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Lost Ladies of the Flowers: Part II

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The first part of Lost Ladies of the Flowers discovered many talented singer-songwriters who flashed brilliantly and disappeared from view. Here are some who tragically fell, some who faded, some who have even returned.

Judee Sill

“So this guy and me, we began to do armed robberies,” Judee Sill tells Rolling Stone writer Grover Lewis in a rambling 1972 interview. “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.”

Sill was talking about 10 years earlier. She had been an angry girl, from a violent home. Her inevitable arrest and 9-month reformatory stint were followed in 1964 with eighteen months of taking LSD almost daily, back before most people had even heard of the mind-altering drug. She married heroin-addicted pianist Bob Harris, leading to her own addiction and a new criminal career pulling scams and prostituting herself, which led to a near-death overdose and another arrest. She broke her habit cold turkey in jail and over two years of probation. She started writing songs. Her “Lady-O” became a modest Top 40 hit for The Turtles, she toured with Graham Nash and David Crosby, and she became the first artist signed to David Geffen’s Asylum label.

Her debut album Judee Sill is as fresh and good as work from the best-known female singer-songwriters of 1971 — Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro. “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,” Lewis wrote in that profile, which got her the cover of Rolling Stone. Her songs range vastly, from gospel to blues to country to ballads, but always pure in spirit and with a wisdom born of the hard American underbelly. My favorites are the gentle “Lopin’Along Thru the Cosmos” (“And sideways I slide thro the square,/I’m hopin’ so hard for a kiss from God,/I missed the sweet love of the air”) and the bouncily jaded “Jesus Was A Cross Maker,” covered by The Hollies, Mama Cass Elliot and Warren Zevon.

Her 1973 follow-up album Heart Food even more fully reflects Sill’s fascination with both Christian imagery and the occult. It is unclear how much she believed in the traditional sense, but clearly, she believed music’s purpose was both religious and deeply personal. Incredibly, almost nobody noticed that this was a masterwork of the early 1970s. Listen to the searing honesty and complex lyric line of “The Phoenix”: “The sun was red, and the fires were roarin’/Stars aligned and the webs were spun/I coulda sworn I heard my spirit soarin’/Guess I’m always chasin’ the sun/Hopin’ we will soon be one/Until it turns around to me, then I try to run.” Or the even more complex and heart-wrenching “The Kiss,” or the long hypnotic song her small following considers her masterpiece, “The Donor,” with its “Kyrie Eleison” ending from the Latin Mass.

The album got some good reviews but sold poorly, and she angered Geffen when while feuding with him she publicly mocked his homosexuality. As he did with the equally mercurial Gene Clark, the powerful music mogul simply erased her: he pulled support for Heart Food and refused to release any more of her albums. She started work on a third album but never finished it, descending back into street drugs after a series of car accidents, with doctors unwilling to prescribe painkillers because of her heroin history. When she died in 1979 from a cocaine and morphine overdose, no obituary appeared, and most former friends did not even know she was gone.

Then nearly three decades later, she was rediscovered, with the unfinished third album and other demos released in 2005 as Dreams Come True and the next year’s re-release of the first two albums. A new generation of singer-songwriters has covered her, most notably in a 2009 tribute album featuring Frida Hyvönen, Meg Baird, Beth Orton, and others. Reviewing her re-released albums, Tim Page called Judee Sill “an artist of extraordinary gifts, one whose best songs are suffused with a radiant, prayerful and excruciatingly tender innocence, all the more affecting because it must have been so hard-won.”

Linda Perhacs

Linda Perhacs was a dental hygienist in Beverly Hills, cleaning stars’ teeth and living in a Topanga Canyon hippie community when film composer Leonard Rosenman heard one of her songs and got her into a studio. The result was her 1970 album Parallograms. In a 2014 NPR interview she said she had synesthesia, seeing sounds and hearing colors, which shows in the gorgeously layered title cut and “Chimicum Rain”

And the linen covers rocks/And the green finds everything/Chimacum rain…. I’m spacing out, I’m seeing silence between leaves,/I’m seeing down, I’m seeing silence that are his/He belongs here, can’t have him/He belongs here, can’t know him.

Rosenman was blown away by her songs, which are suffused with a groovy vibe straight from 1970 and yet sounding like they could have come from a 2021 experimental composer steeped in centuries-old traditions. I am swaying right now to “Moons and Cattails,” a summoning of ancient spirits urging me to “come along, come along.”

The record company tried to make the album marketable and ruined it, she explained in that interview. “They stripped the sounds from the top, they removed the sounds from the lows and put an AM-band, thin sound — which is more like a telephone, it’s a more limited sound — and they took away all the beauty.” It failed to sell, and she returned to dental hygiene.

Thirty years later in 2000, a small Brooklyn record company contacted her to say a reissue of Parallelograms was selling among young alternative listeners. After multiple reissues by different companies – now done from the master tape with its original richness that she’d kept all those years — Perhacs returned to the studio and released her second album, just 44 years after the first, in 2014, The Soul of All Natural Things.

Perhacs is building on and branching out from her original psychedelic folk vision, showing no difficulty adjusting to the 21st century. She says she tried to be conservative in the second album, to not shock fans who had not heard from her for decades, but her range here is remarkable. “River of God” and “Intensity” are hypnotic, the latter pushing its message of “living on the edge, playing on the edge.” The opening title track continues her “skyward sense of wonder that the universe and the soul are one,” wrote reviewer Lars Gotrich. She chants: “It’s as if all thunder in all of the universe heard his cry… Peace, be still.

Perhacs’ third album, I’m A Harmony (2017), is her most fully realized, and her most collaborative effort, shared with a constellation of musical children: Julia Holter, Mark Pritchard, Durga McBroom, Nels Cline, Pat Sansone, and the ubiquitous Banhart. among others. She is in a hurry because of her age, she told interviewer Daiana Feuer on its release, and so she told her coterie to “’ just aim for the highest level of creativity that you can’…totally open up and go for it.” Everyone did just that. The title track is suffused in sax, acoustic guitar, drum, electronics, and the layered voices of Perhacs and Holter calling “I’m a harmony/And I am singing through your laptop.” Though collaborations dominate, the two Perhacs-only songs are among the strongest. “The Dancer” especially leaps with feminine grooviness: “They ran like sky and wind/They moved like life within/They danced like god within/And moved with joy, joy, joy/And he was known as the dancer/And she was known as his answer.”

Shelagh McDonald

You can still find an archived 1999 web page asking whatever happened to Shelagh McDonald, who burst onto London’s folk music scene from Scotland in 1970 and disappeared at age 24 a year later. Nobody answered that query, but six years later in 2005 journalist Charles Donovan picked up the mystery in The Independent. By then her two albums from 1970 and 1971 had been re-released, but the record company did not know where to send royalties, and even her elderly parents had died without knowing what became of her. Follow-up stories appeared in The Glasgow Herald and Scottish Daily Mail. Finally, in November 2005, a 57-year-old McDonald walked into the Daily Mail’s office and told her story.

Her star had risen quickly in London, and within months of her arrival, she had a record deal. Her 1970 debut, unimaginatively titled Album, sold poorly. But her second, Stargazer (1971) was a hit. Music magazine NME praised “a voice blending the melancholy of Sandy Denny with the birdsong of Joan Baez.” Then, while working on a third album, her life imploded. “Everybody was experimenting with drugs,” she told the Daily Mail. “But in April 1972 I took a trip that turned my world upside down. I thought it would be out of my system within 12 hours, but three weeks later I was still hallucinating. It wasn’t the kind of colourful hallucination you normally got with LSD – this was horrific.”

Telling nobody, she fled back to her parents in Glasgow, got a department store job, and gradually clawed her way back to sanity. But the drug had strangely ruined her voice. “I sounded like a strangled cat,” she recalled. In 1981 she met a bookshop owner with whom she started a nomadic life, ultimately wandering Scotland and living in a tent for years.

After that brief 2005 reappearance, she disappeared again, resurfacing in 2012 after her partner’s death. Finally, in recent years she has started limited performances, sometimes like our other lost ladies with younger indie artists. She sells her 2013 CD Parnassus Revisited at her gigs.

This cold Prague morning, though, I am back half a century in a time of love and flowers, listening to the opening track of McDonald’s first album.  “Mirage” indeed recalls Denny and the alternately soaring and melancholy psychedelic folk-rock of Fairport Convention (that band’s Richard Thompson and Danny Mattacks, along with other major figures, back her on the album): “And who will weep for you, my love/When your gold is turned into rock?/And who will grow flowers there/Where the earth is turned into chalk?” Her “Waiting for the Wind to Rise” similarly bristles, though other cuts like “Ophelia’s Song” (both versions) are more pensive, and “You Know You Can’t Lose” is Dylanesque. If it has any flaws, perhaps the album wanders too much all over the place, befitting a major new talent finding her way.

Stargazer is more assured, a step forward, though clearly steeped in the era’s influences – “Rod’s Song” and “City’s Cry” channel Joni Mitchell. “Good Times” with its hip organ-horn background and the stately title track with melancholy strings and choral ending are fully her own, though, as is the gently rocking “The Road To Paradise”, all providing a thankfully drug-free flashback of a 1971 park stroll. You cannot help but wonder: what if she had managed to finish that third album?

We have much to hope for in 2021, and perhaps we will bring to that hope the hard lessons learned in a sometimes dark past. Then it would be like the message carried across the decades by these musical flower ladies, lost no longer.

Featured photo by Jamakassi on Unsplash

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