Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Buffy Sainte-Marie—
Illuminations


Released 1969 on Vanguard
The Seth Man, December 2003ce
Buffy Sainte-Marie is a truly enchanted spirit. With a heart driven by nature, a mind by the universe and her art enhanced by a combination of the two, her strong soprano voice soars and modulates between passages of calm, hyperactivity and insistence while occasionally sustaining a single note or emotion with vibrato just before it passes over the threshold of tolerance. When her early albums on Vanguard used to pass before my eyes I was always intrigued: was this woman really as freewheeling cosmic as she came across on her sleeves? With gowns as long and flowing as her hair that cascaded like a straight black waterfall down her back from her chiseled head, her album titles grew progressively stranger (although they still vocally had the propensity to reek all hootenanny/Piaf-like) as freakily demonstrated by “Little Wheel Spin And Spin” and “Fire & Fleet & Candlelight.” Switching genres, she then recorded the (obviously-titled) country set “I’m Gonna Be A Country Girl Again” in Nashville and then what would be her most experimental and artistically successful album of all, “Illuminations.” It was a brave departure from her previous five albums on Vanguard. Gone were the straight folk re-readings as it embraced elements as diverse as electric Rock, acoustic folk tracks mixed in with string and horn arrangements (orchestrated by no less a personage than Peter “PDQ Bach” Schickele) while for a surprising amount of time early Buchla synthesizer wove throughout and linked many of the pieces with mesmerising otherworldliness. Although this record will probably always be categorised as a folk album, “Illuminations” is leagues beyond that restricting category and into a zone all its own as La Buff lures you in with smiles and wiles, kisses, caresses, and tears only to slap you across the face as she points to the wrong exit you and everybody else took on the road map of reality.

A cover of the Leonard Cohen poem, “God Is Alive, Magic Is Afoot” is set to the synthesizer operations of fellow Vanguard Records artist Michael Czajkowski as dripping and watery electronics open then process Buffy’s own vocals and guitar into distilled pools of reverberating echoes. Her delivery is not rhythmically dissimilar to Cohen’s own “Suzanne” and here it is filtered through one of the earliest of synthesizer patch bays. The brief, pre-virgin birth pains of “Mary” pass slowly until “Better To Find Out For Yourself” switches gears into the sort of electrified-folk groove akin to The Airplane’s “High Flying Bird,” circa the Monterey Pop Festival. Buffy’s vocals strain against her throat as a lonesome coyote howl trailing into wordlessness again and again, soon underscored by Buchla trail-outs until they both merge into an ascending path of sound. “The Vampire” is a mass of strummed acoustic guitars that fan out against a quiet nighttime (lack of) reflections as thin streaks emanating from Czajkowski’s synthesizer pass by in the distance. These striations crossfade with further electronic burblings that funnel into a storming, freak-rock read of Richie Havens’ “Adam.” Imagine The Fifty Foot Hose jamming with Great Society-era Grace Slick or if Grace found herself with half of 1967-era Jefferson Airplane joined by The Silver Apples with a fully operational string section that knew when to back off. Buffy’s truly at the top of her game on this track with the first appearance of her backing rock band comprised of guitarist Bob Bozina, John Craviotto on drums and Rick Oxendine on bass. Dunno if it’s this last-named four stringer who’s responsible for the synthesized fuzz bass growl that stabs out a rudimentary and stubborn rhythm or if it’s the synthesizer, Buffy herself or what. But it sounds for as though it’s really an oversized rubber band being plucked, stretched the width of a table top with matchsticks glued down to said surface as frets and miked through a Mosrite Fuzzrite fuzztone with the attack set at its most effective position.

“The Dream Tree” concludes the first side with a wife’s acoustic prayer for safe return telepathically vibed from the shores, as if the last hopeful spiritual communion with her loved one, and who can count how many more before the resignation to the dreaded space of the upstairs widow’s walk... (Me? I wouldn’t even dare intrude with a ventured guess and break its spell.)

“Suffer The Little Children” shakes up things with a grim tale of truth-telling that bites you in the ass with its ugly coffeehouse social truths rendered with stabbing pre-thin wild mercury Dylan acoustic chopping as Buffy rails on all accusatory about mothers “with sagging dreams” who selfishly resign their helpless children into the meat grinders of school, society and work by teaching them to “fake it well” in order to fit society’s cookie-cutter. “Didja think it was a BOOGIE MAN?!” sneers Buffy meanly as that really mean bitch of a mama in the sixties exploitation flick “Psych-Out” who tosses her daughter’s box of keepsakes into the basement furnace. Synthesised school bells chime and crossfade into “The Angel” where Buffy’s vocals are set centre stage and gently couched by a swelling orchestral accompaniment, bells and faint choir. Her voice nearly derails a coupla times into overtly dramatic Piafsville but all is saved by the unexpected synthesized fade out on the vocals that splinter into an electronic crescendo of shattering, echoed noise.

Bell-cheese guitar rides up against the grinding fuck rhythm of “With You, Honey.” A tempestuously sexy delivery and hot to trot to boot, the electric guitars are double-tracked in between Buffy’s strident rhythm acoustic. It finally dissolves into a climax of pink noise courtesy of electronic manipulation but not before Buffy needles and sneers at her man until she caterwauls in ecstatic agony over and over. The much-needed sedation of “Guess Who I Saw In Paris” follows, with the mood soon turning to the breathy Gallic vibes with acoustic backing tenderness that strongly suggests a primary influence on Francoise Hardy’s masterpiece, “La Question.” One brief electronic collage and Buffy is back with the sexual appetite of the red-hottest mama of eternity. With her hands on her burning hips “He’s A Keeper Of The Fire” gets hit up for a light in the final and finest Rock moment of the album: The band is tight and the drums keep it nailed down that way as Buffy steps up to the microphone in a Renate-Rotten’n’Slick up on “Archangel’s Thunderbird” nailed to “Greasy Heart”...only greasier. Although backed by that blasting three-piece rock’n’roll band, she don’t budge an inch and winds up inciting the whole thing forward with truly exceptional command by strutting, shivering, shaking her stuff and promenading all proud while obviously getting the rest of her ya-ya’s out for all they’re worth as she barks out strident testimonials to her man’s potency and prick. In the aftermath of this fiery and stentorian Rock moment, there’s nowhere else to go except to bring the album to a close quietly dream-like with “Poppies (For Mr. Allerton).” For the final time, Buffy’s vocals are electronically filtered into waves of sounds that opiate into the Great Zone of the Beyond and are softly carried off on currents of synthesized echoing into that depthless, transparent ocean which can only be felt and not seen. The mysterious echoing abounds and it all ends on the whispered denouement and dank Buchla footsteps from which emerge Buffy’s familiar incantation coming full circle: “God is alive...magic is afoot...”

Magic truly IS afoot all over this album. Without getting all gooey all over Ms. Saint-Marie, I gotta say she’s a queen of the hours and that “Illuminations” is a powerful expression from the heart that SOARS with a pair of wings far outside once familiar surroundings to embrace the future with new forms while sewing them up into one bag so seamlessly pure and natural it really is nothing if not magic. And she followed her own spirit ancestor that flew unfettered ever upwards in one serious fuse with the Muse.