Frontier Psychiatrist

Mystery in the Desert – Jim Sullivan’s U.F.O. (Best of FP 2010)

Posted on: December 22, 2010

In March 1975, folk singer Jim Sullivan drove into the New Mexico desert and disappeared forever. Days after he was reported missing, police found his car abandoned in the middle of nowhere. His guitar, wallet, luggage and datebooks were still inside, along with a few copies of one of his last releases, U.F.O., a one shot deal for a small record company called Monnie. This record has been notoriously difficult to find and has acquired a cult following among purveyors of pop music ephemera.

This month, Jim Sullivan rides again. U.F.O. has been remastered and re-released by A Light in the Attic Records. Label founder  Matt Sullivan (no relation) set out on a journey to answer many of the questions that still linger around Jim Sullivan and his mysterious legacy. Matt’s travels took him from the New Mexico desert where Jim disappeared, to the LA suburbs where he met Jim’s wife and son, to the bedside of the man, now old and sickly, who produced the record. Still, after all this searching, he couldn’t find the original analog master tapes or an answer to the mystery. What we do have, however, is a great record that encapsulates the 1960s California psychedelic folk rock sound.

Although he gigged hard and had a strong local following, Sullivan never landed a major record deal. However, Jim was fortunate to have friends who believed in him. These friends pooled their resources and provided funds for him to record. They spared no expense in hiring The Wrecking Crew, a well-known group of studio musicians who had helped forge some of the 60s most memorable hits, working for everyone from Phil Spector to Brian Wilson to Bing Crosby.

Knowing Jim Sullivan’s story before listening to the record makes for a ghostly experience. His prescience is uncanny as he sings about highways, deserts, drugs, death and of course, U.F.Os. The songwriting is solid, and the production is sometimes sublime, Part-time Wrecking Crew bass player and string arranger Jimmy Bond was responsible for the lush, mellow psychedelic sounds.

Jim Sullivan, “Highways.”

The opening strings on “Highways” combined with a solo bass line show Bond’s bias. After a few measures of austerity, Sullivan’s jangly 12 string combines with horns to produce a lovely, full sound. Thematically, the lyrics about a beckoning highway match the expansive legato strings that wind away from our ears like a black ribbon stretching out into a New Mexico sunset.

Jim Sullivan, U.F.O.

The title track asks the heretical question, “was Jesus from outer space?” In an age of sci-fi blockbusters and cable TV, where ancient alien theories and biblical E.T. postulates are common, this may not shock you. However, one can imagine in 1969 that this was pretty far out stuff. The irony that an album entitled U.F.O made by a man who disappeared in a New Mexico desert is surely not lost on us.

Jim Sullivan, “Johnny”

“Johnny” is a delicious little psychedelic waltz.  The drums are urgent but played with brushes, creating a soft sound that still manages to rock. The tic-tac of the acoustic bass works nicely with Jim’s understated guitar work, syncopated with a keyboard. And the call and response between the lyrics and the strings are dreamy and soaring.

Jim Sullivan never made the big time. And for whatever reason, he never made it out of the New Mexico desert. Fortunately, we have this rare and satisfying work to enjoy, even if the man himself is light years away.

Joe Trapasso is a staff writer who has recently reviewed records by Railroad Earth, Mavis Staples, and The Morlocks.

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