Man On A Mission, Or: How A Light In The Attic Release Gets Made (Part Six)

Jim-Desert

Matt Sullivan remains hard at work attempting to complete Light in the Attic’s reissue of Jim Sullivan’s 1969 album, U.F.O. Scheduled for a November 2010 release, Matt has embarked on quite the journey as he tries to find answers into Jim Sullivan’s mysterious disappearance 35 years ago in Santa Rosa, New Mexico. He has been kind enough to chronicle his story in vivid detail. You can read previous installments here, here, here, here, and here. After tracing their steps through the notable landmarks of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, the desert outpost where Jim was last seen, this most recent, long-awaited dispatch finds our leading man (and his two ace companions) on their way back to San Diego, where Sullivan’s wife Barbara and son Chris currently reside:

After a few hours of sleep at Motel 6 in Yuma, Arizona, we roll outta bed at 7:30 and it’s one of those moments where you’d do just about anything for another hour of shuteye.  Not possible.  We’ve gotta be in San Diego by one o’clock to interview Jim’s wife Barbara and son Chris.  We’re moving slow. The sun is blazing down, already in the mid-90s by the time we’re on the road at 8:30.  We grab some breakfast sandwiches at Starbucks.  Funny enough…those little sandwiches turn out to be the best food we’ve ate in days.   I always forget how difficult it is to find edible food on the road.  Love the fast food, but the stomach can only survive on crap for so long.

With about 200 miles between us and San Diego and nervous with anticipation for what lies ahead, we talk about what to ask Jim’s family.  So many questions and not enough time.  The car cruises along I-8, snuggling up against the U.S./Mexico border.  We notice the desolate scenery as we pass through a number of roadblocks.  They quickly wave us on through, not looking for us honkeys.  Massive hills surrounded by gigantic bolders give way to miles and miles of endless, wide-open desert.  Not the place where you’d want to run out of gas.  One can drive dozens of miles without seeing a single gas station, home, human, or sign of life.  Not even a Mick-eee-dees or Walmart.  I imagine they’ll be here soon enough though.

I get a call from M. E. Sprengelmeyer from the Guadalupe County Communicator, the newspaper in Santa Rosa, New Mexico.  He’s been transfixed, listening to the CD-R we gave him of Jim Sullivan’s U.F.O. album.  Seems he’s fixated on the lyrics to the song “So Natural”, especially the line about wishing to have your ashes blown into the wind, disappearing like a ghost that never was.   Another eerie reminder of the foreshadowing on U.F.O. of what was to come in Jim’s life.  All of it rings true. Whatever happened to Jim in the New Mexico desert, there’s no question that it was one hell of a vanishing act on someone’s part.

Standing outside of St. Marks Church
there’s a line.
Waiting as they carried me on the line
I stood there in a daze.
And I heard the things that they’d say
and the words that they spoke
gave me an awful fright
“He looked so natural tonight.
He had his hair combed just right.”
A more natural pose
I couldn’t bear to see.
And I hope that these people never visit me.
It’s my time to go,

I just want the wind to blow
my ashes till they’re completely out of sight.
And they won’t say that,
“He looked so natural tonight.
He had his hair combed just right.”
It’s my time to go,
I just want the wind to blow
my ashes until they’re completely out of sight…

Personally, “So Natural” was the track that sealed the deal on U.F.O. Not that I wasn’t already obsessed with the rest of the album, but something about the lyrics, Jim’s delivery, and mighty drummer Earl Palmer left me continuously mesmerized on each repeated listen.  I spent hours listening and listening again, trying to understand the song and the strange lyric about “his hair combed just right.”  Jim’s wife Barbara and U.F.O. executive producer Al Dobbs shined a light on the back-story.  Both recalled different memories.  Understandably so, considering it’s been forty-one years since Jim cut the tune in a Los Angeles recording studio.  Barbara remembered Jim sitting down at the kitchen table one morning, writing, and playing guitar.  A door-to-door salesman knocked on the door, selling tombstones.  The salesman triggered something in Jim and “So Natural” was born.  Al remembered Jim going to his brother’s funeral and the events not sitting well with him.  Hence the lyrics about cremation and the wish to avoid those undesirables at your funeral.  Makes sense.  Maybe you weren’t too fond of them in your own life time.  Maybe it was a mix of both events that birthed the tune.  Whatever it was, “So Natural” never tires.

JimSCrashed

We finally roll into San Diego and make a quick stop at Guitar Center for an XLR cable for the microphone.  Next up is a quick bite.  We stumble upon a Chipotle Grill in the Hillcrest area of San Diego, one of my favorite areas of the city and a must stop for record nerds.  Within a block is both Thirsty Moon and Record City. You can always find some goodies at those two spots.  We gotta push on though.  A little after one o’clock, the three of us are standing in the Sullivan’s beautiful home and as always they greet us with warm hugs and smiles.  Vicki, the wife of Jim’s son Chris makes some delicious ice tea, which quenches our thirst after the dry desert climate of the past few days.  Calling the Sullivans good people would be a massive understatement.  These are truly awesome folk who have been exceptionally kind and supportive in our obsession with all things Jim and U.F.O..   For them, it’s been decades of not knowing what happened to their husband, father, and granddad.  We’ve dug up a lot of ghosts but they’ve always been open and willing to chat with us on camera.  Can’t thank them enough for that.  I don’t know if I’d be so strong.

Sitting down at the kitchen table with Jim’s wife Barbara and son Chris, Jennifer begins the interview.  Barbara touches on a number of things that I didn’t quite grasp on our previous visit.  Jim was a seventh son, which to many translates to one having psychic powers.  I’ve never been a big believer in the psychic thing, but this project has turned me around a bit.  There were far too many moments in Jim’s life (as well as the lyrics on U.F.O.) to be happenstance or coincidence.  Even the fact that Jim was in the film Easy Rider seems strange.  The man most likely met a similar twist of fate as Wyatt and Billy, the film’s main protagonists played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper; a hippie from the West Coast stumbles into small-town-U.S.A. and a gang of angry red necks.  I also didn’t realize the sacrifices that Barbara made, trying to give her husband the shot at success that he so desired. Raising two kids, and being the only breadwinner in the family, it’s hard to imagine how she held it together.  She worked full time at Capitol Records from 1968 to 1975 under boss John Rankin (John was the first person close to Jim that posted on the Waxidermy blog back in May of 2008.  Soon after, the family stumbled upon the blog and started filling us all in).  Well, Barbara would not only take care of the kids after a long day at the label, but would often be up all night making late night food for Jim, manager Robert “Buster” Ginter, and other cohorts, and then head off to work in the early morning hours to do it all over again.  Inspiring to say the least.  She recalled countless nights making homemade tortillas for the late night crowd.  Good times but crazy times.  They thought Jim’s big break might be playing the Santa Monica Auditorium.   He had a number of those moments – from performing on the Jose Feliciano television show to his small part in Easy Rider.  Nothing materialized but they didn’t give up hope.  Even when he left for Nashville, Jim still had the feeling he might make it, this time as a songwriter and session player.  Some friends thought maybe his songs would fit better over there.  Who knows what would’ve happened had he made it to Music Row.  Barbara recounted Jim’s disappearance, which was incredibly emotional.   I think we all had tears running down our faces.

JimSullivan-UFO-hi res album cover

After the hour or so interview we listened to the album with the grandkids, playing everyone the new re-mastering for the first time.  The family didn’t have a copy of the LP, and other than a very poor vinyl transfer downloaded from the web hadn’t heard the album since the early ‘70s.  They were stunned with how well it sounded and never remembered hearing the record sound so full.  Big thanks to mastering guru Dave Cooley for all the hard work re-mastering this one.   We headed out in hopes of beating the rush hour traffic for the drive back to Los Angeles.   It had been an emotional last few hours and a very intense last few days.  We covered over 2,000 miles in four days and were clearly beat, ready to get some much needed rest.   Our upcoming Stax 45s vinyl box became the soundtrack for the ride home, but our minds were on overload, trying to digest the events of the past few days.  Definitely a trip none of us would forget.  Four days prior, we set out to uncover a few clues about Jim’s disappearance.  Four days later, we felt that we uncovered so little with a mountain of unanswered questions.  But in some ways we uncovered much more.

Where Jim resides, though, is anyone’s guess.

The album release of U.F.O. is scheduled for November 2010, while the mini YouTube doc of the road trip will land a few weeks prior. Thanks for following the trip. Stay tuned.