All Shall Be Well
When Ben died I wanted to tell everyone. I wrote a letter to our college paper, I said he was beautiful and important and I wanted to build giant Bs and Es and Ns, stick them down the quad and light them on fire. I was twenty-two, and Ben was the first person I knew who died before he should have, and not on a street corner, in the hospital, or a car accident. I thought if we wrote it all down, he’d come back.
The last time I saw Ben was in the parking lot outside my apartment. We shared it with a Dairy Queen so there were always Dilly Bar wrappers lying around, in spring they froze into the puddles. I looked out the window and saw him, shuffling through the dumpsters in a sweetheart pink sweater. The sleeves were rolled up and I could see the scar he’d earned, fishing -- long and thin and red like his forearm squashed down on a long thin red worm. It was old but not yet white.
It happened in Alaska, Ben said, he hadn’t seen the hook coming and then it caught. I think about this now, when people leave for a while but then come back. Everyone gets caught by surprise sometimes, and only sometimes you see the scar. Ben said it hurt a lot at first.
Music was my heart then, I was a mopey weirdo so, duh but also because I grew up in Seattle during the Teen Dance Ordinance (TDO) -- a city law severely regulating underage shows. Thanks to the TDO, I learned to organize a political action, to write slick flash zines and slick slick press releases, and above all, to respect dancing in public as the ultimate holy right. This is less precious than it sounds -- those shows were the first places where I said I was a writer and got my own self home. They were the first spaces where I met family who didn’t look or act like my parents.
They were also the first times I got really mad and really scared. After Mia Zapata, the lead singer of the Gits, after Mia Zapata was strangled behind the dumpster at the Comet, I started going to shows with knuckle rings in my pockets. I thought sudden violence must happen to all women at some point, like getting caught in the rain, so I started dressing like a man to dance. I wore baggy guy clothes and cropped my hair, went in the pit and drag-pogoed. It was exhausting, the permanent red alert. The permanent Peter Pan. In the end I never hit anyone, and thank god because I probably would’ve broken my hand instead.
So anyway, it was really weird I got into Judee Sill. She was this nerdy mystic who called her songs “country-cult-baroque.” They were wine not whiskey, they fit churches better than mosh pits. Judee sang about crayon angels and enchanted sky machines, lambs, crowns, and cosmos -- not white boys like Bikini Kill did. I first heard Judee on a mixtape my best friend made me (featuring also: Goodbye Babylon!). By then I’d moved from Seattle to Indiana, to a Catholic university for college.
The original mixtape was for a girl he liked. He sent me the songs too because they were really good and he’d looked hard for them, but also in case of heartbreak. We did that then, we sent each other our favorite songs for safekeeping. It took forever before I actually made a tape for anyone else but him and us and our summertimes. The Judee song he picked, “Jesus Was a Crossmaker,” is on the list of the most terrible songs to put on a tape for your girl. It’s about a stranger/bandit/heartbreaker who sings to his lover, then freezes up and smokes off. Judee wrote it for J.D. Souther, a Texan she says put her heart through a papershredder. My friend’s logic I guess was that he knew how Judee felt. He’d never be that guy.
Whenever he made a tape we wouldn’t talk for a month or two, because we’d be listening to it -- him with her, me in the library or at the grocery store and wearing running sneakers or whatever. I listened to music all the time. Pretty soon I ordered Judee Sill, her first album, from the local store, which also sold incense, fair trade tunics, Fimo charms, and Janis Joplin posters. I waited a month and a half for the CD to come in. (I decided that if I was going to live and work nimbly, I had to be fanatical about one collection only. Books won.)
Judee Sill came out first in October 1971 and features Christian mystic lyrics, baroque pop, multiple overdubs, and piano. “Fuck, man -- she’s school for all of us,” Souther, who wrote songs for the Eagles, told Rolling Stone. As a writer I gravitated towards the lyrics, though later I loved how the multiple overdubs of Judee’s own voice -- mirroring, braiding, climbing -- show her growing confidence, or at least her desire. (Skeeter Davis does this too.) As a questioning Catholic I loved how she tweaked but respected what I believed, growing up. If Judee was religious then maybe I could be too.
Her lyrics were nuts, spacy, image-heavy. “Crayon Angels” alone has God and a train, the astral plane, magic rings turning fingers green, dead mystic roses, and phony prophets. The pictures dovetailed with the books we were reading in seminar, especially Julian of Norwich’s Showings -- she’s the mystic T.S. Eliot copped “All shall be well” from, for Section Three of “Little Gidding.”
Showings is a series of intense visions of Jesus, which Julian had at thirty and a half years old, lying on what she was pretty sure was her deathbed. (It wasn’t. All shall be well.) Researchers think Showings is the first book written in English by a woman, and they debate whether Julian was a nun, a layperson, or an anchoress, meaning she might also be widowed with kids. This was awesome, because most holy women in my textbooks had either no past at all, or they’d straight-arrowed it.
Showings is also famous because not only does Julian call Christ our mother, but she talks about breastfeeding like come on dudes, this is not that big of a deal. She compares the crucifixion to childbirth. And, Julian thought sin was necessary -- we learn through experience, so sin is unavoidable and what’s more, it brings us closer to God.
The important thing here, for my twenty-two-year-old baby brain, was not doctrine but language. Judee’s and Julian’s were ones I’d wanted for a long time: languages that let you be a part of something -- the church, punk shows -- even if you don’t agree with all of it. Languages that let you sit in the stands even if are not a cheerleader. Even if you are squicked by the cheerleaders. It was certainly not a language I ever heard in a mosh pit.
So I started reading Julian while listening to Judee, and I started to see circles inside my head: big shimmery ones, like rainbows or soap bubbles. Before, with the Gits or Bikini Kill I only ever saw saturated color, loud like Batman’s fist, and so listening to something not just prettier -- color-wise, I mean -- but also shaped in time felt important. It made me feel young, which meant I should stick around. I stopped carrying knuckle rings.
Ben and I met at school in Indiana. He had ponytail-long blonde hair and ground his teeth most of the time. When I met Ben he was wearing a top hat and no shoes, I asked what that represented and he said well, I wanted to wear a top hat and no shoes.
Nights, we sat together at one of the student center’s long low wood tables, talking shit and movies and eating quarter candy. We talked about how fucked-up it was that our Catholic campus shamed girls about sex and did not have an above-ground network for queer kids, even then, and when I came back furious after getting hit by trash, walking my girl to the abortion clinic, and why am I crying she should be the one crying! Ben understood. He let me stare red-eyed at the wall a minute or seven and then said come on, it isn’t like this everywhere. It’s good you guys went together.
I loved us because we felt like the good outlaws. If being Catholic meant keeping my body mysterious, if dancing meant I needed to be a boy, then I would reject both. Ben and Judee taught me to take a breath there first, cowboy. They taught me to criticize something on its own terms, not my personal politics or parents’ beliefs, which totally -- awesomely -- changed my writing.
Somehow, on the early Internet, Ben found a video of Judee singing “The Kiss.” She’s at a piano, her hair is heavy and straight, her face looks like a rodent’s and her eyes look beyond. I wanted to sit on a hood in a parking lot and read our horoscopes together. Since she was dead, instead I copied Judee Sill onto a tape for Ben. He liked it, and asked if I knew anything else about her.
Not yet but I researched, and after that I told Ben Judee stories while we ate sour worms and cottage cheese. I thought if I knew everything about her life, I would know why she sang her songs and then my life would make more sense too.
Judith Lynn Sill was born in October in Oakland California, 1944. Her dad, Milford “Bun” Sill, owned a bar and imported exotic animals to be in movies. Both he and Judee’s brother died in separate dramatic accidents before she was ten. Her mother, Oneta, remarried, a guy named Kenneth who helped animate Tom and Jerry.
Judee learned piano when she was still a kid, and when she was 17 she got married for just a year, to a guy named Larry who died soon after, taking the Kern River in a rubber raft while he was stoned. Also when she was 17, Judee started robbing banks. The first time she was so nervous she said, “This is a fuckup, mothersticker!” She never hurt anyone but got caught pretty quickly, and hired a lawyer using the money she’d inherited when her father died. The lawyer got her extenuating circumstances so Judee went to reform school instead of jail, where she learned to play religious music and the organ. “I began to suspect that certain sounds evoked certain emotions,” she told Disc and Music Echo. I felt her. Certain songs I never danced to, ever.
When she got out, Judee got a job in a saloon, playing the piano. They found out how old she was and fired her, then she took up bass. She married again and the guy, Bob, took heroin so Judee took heroin too. She didn’t touch a bass for three years, almost died, got caught and got arrested again and when she got out, Judee decided to “use all the hungry monsters” and become a great songwriter.
This is when Ben and I perked up. We wanted that too, only with books and film instead of songs. Judee told NME her three main influences were Pythagoras, Bach, and Ray Charles, that she’d always wanted to harmonize with someone but couldn’t find anyone. So she learned to do it with the piano instead.
With her own voice. “If I could talk about religion,” said Judee, “I wouldn’t need to write songs about it.” This was new too: aiming for harmony. I knew Rip It Up And Start Again, I knew Chicks on Speed singing about girl monsters, Hedwig Schmidt’s surgery, and Wynne Greenwood inventing Nikki and Cola. I hadn’t thought about refusing to cut. (Later I read Susan Stryker on Frankenstein and saw Hans Scheirl’s Dandy Dust, thought again about cutting, but anyway.)
If I made a map of my life, then, it would include my books, my notebook, my running shoes, my songs. It would be the lake I ran around every day, the chapel where I went to Vespers when Mass didn’t feel like a blessing. It would be my best friend and Ben, Julian and Judee and Mia Zapata too, every once in a while.
And once I moved away from Indiana, once I started trying to write about the places where I became a writer, it was such a bummer to realize this story is not special. It is not even really a story. It’s a false funeral. When I write Ben I realize how little I really knew about him, when I write Mairead she is too clean or too selfish, or naïve in a way I never actually felt. It’s too soon. I stopped and started this essay for years. The only facts I really have are that I listened to Judee when I knew Ben, when I was twenty-two.
Ben was a filmmaker. He wasn’t great at other people’s deadlines but on a given day he was genius at writing a script, finding equipment, making something work. Ben would send late-night AIMs, was I awake and did I want to come up to the studio and see? Of course.
A couple of times other people were there, but mostly not. The films weren’t for school. They were live-wire and parts clanged ugly but they were beautiful because they were for him, about him. They were the kind of work that happens first, when you want it all at once. If his films were cakes we’d be sitting sick and happy and sugarbuzzed. I would grin, thinking anyone on the sidewalk outside would look up and think we were just two boys, boys watching movies.
Once after a short about top hats Ben turned to me and said it was weird he’d never read any of my writing, could he? I said sure, next time. He said bring what I loved the most, what felt truest, and I said OK.
Back then I worked color-correcting digital slides in the library, and writing rock criticism. Music was the easiest, most public way to sneak weirdness -- home -- into Indiana, and the least confrontational way to talk about politics with my friends. Plus oh my god I loved music the most. So I was proudest of those pieces, they felt truest. It was compass-making. I gave Ben one about Langhorne Slim’s house by the seashore (“I don't got a house by the seashore / Gonna take you anyhow”). He read it solemnly-seriously, then looked up bullseye and said he was disappointed I hadn’t brought him fiction. He said I was hiding in songs, that I should be brave enough to write the stories I wanted to write. That failing better meant more than orbiting, or magpies. Don’t tell him I didn’t have a house by the seashore.
I got mad, but of course Ben was mostly right. That night I decided after graduating I needed to move to a city, one bigger than college or where I grew up, a city where I could lose my tics. I mapped out how many music reviews I’d have to sell to afford the ticket. The next day Ben sent an email saying he was moving to Chicago because he thought he’d be happier there, he hoped we’d stay in touch. A year went by before I saw him again.
That year, I took more notes on Judee. I was trying to figure out my life and it was easier to figure out hers, or to figure ours out together. Judee wanted to be famous, and talked about wanting to be famous in a way that would’ve been fine if she was a man. But she wasn’t, so newspapers said she was selfish.
Judee Sill came out in 1972, the first album on David Geffen’s Asylum label, just before debuts from Jackson Browne and the Eagles. Their successes soon dwarfed hers, but even so she had the cover of Rolling Stone, though by then she was talking smack about Geffen. “When I first met him I thought he was some kind of knight in shining armor, you know,” Judee told Grover Lewis. “But I didn’t understand the other things, the things that made him such a ruthless businessman.” She and David fell out, and in 1973, when Asylum released Heart Food, Judee’s second album, it flopped too.
After that she went back and forth from Los Angeles to Mill Valley, at one point she got into a car accident so got back into heroin again too, for the pain, and prostitution to pay for it. A guy she picked up in a restaurant on Melrose, he said they went back to Judee’s place and there was a mural-sized portrait of Bela Lugosi, a monster ebony cross, and candles everywhere. It took this guy a minute to realize how high Judee was, but of course they still had sex. Of course he still listened to her read him Aleister Crowley and mystic manuscripts.
Reading that was the first time I remember being actually angry -- not angry because I was teaching myself to be -- at how it’s still usually the dudes who write the history, still usually the dudes who decide who’s a freak. It was the same color anger I felt when Mia died. It’s the first time I heard Ben’s voice in my head too though: it’s good you went with her. It isn’t like this everywhere. Even if it was, I started realizing, I could write a book where it wasn’t. And I really wanted to, so I started to. That’s the second time my writing changed.
Anyway, soon this guy said Judee turned into a “serpentine cadaver,” a “huge gray reptile” curling up on the comforter, and he scrammed. Which was a cop-out, as Judee wasn’t Medusa. They were just high, and he was a jerk, and she was very sick.
Judee Sill died in a trailer park when she was 35. The night I read that I was alone in the apartment, I took Judee Sill and hooked it up to my cheap drugstore speakers and lay on the floor, one speaker facedown on my chest. It was half a ritual, but I listened until I fell asleep.
That fall I was color-correcting some slides, they were hard because sky was in some of them, and it felt like either the sculpture was right or the sky was. Of course that wasn’t true, I was just bad at the slides -- but then I looked out the window and Ben was there. I figured he’d had adventures, and because I was twenty-two it didn’t seem too weird, him suddenly leaving and suddenly coming back. Ben smiled quick then slow, like someone had to elbow him first to make his mouth move. I said hey we should get coffee, coffee on my break, and he said OK.
Coffee felt important and weird because we finally had stories about different places -- Ben said he went to another school awhile, he started writing science fiction. He met a girl, he got a job on a fishing boat and then he got hurt. He showed me the scar. He gave me his new email address, it was just numbers and letters and very long. I started to get scared of the internet, he said. I said cool, you became an artist.
I told him about going for Chinese food with my boyfriend’s parents, we all sat in front of this big mechanical painting where fireworks lit on and off, and ducks went round and round on a little wheel, and suddenly I’d thought, that’s us in forty years. Then I got scared, and then we talked about it and then we broke up. I told Ben I’d written real stories, fiction, would he come over tonight and read them? He said he wasn’t in town for long, but OK. Good for you, kid.
I waited hours but Ben never came. Finally, daydreaming out the window, I saw him elbowing through the trash. I figured Dairy Queen tossed out ice cream and Ben just wanted some. I ran out to say hey, we have popsicles in our freezer weirdo. But no Ben said he was looking for a bike tire, I said they usually just have ice cream in there man, do you want to come up? Of course I didn’t actually care about the story, I cared I’d written it and I wanted to see his films.
But Ben said no, no it was time for the train. He was being strange, but I thought that was because he wanted to be. Next week, I got a call saying Ben died. He hopped around Indiana a bit, had meals then rode a bus to Iowa, where his dad lived. Ben ate dinner with his dad and his sister, and that next morning he soaked some towels. He plugged up the doors, he put holy cards on his chest, he crossed his arms and turned on the gas and then Ben died.
When Freddie Herko died Diane Di Prima said it was “a kind of stuck place -- the end of the film cut off and burned so you never see it.” At first when Ben died I felt guilty, I thought the holy cards meant he felt guilty too and that I could have fixed it. I thought I could have should have loved him better, or louder. Later I was mad Ben left me, and still later I was mad when other people did, mad when I realized it wasn’t actually about me, we all have these stories and there is no way to write sense into burned places. Finally, sometimes I thought he was bravest and then I got mad at myself instead. When Ben died I started telling my friends I loved them.
I wrote and rewrote this story a bunch over the years, mostly as fiction and listening to Judee, usually praying Julian’s all shall be well. I rewrote it because it broke my life into before and after and that seems important -- sometimes the stories weren’t so bad, but mostly they were terrible.
Brave perfect boy-girls, sensitive dedicated girl-boys. Ben died over and over, and sometimes I buried him, sometimes we were lovers, once I rushed in all heroic and gave him air before he died, so he lived. They were terrible stories because they were too shiny, too known which at best is a stereotype. I read everything I could about Judee’s life and her songs still weird me out, and still, she died. Mia still died. Ben’s gone. I still get scared walking home at night, sometimes. But I don’t wear knuckle rings anymore and I started a new book, fiction this time. It isn’t like this everywhere.
Mairead Case (@maireadcase) is a writer, teacher, and editor. She is an MFAW candidate and Writing Fellow at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and Youth Services Assistant at the Poetry Foundation Library, with recent work in The Unified Field, with David Lasky in Best American Comics 2011, and at Bright Stupid Confetti. She’s completing a novel and notebooks at dignityandtenderness.tumblr.com.