – “there were a lot of people at that school who kind of expressed themselves through crime, you know? The alternatives were to be a beatnik, or if you were more of a violent nature, to be a low-rider – a criminal. I liked both of those. I was attracted – my intellect was attracted to, uh, deep pursuits, like the beatniks. But another part of me was attracted to danger. I always found myself being the opposite of what every situation called for. If I was around low-riders, I’d come on intellectual. If I was around intellectuals, I’d be a low-rider.
“After I graduated, I got married to a low-rider from Sherman Oaks. Just for somethin’ to do, you know? We ran off together in a ’47 Chevvy. We really just wanted to take a vacation, but everyone found out, so we had to kind of justify it so we got married on the way home. Our parents got together and bought us an annulment. That boy was a Scorpio, very daring. He later got killed goin’ down the Kern River rapids in a rubber raft on LSD. My second husband – well, that’s another story. He’s still goin’ down the rapids. We’re in the process of gettin’ divorced right now. I got the first papers at my house in Mill Valley just the other day.
“So…oh, yeah – I was so unhappy around that time that I couldn’t allow myself to realize how unhappy I was or I would’ve disintegrated right on the spot. I didn’t even know if there was any hope of rectifyin’ it, even. I took some music courses at Valley College, but I felt a gray cloud hoverin’ over me. “Then one day I called up this friend – the guy who ran guns to Cuba? He was extremely psychopathic, had no conscience at all. His eyes were always at half-mast, and he didn’t care about anything. I admired that in him – I thought it was an attractive quality, because he didn’t seem to feel anything, he was impervious to it all. I said, ‘Spencer, I’d like to be involved in a crime of some kind, so why don’t you fix somethin’ up and call me back.’ I was thinkin’ along the lines of stealin’ tires or somethin’, but Spencer introduced me to an armed robber. The idea kind of attracted me…I don’t know. I can’t explain the hopelessness and helplessness I felt in the air, but, uh, it seemed like the thing to do, the right thing.
“So this guy and me, we began to do armed robberies. We did six or seven, liquor stores and filling stations. Sometimes it was quite exciting. We’d go to a motel afterwards and spill the loot out over the bed. This guy fixed downers all the time. I was a little intrigued by the needle, but I didn’t know what it was gonna lead to later.”