I had to cheat when writing that title. You’ll see why. This is a story about coincidences (whatever those are), for which I’m something of a magnet.
This story starts in 1973, when I was 11.
Getting to sleep at night was very difficult for me, I was afraid in the dark and didn’t know why (but then I’d been carefully keeping myself from the unfaceable fact of being abused). So I used to listen to Capital Radio (I grew up in London), on my big old radiogram – for the young, that’s a record player (for playing, you know, vinyl) with a radio and amp all built into one unit – with a time-switch on it to turn off after I fell asleep.
One night, just as I was trying to drift off, the DJ played this song, and I fell in love with it – and had no idea who it was by, because I missed the name being announced (I had the vague idea it was a Judy). The song rooted firmly in my heart, especially the chorus:
Sweet silver angels, over the sea – please come down flying low… for me
I never heard it again, but I never forgot it. Well, that’s not true, I never heard it again until 20 years later (behold the drama). Fast-forward…
In 1993, I was living in a Buddhist community for men, as I was still pretending to be one of those. Round the corner from the Buddhist Centre was a really good music shop, selling vinyl and the still-newish CDs. For some reason, my eye was caught by a CD called Left Hand Talking, by Judie Tzuke – probably because I’m left-handed, but also because I like weirdnesses of word (well, and because Judie looked pretty sultry in her cover photo). So I picked it off the shelf and looked at the back, and there it was, the song I’d heard 20 years ago! I got it home and played it, and it was the right song alright, but nothing like the version I’d heard way back then. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a lovely cover version (though deeply 80’s), but now I wanted the original. Armed with this new info, I was able (and this wasn’t so easy in what was, for me, the pre-Internet era) to find out who originally recorded the song – it turned out to be Judee Sill.
Okay, enough with the dramatic tension thing: the actual title of the song is Jesus Was A Cross Maker. I’ve been saving that up until this point in the story, because it was really irrelevant, and I didn’t want it to seem relevant. It was irrelevant because all my life, I’ve been a non-theist. That is, I picked up fairly early on in life that a lot of people seemed to believe in some god or other, but to me these gods were always just fictional characters, much like Scooby-Doo (though less funny). I’ve never bothered calling myself an atheist, because that feels like it lends too much importance to the thing I’m supposed to be a-, if you see what I mean. I don’t need an official label to demonstrate that I think fictional characters in general are fictional. To me, belief in a creator god is just a desire to universalise an idealised family dynamic – daddy makes everything happen, makes everything alright. Personally, I can’t think of anything more scary than the idea of the universe being in the hands of parents (pause to shudder), but that’s just me. Anyway, the point is that it bothered me a little back then that I loved a song with Jesus in the title, since I was very into being seen to be a Good Buddhist™, and didn’t want people to think I was a closet Christian (which is very funny, given that I was brought up Jewish). These days, I don’t care. I like the title because it’s about things backfiring on you – even if you’re Son-of-Scooby.
But enough about the title – the important thing for me has always been the hope of angels in some form who might come down and rescue me (when I first read The Chrysalids by John Wyndham in my early teens, I was strongly reminded of this song). And my need for rescuing. And the recently-acknowledged truth that I’ve spent a lifetime trying to rescue everyone around me, and it’s tiring and pointless. You can’t make people happy, the best you can do is help people become happier, but we each have to do it ourselves. And even helping others become happier has to be a choice, not an obligation, otherwise it’s somehow toxic.
Back to Judie and Judee (see why I had a problem with the title? I chose neutrality…)
I have never yet confirmed this theory (I’m actually about to write to Judie to ask) but my guess is that Judie Tzuke covered this song because people kept thinking it was by her, because her name sounds so similar to Judee Sill. what lends weight to this fanciful theory is the title track of her album, Left Hand Talking. When you listen closely to the lyrics, she’s actually singing “This is my lifetime talking…” – my theory is that when planning the album, she told someone the song title over the phone, they misheard “lifetime” as “left hand”, they both had a good laugh about it, and then she decided to go with it.
Whatever. This really makes me like her. And if she hadn’t covered Judee Sill’s song, I’d probably never have heard it again. Okay, that’s more drama, I’d probably have found it by now, due to every damned thing being on the net these days (and me being an excellent Google Whisperer). But I’d never have heard Jude Tzuke, who wrote a few amazing songs herself, and I might never have got into Judee Sill as much as I have.
Judee Sill was a Christian song writer from the 70’s who was having an honest and open fight with drug addiction, which she eventually lost. I don’t really get the content of her songs, because I don’t have the context of belief, but they communicate something about love and hope and fear and humour in the face of a universe bigger than we are, I think. I kind of love her.
So there we have it. I’m going to finish this with some youtubery – first, the two versions of Jesus Was A Cross Maker…
Judee Sill’s original version:
Judie Tzuke’s very 80’s version:
…and finally, my favourite other songs by each of them.
First, The Kiss by Judee Sill, performed live on The Old Grey Whistle Test (complete with sweet intro from “Whispering” Bob Harris, who presented the show in the 70’s) – I love this song both for the music, and for the sense of longing for (and fear of) connexion with “other”, and for the unassuming loveliness of Judee:
Finally, I Could Feel You by Judie Tzuke (the youtube vid gets the title wrong) – I guess this song is about an old love, but the chorus does something strange and shivery to me, especially the “constant laughter” …as the mountains fell into the sea, I could feel you, pulling on me with your golden chains that make no sound, and your constant laughter raining down on me…
I hope you enjoyed this visit to the land of the Jud(i/e)es. If I hear anything back from Judie, I’ll let you know.