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With the eclipse having just passed and everyone with their eyes on the sky, I’m reminded of the long lost musician Jim Sullivan. For those of you who may not know about Mr. Sullivan and his 1975 disappearance into the New Mexican desert, let this be an introductory piece to the the man, his music, and the mystery.
I first heard of Jim Sullivan the way the best stories are exchanged, through a friend in casual conversation. One of those conversations that comes after the peak of a party but just before bed when everything is still out and the lights are turned way down. It was the perfect setting for my introduction to Jim Sullivan and U.F.O.
Coming out of the late ‘60s, Sullivan attempted to make a name for himself in L.A.’s thriving music scene. Finally in 1969, after playing clubs and showing some initial promise, Sullivan released his first album U.F.O. While now something of a cult classic, it ultimately failed to become a commercial success leaving Sullivan as a relative unknown.
Admittedly, I was initially intrigued by the album due to the eerie circumstances surrounding Sullivan’s departure, but what kept me listening and also turned me into a fan was the music’s familiarity while entangled in flowing arteries of ambiguity and oddity alike. U.F.O was exactly what I would expect for its time, a total product of the era in many ways. It’s a nice blend of folk, a little rock, and some hints of psychedelia. There is of course a bit of a country vibe to it, but nowhere near to the extent of his self-titled, follow-up Jim Sullivan (1972). However, it also failed to pick up traction and suffered a similar fate as U.F.O.
Having failed to achieve much success in Los Angeles, Sullivan left for Nashville in the hopes of making it in the country music scene. Unfortunately, he would never make it to his destination. Somewhere outside Santa Rosa, New Mexico, the exhaustion must have crept in because Sullivan had trouble keeping his vehicle between the lanes, or so it is said. An officer pulled him over and advised him to get some sleep at a nearby hotel. Not long after that, Sullivan vanished into the night. His vehicle was discovered shortly thereafter, along with many of his personal belongings. According to legend, his hotel room was found entirely undisturbed, as though he’d never stepped foot inside. And from there, the trail goes cold. Jim Sullivan was never heard from again. Was there foul-play? Did he willingly disappear? Is the answer something a little more out of this world? Everyone’s got a theory, I tend to believe the more entertaining option. For more details regarding his disappearance I highly recommend this investigative piece, although, sadly, no answers are given in the end. Questions without answers could very well be the theme of Mr. Sullivan’s life and this theme is heavily explored in U.F.O.
What makes U.F.O worth a listen and noteworthy in general is its ability to take different directions without becoming so disjointed that it comes across as incoherent. The entire album has the same feel, with no one track clashing in style, rhythm or theme. That being said, there are some stand out tracks (such is the case with all albums) that really highlight the work and showcase Sullivan’s talents. One of these tracks and possibly my favorite, is the song “Jerome.” A folky little number, the lyrics ask questions, always referring to searching and wondering, often times venturing into the rhetorical. The closing of the track reminds me of ‘60s era Moody Blues as the music expands involving a variety of instruments that give the little song a more expansive presence. For that matter, many of the songs on U.F.O. do this quite effectively, contributing to the album’s sometimes “hard to place” categorization.
Of course, if there’s one song that conceptualizes and illustrates the music of Jim Sullivan, it’s obviously the title track “U.F.O” On the surface, the song is the most upbeat and inviting, but the lyrics quickly reveal its darker nature. In terms of tone, it may just be the most light-hearted but is still very beholden to themes of uncertainty and unanswered questions. The fleeting music and spacey strings go hand-in hand with the subject matter which tip-toes around the parallels between the religious and extraterrestrial.
Sullivan’s follow-up album, Jim Sullivan, was released a few years later. It, quite frankly, pales in comparison to the earlier U.F.O. The second album shows a clear transition into a more standard country direction. It sounds heavily influenced by other acts at the time with its twangy guitar and more grounded lyrics. It lacks the uniqueness and sometimes bizarre charm of the earlier album.
Sullivan, like so many others, tried making it big in the music scene. Beyond the mystery of his disappearance, lies what I think is the more engaging question: Why didn’t Sullivan achieve success? Given the research, it seems he had all the right qualifications to at least have a hit or two on his hands. His music comes across as hip for its era (in the best of ways) and he hung around with some of the “in-crowd,” even scoring a small role as an extra in Easy Rider.
Maybe he arrived on the scene a bit late. His first album was released in 1969, and depending on who is asked that was either the peak (Woodstock) or the beginning of the downward trajectory (Altamont, Manson) of the ‘60s sound. Perhaps his first album was just too little too late. The popular music of the era started to swing towards country with the emergence of Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Flying Burrito Brothers. Further evidence of this can be found in Sullivan’s ill-fated trip to the East.
Much like the film Easy Rider, where the characters leave L.A and head eastward looking for freedom, Sullivan made his way to Nashville to make it big. That being said, I’m afraid Sullivan’s travels were arguably a few years behind the time. He was looking to make it in a sound that had already over-saturated the airwaves. In fact, by that point even the Eagles were abandoning their country roots for a more straight-forward rock n roll sound. However, I’m just speculating on the evidence. Who knows? Maybe Sullivan would’ve made a name for himself out in Music City. With so many things in Sullivan’s life, it’s a mystery.
U.F.O’s, the open road, and uncertainty are all explored in Sullivan’s music so it was eerily fitting that these topics became somewhat ironically linked with his disappearance on that night in 1975. Like most things in Sullivan’s life his whereabouts may remain a mystery but he at least left us an interesting album.
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