FEBRUARY 17, 2016
Welcome to the first entry in a series of regular columns Aquarium Drunkard will be writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books and its print tabloid (the latest issue of which will be available in March). Expect an eclectic and esoteric bouillabaisse bridging contemporary sounds with vintage garage, psych, folk, country, soul, funk, r&b, and beyond. This first piece is itself an LA story — the mystery surrounding the disappearance of musician Jim Sullivan in March of 1975.
— Justin Gage, Aquarium Drunkard
Looking at the sun dancing through the sky. Did he come by UFO?
“WE’VE BEEN TALKING about rock ’n’ roll mysteries for years on this show,” the voice says over the radio, the wood-boxed Zenith my dad gave me as an apartment-warming gift. I’m tuned in to Coast to Coast AM and sitting on my Goodwill couch November 19, 2010. Guest host Ian Punnett — whose empathetic vibe is more in line with Coast to Coast founder Art Bell than that of the show’s regular host, George Noory — is interviewing producer Al Dobbs about the unsolved disappearance of California singer/songwriter Jim “Sully” Sullivan. In the late ’60s, Sullivan was everywhere in Los Angeles. His wife worked at Capitol Records and he palled around with Hollywood types: Harry Dean Stanton, Farah Fawcett, Lee Marvin, others. He appeared as an extra in Easy Rider, wrote songs, performed in Malibu clubs. His tone was unique: folk and country based, but spacey and counter culture–leaning.
In 1969, with “Wrecking Crew” session players Jimmy Bond, Earl Palmer, and Don Randi in tow, Sullivan cut an album called U.F.O. Gram Parsons was stalking around Los Angles then too, proclaiming a desire to make a kind of “cosmic American music,” and while his Flying Burrito Brothers certainly had their own far out moments, Sullivan’s LP sounds beamed down from somewhere beyond Earth. Robust string arrangements adorn the spectral songs, Sullivan’s voice weaving between 12-string acoustic guitars and a sympathetic, locked-in rhythm section.
Sullivan’s lyrics — about baked buddies, pockets of diamonds, and flying saucers — are foreboding. Sullivan sounds paranoid, weirded out, as if he’s in possession of some arcane knowledge. It’s easy to imagine him as a late-night Coast to Coast caller, hailing from west of the Rockies during the open lines. Sullivan’s words have the same power as prime Coast to Coast airtime, a potent blend of midnight strangeness and A.M. atmospherics. “Shaking like a leaf on a desert heat,” Sullivan sings in the eponymous song. “Too much goodness is a sin today.”
When Capitol passed on releasing the album, Dobbs founded a small private press label, Monnie, to distribute the record in limited quantities. It failed to make an impact, but Sullivan continued on. He recorded a self-titled follow-up in 1972 that was released on Playboy Records, but it fared no better. By 1975, Sullivan had decided it was time to get out of Los Angeles. He set off for Nashville on March 4 in his Volkswagen Beetle, leaving behind his wife Barbara, his son, Chris, and his daughter, Jamie. On March 5, he was pulled over by the state police and advised to watch his driving. He checked in to the La Mesa Motel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, that night. Apparently, he didn’t sleep there — the bed was found made, the room key on the dresser — but he purchased vodka at a nearby corner store. The story gets fuzzy from there. Sullivan apparently drove around town, and eventually ended up some 20 miles away, near a ranch owned by a family called the Gennettis. The ranch is where Jim’s Beetle was found, in it his wallet, his Guild 12-string, appointment book, unemployment papers, clothes, tapes, and a box full of his Playboy record.
Reports were filed. A few weeks later, a body was found eight miles west of Las Cruces. The local paper speculated that it might be Sullivan, but it was later identified as someone else. So what became of Jim Sullivan, U.F.O. balladeer? Rumors have swirled in the intervening decades. Some say he was lost in the desert. Some allege the Gennetti family had mafia ties. Others think the cops who pulled him over took him out — him being a mouthy hippie and all. The most romantic notion is also the most far-fetched: that Sullivan was abducted by extraterrestrials. “He and Barbara had a long, long history [of U.F.O interest],” Dobbs tells Punnett on Coast to Coast. “They were — as many of us were — fascinated by something from another world. We want to believe in it. I want to believe in it. I’d love to see ’em land tomorrow.”
“There’s no reported UFO activity, nothing that says this could have happened,” Punnett interjects. “Except a general sort of family feeling that if anybody would have had a close encounter like that, it would have been Jim. He was open to it, he would have loved it, and maybe it’s just a fond wish of a family to think that, but whatever it is, he literally just disappears off the face of the Earth …”
It’s my time to go, I just want the wind to blow my ashes
till they’re completely out of sight.
In November, 2010, Matt Sullivan (no relation to Jim) of Light in the Attic Records wrote about his search for Jim Sullivan. “We did uncover further stories with a wide array of subjects — psychedelic, barbed wire toilet seats, Harry Dean Stanton enjoying Thanksgiving dinner at the Sullivan’s, Texas oil money the size of Texas, the Blue Hole, Jim playing the Jose Feliciano show circa the late 60s/early ’70s, and those 5-Hour Energy drinks really do the trick,” Sullivan wrote, sharing a short film by his wife, Jennifer Maas, and cinematographer Mel Eslyn, about their road trip to uncover what they could about Sullivan’s disappearance.
“We all went out there and wanted to see what we’d find,” Sullivan says in January 2016, from the Light in the Attic office in Los Angeles. “The locals took us around. It was kind of naive, almost like Scooby Doo, us kids thinking we’re going to solve the mystery.”
Sullivan first heard U.F.O. via the cult vinyl website Waxidermy. Intrigued by its cover, he downloaded and listened. He was immediately taken by the record.
“It was one of those times that felt like getting slapped in the face,” Sullivan says. “I was floored.”
The album blended country and folk in the exact measure Sullivan preferred, and the melancholic feel grabbed him: “The dark, eerie strings and psych-ish mix (with Earl’s drums way upfront) recall David Axelrod’s finest work. Sullivan’s voice is deep and expressive like Fred Neil with a weathered and worldly Americana sound like Joe South or Gene Clark.”
Listening on the site, Sullivan read the album credits, which featured “monster session players like drummer Earl Palmer, keyboardist Don Randi, and bassist Jimmy Bond. How did a little private press LP afford these Wrecking Crew giants, the Los Angeles sessioners that backed the likes of the Beach Boys, Sinatra, Mamas & the Papas, Phil Spector’s mighty hit machine?”
“At that point I was already signed up,” Sullivan says. “I was going to find a way to reissue this record. Sometimes there’s one good track or two good tracks … but this one, every song was as good as the last one.” He reached out to Jeff Hassett at Waxidermy, who put him in touch with Sullivan’s family, his wife Barbara and son Chris (Jamie, his daughter, had passed away). Thus began the process of reissuing the record, but not before Sullivan himself would sink deeper into the myth of Jim Sullivan.
“The record sucks you in … and once you know the backstory, as much as we do know, it becomes even more eerie, takes it to a whole other plateau,” Sullivan says.
In the world of reissued records, narrative construction is an important component. Occasionally, it goes beyond an easy peg to help sell records. Genuine mystery and investigation is at the core of some of the label’s most popular titles: Light in the Attic’s past releases include albums by Sixto Rodriguez, star of the popular Searching for Sugar Man documentary, a Detroiter whose folk rock and poetically told story was embraced by filmgoers. In 2014, the label released an obscure synth pop record called L’Amour, by a songwriter simply called Lewis. Suspicious vinyl obsessives speculated that it was all a hoax, until Lewis himself — real name Randall Wulff — turned up in Canada. Yet the mystery, the blank space on which to project imagined weirdnesses and fantasies, still looms over the album. Reviewing L’Amour for Pitchfork, writer Stephen M. Deusner stated, “The mystery is so perfect that it’d be a tragedy to solve it.” He wrote it before Lewis was found, but the statement still tracks.
“These are the kinds of records that make us get out of bed in the morning,” Sullivan says. Jim Sullivan’s U.F.O. represents “the dream project,” an almost entirely unknown record. “This guy was brilliant and created a masterpiece that existed only in a few basements in the world.”
Ultimately, the road trip didn’t reveal the truth of what happened to Jim Sullivan, but it did turn up plenty of ephemera to further illuminate the details of his story: pages typed by Barbara Sullivan, newspaper clippings, long talks with locals about what happened, or at least what they thought happened. In a suitcase belonging to Dobbs, the motherlode: 25 pages of contracts, the original album cover photo, and a shot of Jim walking in the California desert, wrapped in a blanket. The ghostly photo appears in the gatefold of Light in the Attic’s reissue.
And Sullivan found things he wasn’t looking for, too, including an enduring friendship with Jim’s son, Chris. “You’re digging into this as a music fan, and then you realize: this is someone’s husband and father … Chris is a total music nerd.” The respective Sullivans go camping with their families. “He’s just the best person I’ve met doing this job. We’re like family at this point. To be honest, Chris and Vicki [his wife] … they’re honestly the parents we hope to one day become. They’re such inspirational people.”
But Sullivan and Maas returned without solving the mystery of Jim Sullivan.
“Looking back, I think we thought we were going to uncover something,” Sullivan says. “Not find out where he’s at but we thought that we would answer some questions. I think in the end, it just created more questions.”
There’s a highway telling me to go where I can.
Such a long way, I don’t even know where I am.
January, 2016, I’m sitting at my kitchen table, with Jim Sullivan’s U.F.O. on the turntable. I don’t live in the apartment anymore. The Goodwill couch is gone, but I’ve still got the Zenith, though I guess it needs new tubes. I don’t listen to Coast to Coast much anymore, either. The shows too often revolve around right-wing conspiracies and a few years ago I saw host George Noory at a U.F.O. convention and he rubbed me the wrong way; he seemed detached from the kookiness and curiosity all around him — maybe like he felt like he was above it.
The record sounds as uncanny as ever, more than half a decade after first hearing it. I trace the images in the liner notes, scan through Andria Lisle’s excellent writing, picking out the points of interest. “On some days, the likelihood of an alien abduction seems nearly as plausible as the thought of a grisly murder at the hands of a pair of rogue cops,” Lisle writes.
The reissue contains a transcription of the original liner notes: “Sully sings his songs and opens your mind to where it’s at for you. Sully has molded a key!” On the back of the book is a note by Barbara Sullivan, a bulleted list from March 28, 1975, running down what is known. He wasn’t in any nearby hospitals. The car was not running. The motel bed was not slept in, there was no struggle.
She writes: “It is the opinion of the people there that after the car broke down, Jim hitched a ride and disappeared.” Leaving behind a mystery and his music.
Jason P. Woodbury is a music writer and works at Zia Records.