Jim Sullivan's Mysterious Masterpiece: 'U.F.O.' Jim Sullivan was always on the edge of success: He hung out with celebrities, but he wasn't famous himself. In 1975, he left for Nashville looking to further his career. But he never made it to Tennessee; Sullivan's car was found abandoned in the desert, and he was never seen again.
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Jim Sullivan's Mysterious Masterpiece: 'U.F.O.'

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Jim Sullivan's Mysterious Masterpiece: 'U.F.O.'

Jim Sullivan's Mysterious Masterpiece: 'U.F.O.'

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

GUY RAZ, host:

And I'm Guy Raz.

(Soundbite of song, "Highways")

RAZ: This is the music of Jim Sullivan. It's a song called "Highways" from his 1969 debut album, "U.F.O."

Mr. JIM SULLIVAN (Musician): (Singing) There's a highway telling me to go where I can. Such a long way, I don't even know where I am.

RAZ: Now, if the name Jim Sullivan doesn't sound familiar, you're not alone. Sullivan was a musician always just on the edge of success. He played to devoted crowds at a regular gig in Malibu, California, in the early '70s. He hung out with movie stars, but for some reason, fame eluded Jim Sullivan. So in 1975, he left Los Angeles, and his wife and young son, and he headed to Nashville. He thought he could catch a break there. But Sullivan never made it to Tennessee.

Somewhere in the New Mexico desert, he disappeared, never to be seen again. His record "U.F.O." has been reissued by a small label called Light in the Attic Records. Its founder, Matt Sullivan, joins me now. Welcome.

Mr. MATT SULLIVAN (Founder, Light of the Attic Records): Thanks for having me.

RAZ: And I guess we should start by saying that you have no relation -there's no relation between you and Jim Sullivan.

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: Yes, no relation, unfortunately not.

RAZ: So how did you come across this artist, this musician, Jim Sullivan?

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: I stumbled across the album on a music blog called Waxidermy, which focuses on obscure records. The album cover caught my attention. And I downloaded the album and was transfixed immediately.

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny")

Mr. J. SULLIVAN: (Singing) See the people run and gather. How something high has caught their eye. Frightened with the sound of something, the speaker stands to wave and cry.

RAZ: What was it about Jim Sullivan's sound? Was it his voice that he remind you of somebody else?

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: Really, it wasn't the voice. In many ways, it - his voice has this kind of weathered, worldly Americana sound, kind of a country-mixed-with-rock element to it. Then it has this...

RAZ: A little bit of sort of Nick Drake and James Taylor thrown in?

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's a good way to put it. And from there, the production, the strings, they're lush but they're dark and eerie. I kind of look at it almost as if they're pop songs that aren't happy. They're filled with despair.

(Soundbite of song, "Johnny")

Mr. J. SULLIVAN: (Singing) Johnny come down, come down from the sky. Johnny come down, you're flying too high.

RAZ: I mean, clearly, there were people who saw, you know, great talent in this guy. I mean, he had Phil Spector's studio musicians back him up on this record, right?

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: Yeah, the - you know, it kind of - it started with Jim playing at this bar called the Raft in Malibu, where Jim would play all the time. And one day, two Texans walk in, hear Jim's music and love it and realized, you know, we should make a record with this guy, even though they had, you know - had no experience in the music industry or had no idea how to make a record. But they pooled their funds together and became friends with Jim, and somehow they hired the Wrecking Crew, the band who backed up everyone from The Beach Boys to, you know, Phil Spector...

RAZ: Wow.

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: ...back in the day.

(Soundbite of song, "Rosey")

Mr. J. SULLIVAN: (Singing) Just those diamonds in his eyes every time he looks inside your head, and he sees a part of you that you often thought was dead.

RAZ: Jim Sullivan was married. He had a young son. He decides to sort of - to leave him, basically, and head out to Nashville to see if maybe he could, you know, sort of make a career there. What happened after that?

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: He leaves L.A. in March 1975, and he has $120 in his pocket. And he decides he's going to go to Nashville, thinking he's better suited as a songwriter and session player. So he starts driving in his little VW bug. And 15 hours later, he's outside Santa Rosa, New Mexico, which is on Route 66 in Eastern New Mexico. And he checks in a local motel, the La Mesa Motel. And soon after, his car is found 26 miles from the hotel, and he's never seen or heard from ever again.

RAZ: You know, I was reading through the lyrics last night, and it's really weird. I mean, it's eerie. He sings about long highways and saying goodbye, even disappearing in a desert, which is what happened. I mean, it's amazing.

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: Yeah. I mean, that had a lot to do with why we went out to New Mexico is the songs about UFOs in the desert and dying.

RAZ: And there are rumors, of course, that he was abducted by aliens, or that was one of them, right?

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: Yes, there is that rumor.

RAZ: And, of course, the album is called "U.F.O.," and here's a song about being abducted by aliens in the desert.

(Soundbite of song, "U.F.O.")

Mr. J. SULLIVAN: (Singing) Shakin' like a leaf on the desert heat. His daddy's got a pain that's so hard to beat. I bought me a ticket, got a front row seat. I'm checkin' out the show with a glassy eye, lookin' at the sun dancing through the sky. Did he come by UFO?

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: With or without his disappearance, there's something in those lyrics that is incredibly mysterious and eerie, and it's hard to pull away from it. It's an album, also, that doesn't really have a hit song on it. But it has such an incredible flow from beginning, middle and end. It's almost as if it was one track, painting a picture of what happened to Jim.

(Soundbite of song, "U.F.O.")

Mr. J. SULLIVAN: (Singing) ...by UFO.

RAZ: I know this sounds farfetched, but I mean is that possible he never died? He just decided to disappear?

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: Yeah, it's possible. Nothing points to that. Nothing points to suicide or Jim, you know - I mean, he would - his career was at a tough point. But I just don't see that. One thing that's - one of Jim's friends pointed out was that the guitar was left in the car. And if Jim was going to disappear, that would be the one thing he would have taken because wherever he was in the world, he could always stand on a street corner and make a few bucks by playing his guitar.

(Soundbite of song, "Roll Back The Time")

Mr. J. SULLIVAN: (Singing) Oh, the clock on the wall is a fine clock.

RAZ: How do you want people to sort of rediscover him? How do you want Jim Sullivan's sort of legacy to be remembered by people who will discover him on this record?

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: I hope that people will remember him as making a masterpiece, really see the album standing up to things that others made at the time. It's, you know - I think it's wonderful and it's strange because it all was because some guy posted Jim's album on a blog that he found on eBay.

RAZ: That's Matt Sullivan. He is the founder and co-owner of Light in the Attic Records. The album from Jim Sullivan is called "U.F.O."

Matt Sullivan, thank you so much.

Mr. M. SULLIVAN: Thanks for having me.

RAZ: And you can hear full songs from "U.F.O." at nprmusic.org.

(Soundbite of song, "Roll Back The Time")

Mr. J. SULLIVAN: (Singing) And the clock on the wall is a fine clock. Clock on the wall is a fine clock.

RAZ: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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