Jim Sullivan, a Rock ’n’ Roll Mystery That Remains Stubbornly Unsolved

Jim Sullivan was the kind of California character who seemed to have stepped straight out of a Pynchon or DeLillo novel — a 6-foot-2 singer and songwriter known as Sully with a magnetic personality and a handlebar mustache. His dramatic psych-folk songs were spacious, cinematic and edged with mystic, lonesome brooding. His social circle included actors and Hollywood hangers-on, and he’d had brushes with fame, including an uncredited part in “Easy Rider” with his friend Dennis Hopper.

On his 1969 debut album, “U.F.O.,” he sang of beckoning highways, of aliens, of an Arizona ghost town, of a man who looked “so natural” in death it was clearly his time to go. Six years later, the 35-year-old Sullivan disappeared in Santa Rosa, N.M. On the front seat of his recovered gray VW bug were his ID, his beloved 12-string Guild guitar, and a box of his two albums, “U.F.O.” and the 1972 LP “Jim Sullivan.”

Sullivan, a country-blues troubadour with an enigmatic story, has been compared to Nick Drake, Richie Havens and Gram Parsons. Questions about his vanishing still plague the small town where he was seen last, as well as his family and a small group of loyal enthusiasts. Last month, the record label Light in the Attic reissued his self-titled album, along with a new collection of previously unreleased demos, titled “If Evening Were Dawn,” that deepen Sullivan’s eerie, essential strangeness.

In 1975, Santa Rosa was a town dependent on tourists and used to strangers. Before Interstate 40 arrived in the late ’60s, people pulled off Route 66 to rest at its neon-lit motels and swim in Blue Hole, an artesian well. “We called them drifters,” the retired newspaper reporter Davy Delgado said in a recent interview. The Communicator, the newspaper where he was last employed, had a circulation of about 2,000 in a city of about 2,800. “This isn’t a town where you can steal a piece of bubble gum without everyone knowing about it,” he added.

But no one seems to know what became of Jim Sullivan.

Delgado insisted the investigation was thorough: “There was no arroyo left unturned,” he said, “and no trace of him found.”

Another local disagreed. “I always thought there was something strange about how that went down, why they didn’t investigate it more,” said Donald Sena, who now lives in Mount Vernon, Texas. His father, Pete, who died in 1993, worked on a ranch near where Sullivan’s car was discovered abandoned, and is recorded in The Santa Rosa News as possibly the last person to have spoken with Sullivan, asking him if he needed a ride.

“We thought he was some cowboy,” said Sena, who’d seen Sullivan’s car earlier that week from his school bus. “He had a handlebar mustache just like a cattle hand we knew.”

BORN IN NEBRASKA in 1939, Sullivan was the seventh son in a working-class family that moved to San Diego during World War II. He was the quarterback of the high school football team, played in a band called the Survivors and married the homecoming queen. Once he got deep into the guitar, that was it.

“Let me put it diplomatically,” said his son, Chris Sullivan, 58 and an English professor in San Diego. “The idea that he might have to be a square and go work for someone else was probably as repulsive to him as cutting off his hand.” Jim’s wife, Barbara Sullivan, was the family’s breadwinner, working as a secretary at Capitol Records after the family moved to Los Angeles. Sullivan played gigs at nights, spending his days songwriting and listening to records by Karen Dalton, John Prine and the folk singer John Stewart.

Barbara’s boss, John Rankin, tried unsuccessfully to get executives at the label to notice Sullivan’s music. “They weren’t interested at the time and I didn’t have any great position there,” Rankin said recently from his home in Alaska. “But I believed in Jim.”

Others did too: Al Dobbs, an actor turned cue-card holder for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” heard Sullivan at a Malibu nightspot called the Raft and was determined to help him make a record. “I think a lot of us were searching, trying to find what we could put in our minds,” Dobbs said. “I’m not sure Jim was searching. I think Jim was trying to get what he had inside of him out.”

Dobbs raised money from friends and co-founded a tiny label, Monnie. Jimmy Bond, Earl Palmer and Don Randi from the famed studio band the Wrecking Crew were recruited to back Sullivan up.

“U.F.O.” was released in 1969, the year of the moon landing, “Abbey Road” and Woodstock. Dobbs and his cohorts didn’t have money to promote it. “We used to joke about the number of copies it sold,” he said.

In years since, “U.F.O.” found its way to new generation of musicians. Damien Jurado has likened “U.F.O.” to his own 2012 concept album “Maraqopa,” about a man who drifts away from society; Okkervil River covered “U.F.O.” in 2011; Laura Marling wrote in the magazine Mojo praising its “orchestrated funk-folk”; Eleanor Friedberger said in a text that she has probably listened to “U.F.O.” more than any album she’s bought in several years: “It feels genre-less and timeless.”

In 1972, another shot at success came via Hugh Hefner’s newly formed Playboy Records, which asked Sullivan to join its roster. He started work on what would become his self-titled album with help from the bassist Jim Hughart, who wrote horn and string arrangements. While some of the album’s tracks felt like the folky “U.F.O.,” Sullivan reached for a bigger rock ’n’ roll sound on the swampy blues of “Tom Cat” and the distorted “Amos.” But record stores weren’t sure what to do with an album attached to Playboy, and the marketing savvy of Hefner’s company apparently didn’t extend to music.

Sullivan’s professional struggles took a toll on his marriage. “The Playboy record marked the dissolution of our family,” Chris Sullivan said. “It was made with care and love and quality but no one was buying it.”

The Sullivans decided to separate: Jim planned to go to Nashville and find session or songwriting work, then bring his wife and children to Tennessee. He never made it.

The day his father left, “I went up to him and said, ‘O.K., we’ll see you later.’ And I shook his hand,” Chris Sullivan said. “And that was it. That was the last thing I said to the guy. ‘Drive safe.’ Some inane thing like that.”

WHAT HAPPENED NEXT remains a true rock ’n’ roll mystery. Typewritten notes by Barbara Sullivan, who died in November 2016, that were shared with The New York Times attempted to piece together her findings.

On March 5, 1975, Barbara Sullivan got a call from Jim, telling her he was all right. She’d had no reason to think otherwise — he’d only left the day before. The conversation continued cryptically. When she pressed for details, he responded, “You wouldn’t believe if I told you,” she wrote. “I said, ‘Jim, what’s the matter, is anything wrong?’ And he said, ‘Forget it. Just forget I said anything. I’ll call you from Nashville.’”

After days went by with no check-in, Sullivan’s family began calling hospitals and the police. An officer told Barbara’s sister that Sullivan wasn’t in jail, “but if you ask me, that’s where he belongs.” They learned that after 15 hours on the road, Sullivan had been pulled over on suspicion of driving under the influence. He passed a sobriety test and checked into the La Mesa Motel in Santa Rosa. Police told Barbara that the bed had never been slept in. On March 8, Sullivan’s car was towed away from rough, mesa-studded country about 24 miles south of town. The 12-string in the front seat was a sign something was very amiss.

“When I heard that, I knew he wasn’t coming back,” Dobbs said. “No matter what, Jim would never have left his guitar.”

After investigators couldn’t turn up Sullivan, or a reason for his disappearance, two of his brothers arrived to conduct their own search. Volunteers found no trace of Sullivan.

Various theories began to spread, involving the Mafia, the police and extraterrestrials. Barbara Sullivan took solace in the idea that her husband was abducted by aliens; it was easier, perhaps, than some of the alternatives. “My parents weren’t addled by any great intake of drugs but they were very much of their times and believed in reincarnation and astrology,” Chris Sullivan said. “She was convinced he was up in the stars somewhere, waiting for her.”

As the decades passed, Sullivan’s story faded, but his music remained. About 10 years ago, Matt Sullivan (no relation), one of the founders of Light in the Attic, heard a vinyl rip of “U.F.O.” on the blog Waxidermy and was transfixed. “It wasn’t even a maybe. Within the first 30 seconds of ‘Jerome,’ I knew I wanted to put it out,” Matt Sullivan said. “I just loved that Americana sound, like listening to Fred Neil or Gene Clark or David Axelrod, but with Earl Palmer’s drums.” As he listened further, scrolling through comments, he got more curious about the musician’s story.

Working with his wife, the filmmaker Jennifer Maas, as well as the music writer Andria Lisle and a private detective, Matt Sullivan tracked down the major and minor players in Sullivan’s life.

Attempting to account for Sully’s lost hours in Santa Rosa, Matt Sullivan and Maas visited in 2010, chasing leads: A gas-station worker told the police that Jim Sullivan had asked for directions back to California. Friends didn’t view Sullivan as suicidal, despite his hardships. No one could explain why he had driven instead to a remote area, or why he refused Pete Sena’s offer of a ride in the cold desert winter.

“We traced his last known whereabouts, we met his family, it was incredibly emotional,” Matt Sullivan said. “I’m just grateful the albums were made, that we have this music now.”

The “U.F.O.” reissue vastly outperformed all of Sullivan’s previous record sales combined. In 2010, when the album was rereleased, one of its most successful bits of promotion was on the late-night paranormal radio show “Coast to Coast AM,” where call-in theories ran wild.

In Santa Rosa, locals still recall the search parties and the rumors surrounding the mysterious drifter. From time to time guests at the La Mesa request the room where Jim Sullivan never formally checked out. It’s now used for storage, said the proprietor, Mike Gallegos, who took over in 1999.

“I think he stumbled into something or someone that was unforgiving,” Dobbs said. “It’s kind of poetic to picture him still walking out there somewhere. But something happened.”

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