Laura Brown does not want to be Laura Brown. She is one of three protagonists in The Hours (played by Julianne Moore in the movie adaptation), and for her it is 1949 in the hot desert suburbs of Los Angeles. Laura has a husband and a young son but dreads her housewife role, knowing it isn’t for her, knowing she can’t keep it up. She stays in bed for as long as she can, her eyes drop with empty relief as she watches her husband pull out of the driveway, and she reads, despairing for a different world.
After a failed attempt to make a birthday cake and an intimate moment with her neighbor Kitty, Laura has an existential panic. She drops her son off at a friend’s house and, under the guise of running an errand, takes a drive into the city: “As she pilots her Chevrolet along the Pasadena Freeway….she feels as if she’s dreaming or….as if she’s remembering this drive from a dream long ago.”
20 years later in Los Angeles (and in real life), Jim Sullivan records his debut album, U.F.O. It’s first song, “Jerome”, begins with a bright, unsettling orchestral arrangement. Swelling and theatrical but foreboding and alone, it’s the musical equivalent of “red sky in morning, sailors take warning.” Something is wrong. But just as the tension peaks, it all falls away, and for a moment everything is still.
Jerome is a town in Arizona, but you’d be just as right if you thought Jim Sullivan’s song was describing a person. In the late 1800’s, the town in the Arizona desert boomed with copper mining, but the mine closed in the early 1950’s, and the people left with it. Sullivan sings about buying drugs and wanting to go to Jerome, but he doesn’t know where it is or how to find it. He wonders where this ghost town could be. Is it “just a town out there”? Can you only find it “if you’re driving slow”? What exactly does Jerome mean to Sullivan, and how real is the place he’s searching for?
Jerome revitalized itself in the early 1970’s, in part due to its proximity to Sedona, the nearby capital of new-age spirituality. Sedona is known for its vortexes, places in nature that supposedly have high spiritual energy. It doesn’t seem coincidental that Jim Sullivan mentions Jerome — he and his wife were both interested in New Age mysticism. The album has a clear spiritual bent, exploring reincarnation, religion, and grief: the foggy space between worlds. Even without knowing his strange and tragic backstory, Jim Sullivan’s U.F.O. captures the uneasiness of a dream world, the rising anxiety of realizing you’ve been traveling in the same circle, over and over again. It’s a nightmare. U.F.O. is about illusions and ghosts, it’s full of ghosts, one of whom (in hindsight) is Jim’s ghost, which haunts the album more than anyone he wrote about.
There’s a decent amount written about Jim Sullivan’s story. It ends with him in the New Mexico desert in 1975. Before that, he’d been living in Los Angeles. He made two albums that both failed to create any real traction for him. He had some small success (he was in the movie Easy Rider) but decided to leave his family behind and drive to Nashville to find session work. And that’s that. He never made it to Nashville. He disappeared, was never found or heard from. Ever again! They found his car, all his stuff in it, but never found him. For a guy that talked about driving into the desert and disappearing, it’s spooky how 6 years later he drove into the desert and disappeared.
His music faded to almost nothing, until Light in the Attic reissued it in 2010. My initial fascination is summed up by PopMatters: “When you discover a story like [Jim’s], you start hearing the music differently…It seems impossible not to hear the lyrics as a prediction…that he would come to some kind of mysterious end.” It kept tickling my head, the already cryptic and confusing lyrics morphing into some type of eerie prophecy I felt compelled to piece together.
For Sullivan, it’s not what we see, but how we see it. Eyes show up all over U.F.O. “Plain As Your Eyes Can See” is a lamentation of unreciprocated love. The song is claustrophobic: A crowd’s whisper amplifies to a drowning yell, fallen rocks constrict a bridge’s path. As the world contracts, the narrator realizes they don’t have a place in their love’s life. The song’s idiomatic title is deceptive. Because something that’s as “plain as your eyes can see” should be simple. But U.F.O. is full of moments when our eyes observe something strange, when seeing is anything but plain. He tells us that eyes can easily be deceived, and now here we are, our eyes deceived. The album is a disappearing act, a magic trick.
Throughout the album, characters have surreal, impaired vision. “Whistle Stop” begins with “thunder and lightning in my eyes”, before the narrator describes an interaction with a woman he believes to have known from a past life. “All the air seemed quite foggy to me,” he says, setting up a dream world where he contemplates the soul having some type of knowledge that transcends a body. On “Rosey”, men look at the titular sex worker with “diamonds in their eyes”, and Sullivan tries to figure out who really sees who in the exchange. The song is dark and melodic, the strings and horns are exalting at times, dangerous elsewhere.
The characters in Sullivan’s songs are observers, peering from windows, or watching from crowds. They are searching for answers and they search by watching. In the title song, the narrator describes watching a religious ceremony as “checking out the show / with a glassy eye”, whereas in “Johnny”, the narrator is watching a crowd form to watch a boy who is flying in the sky. They yell out to him to come down, and then wonder if he has discovered anything from up there. As the album goes on, it becomes clear that Jim himself was a watcher, as lost as his characters. Even the album’s cover art expresses a fractured and confused gaze, as 5 duplications of Jim’s face, rapt in attention, look up curiously at something out of sight.
Laura Brown, after some aimless driving, decides to rent a hotel room for the afternoon. She’s impressed by the “cool nowhere” of it, a place of travel and transition, a place to sleep but not a home. After checking in, she realizes how “far away from her life she is. It was so easy.” In the hotel, she sees her anger, her panic, her nervousness, all still in existence, but separate from her: “It’s almost as if she’s accompanied by an invisible sister…”
It is Sullivan’s discussion on death and reincarnation that proves most eerie in hindsight. Even with Rosey’s protective facade, she’s surprised to feel seen by her johns, as they see a part of her that she “often thought was dead”, which makes that part of her alive again, if just for a moment. U.F.O.’s title song begins with strings that feel celestial, so it’s only right that he sings about Jesus and resurrection — “the only man I know that got up from the dead”. It’s neither critique nor praise of Christianity; the narrator wonders if people can come back, if they can ever be seen again. That idea is carried over in the most affecting song on the album, “So Natural”. In it, Sullivan most directly grapples with a grief that permeates the whole album: the death of his brother. He again is a watcher, this time at his brother’s funeral. His bizarre take on the experience is how natural his brother looks in death. Sullivan has molded a character who is both alive and dead. In a later verse portending his own death, Sullivan wishes for oblivion: for nobody to be at his eventual funeral, for his ashes to scatter across the desert. And here’s the wild part: both those things effectively happened.
Free of her responsibilities, Laura reads Mrs. Dalloway in her hotel room: “did it matter that she must inevitably cease completely, did it not become consoling to believe that death ended absolutely?” And after closing the book: “It is possible to die. Laura thinks, suddenly, how she — how anyone — can make a choice like that.” It’s a grounding realization for Laura. It’s not necessarily one about suicidal ideation, although (at least in the movie version) she does attempt it, but one about agency. Death changes from something that happens to something one can make happen. In that moment, Laura realizes that she can choose life.
So what happened to Jim Sullivan? There are a few theories, and of course, nothing is confirmed. One is that he was killed, perhaps he ran into an unsavory figure, maybe small town police, maybe a remote branch of the mafia, maybe just a wrong place wrong time situation. Some think that he was abducted by aliens. I don’t think it should be ruled out that he chose to disappear.
After driving back from the hotel, Laura picks her son up on the way back home. She steps out of the car, feet planted back in the real world, and “is overtaken by a sensation of unbeing…it seems that by going to the hotel she has slipped out of her life…”
“Highways”, U.F.O.’s emotional centerpiece, sparkles and trills in a way that would certainly make Sufjan Stevens shit. Sufjan for sure takes a page from Sullivan’s book. Both these fellas love horns and using place to ground their songwriting. Both seem to float over the scenes they describe. Highways is optimistic, in a way. On an album where he’s searching for a place to feel at home, he finds it: being lost. He’s lost both physically and spiritually, as he describes losing his sense of identity. But that doesn’t concern him. “It’s easier to stay here, think I know my way here”, he sings. The place he feels most comfortable in isn’t a place so much as a state of motion. It’s part of the fantasy of escape, that giddy rush of being invisible, of not owing anyone anything, it’s that same feeling that coursed through Laura Brown as she drove down her own highway. “Highways” sounds like Jim Sullivan making a promise to disappear one day.
But he doesn’t disappear, at least not right away. He returns after a trip both in and out of our world, returns home, but he doesn’t return fully, he returns on the final song as a Sandman, bringer of sleep. It’s depressing, dark, insidious — “honey now your sandman’s back in town” Sullivan croons, a promise of someone who knows death, holds it with him. Laura Brown, similarly obsessed with death, also doesn’t disappear right away. Her afternoon in the hotel makes it clear that she needs to leave, but she formulates her plan and waits for the right moment before doing so. As Laura delays having to join her husband in bed, she thinks over her life-changing day: “She might be nothing but a floating intelligence, a presence that perceives, as a ghost might. Yes, this is probably how it must feel to be a ghost. It’s a little like reading — that same sensation of knowing people, settings, situations, without playing a particular part beyond that of the willing observer.”
I know what it is to fear life. To tip-toe, lie, crumple, appease, stay quiet, get angry, run. I know what it is to become a ghost. I want to believe that desire is stronger than fear, but I know it’s a choice like anything else. Jim Sullivan made a decision to improve his life. He chose to go to Nashville, and either was killed along the way, or chose to go away, just like he said he wanted to. I want to believe that we will do whatever we can to achieve what we need, but I know it’s not so simple. Jim’s voice is weighed down by despair, yet it’s clear he had a deep spirituality within him, some guiding force. He teases us to see, to really see.
Jerome is a town in Arizona, but you’d be just as right if you thought Jim Sullivan was describing a person. A person who once existed, a person who might come back. Jerome is the person who we are when we stop lying to ourselves, and it’s the place we’re constantly looking for. Good luck finding it on a map. Jerome is Jim Sullivan’s opening statement on his baroque pop nightmare, his declaration that we never really die, that we are constantly alive and dead, and what defines those qualities is rooted in what we’re searching for and what we’re hiding from. In the end though, it’s the Jerome Tourism website that puts it most mysteriously and succinctly: “Forever? Jerome never knows.”