In March 1975, Jim Sullivan mysteriously disappeared outside Santa Rosa, New Mexico. His VW bug was found abandoned, his motel room untouched. Some think he got lost in the desert. Some think he fell foul of a local family with alleged mafia ties. Some think he was abducted by aliens. By coincidence – or perhaps not – Jim’s 1969 debut album was titled U.F.O.
A couple years ago we stumbled upon the album and have been obsessing over it ever since, culminating with a series of road trips retracing Jim’s last known whereabouts to New Mexico and onwards to San Diego to meet Jim’s wife and son.
Sullivan was a West Coast should-have-been, an Irish-American former high school quarterback whose gift for storytelling earned him cult status in the Malibu bar where he performed nightly. Sullivan was always on the edge of fame; hanging out with movie stars like Harry Dean Stanton, performing on the Jose Feliciano show, stealing a cameo in the film Easy Rider. Friend and actor Al Dobbs founded a label – Monnie Records – to release Jim’s album, enlisting the assistance of Phil Spector’s legendary sessioneers The Wrecking Crew.
U.F.O. was a different beast to the one-man-and-his-guitar stuff Jim had been doing on stage; instead, it was a fully realized album of scope and imagination, a folk-rock record with its head in the stratosphere. Sullivan’s voice is deep and expressive like Fred Neil with a weathered and worldly Americana sound like Joe South, pop songs that aren’t happy – but filled with despair. The album is punctuated with a string section (that recalls David Axelrod), other times a Wurlitzer piano provides the driving groove (as if Memphis great Jim Dickinson was running the show). U.F.O. is a slice of American pop music filtered from the murky depths of Los Angeles, by way of the deep south.
The record went largely unnoticed, and Jim simply moved on, releasing a further album on the Playboy label in 1972. But by 1975, his marriage breaking up, Jim left for Nashville and the promise of a new life as a session musician. That’s where it gets hazy.
We know he was stopped by the highway patrol for swerving on the highway in the small town of Santa Rosa, NM some 15 hours after setting off. We know he was taken to a local police station, found to be sober, and told to go to a local motel to get some rest, which he did. Some time later his car was spotted on a ranch belonging to the local Genetti family, who confronted him about his business there. The next day his car was found 26 miles down the road, abandoned. His car and his hotel room contained among other things, his twelve-string guitar, his wallet, his clothes and several copies of his second album. Jim’s family traveled out to join search parties looking for him, the local papers printed missing person stories, but the search proved fruitless. Around the same time, the local sheriff retired and the Genettis moved to Hawaii. Jim’s manager Robert “Buster” Ginter later stated that during the early morning hours of a long evening Jim and Buster were talking about what would you do if they had to disappear. Jim said he’d walk into the desert and never come back.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be announcing more on U.F.O. For now though, we couldn’t resist spilling the beans on a short film directed by Jennifer Maas (Wheedle’s Groove) and cinematographer Mel Eslyn who documented the road trip. Click below to watch the short film.
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CD/Digital (Nov 16th)