Jim Sullivan’s “U.F.O.” and the story of his strange disappearance

Jeff Terich

Blood on the Tracks is a bi-weekly series that documents songs with dark histories. Sometimes they’re songs about something gruesome or terrifying, and sometimes they’re seemingly innocent tracks that are given a bizarre and sometimes horrific new life over time.

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The first widespread report of abduction of Americans by extraterrestrials happened in 1961 in New Hampshire. Barney and Betty Hill, on September 19, spotted a bright object in the sky on their drive back to Portsmouth from Niagara Falls, something that Betty described as appearing like a falling star—only it fell upward. It soon became clear to the couple that the bright object they saw in the sky had been following them, eventually causing the couple to stop the car and get out. The pancake-shaped object ahead of them hovered closer to the ground and opened up to reveal nearly a dozen humanoid but definitely not human figures communicating for them to stay where they are. A few beeps and clicks later, their consciousnesses were dulled, their watches stopped working and three hours seemed to have gone missing. The X-Files referenced the incident in one of its best-known episodes, James Earl Jones and Estelle Parsons depicted the couple in The UFO Incident, and an entirely new genre of conspiracy theory was born.

There are those who’d tell you that the Hills’ encounter with little grey men was nothing more than a fugue state caused by stress and marital problems, or perhaps just influenced by science fiction movies and TV—the Twilight Zone‘s third season had only begun four days earlier. But the Hills’ encounter is at least partially responsible for our cultural fascination with alien abduction, inspiring a number of books and movies and, perhaps less literally, popular songs. Though the 1950s gave us “Flying Purple People Eater,” it wasn’t until the ’60s that non-novelty acts began to dabble in visitations from the cosmos. In 1966, The Byrds narrated close encounters from “those strangers that come every night” in “Mr. Spaceman,” and in 1969 Creedence Clearwater Revival choogled out of the bayou and into the stars with “It Came From the Sky.” Psychedelic rock began to foreground sci-fi concepts toward the end of the decade, Pink Floyd even titling their second album A Saucerful of Secrets, which brings to mind images of twirling spacecraft in the sky, and David Bowie launched an entire lifetime’s worth of alien mythology with his astronaut ballad “Space Oddity.” In the case of Jim Sullivan’s “U.F.O.,” the aliens beaming down from the sky might be the second coming of Jesus Christ himself—as well as the beginning of a wholly different conspiracy theory.

Jim Sullivan became something of a legend indirectly through this bit of extraterrestrial mythology, but he wasn’t around to see it happen. A native of San Diego, Sullivan became a staple of Hollywood clubs in the 1960s, becoming friends with actors like Lee Majors and Harry Dean Stanton, even landing a small part in Easy Rider. It sounds pretty good on paper, but whatever success Sullivan had locally turned out to be increasingly difficult to turn into a successful recording career. Despite the fact that his wife worked at Capitol Records, the famed label passed on his debut album U.F.O., which was instead picked up by the smaller Monnie imprint, and at the time was released to low sales and little to no radio impact. A follow-up ended up being released on the short-lived Playboy Records, part of Hugh Hefner’s media empire, but that too proved disappointing. His career flailing, Sullivan sought refuge in alcohol, and in turn his marriage fell apart. Seeking a fresh start, Sullivan left Los Angeles for Nashville in his Volkswagen Beetle on March 4, 1975. After arriving in New Mexico the next day, Sullivan would never be seen again.

Sullivan’s disappearance remains one of the great mysteries of popular music. He left very few clues as to where he went or what he was doing at the time he went missing; he had checked into the La Mesa Motel in Santa Rosa, New Mexico, but he never actually slept there. He was last seen at a ranch 26 miles away, where he left his car full of all his earthly belongings—including his money, his guitar, and a box of unsold records. And though later on a body thought to be Sullivan’s was found a few miles away, it turned out to be someone else. Nobody knows what happened to Sullivan, though theories abound. Some believe he was murdered, or that possibly while intoxicated he became disoriented and wandered off, ultimately dying of exposure in the desert. There’s a less plausible but still possible idea that he might have simply disappeared by choice. But there’s one theory that follows the lore surrounding Jim Sullivan after all this time, and you absolutely know where this is going: He was possibly abducted by aliens.

“U.F.O.” is the reason why the abduction theory persists, and I get why that is. It’s a funny coincidence that six years before he vanishes, Sullivan should happen to release a song about extraterrestrial visitors. And he just so happened to go missing in New Mexico, the very state where the famed Roswell incident occurred in 1947, kicking off generations’ worth of suspicions over government cover-ups and airplane hangars full of flying saucers. That being said, “U.F.O.” isn’t so much a prophecy as it is a warm and good-humored psychedelic country-folk song about visions of faith.

In “U.F.O.”, Sullivan sings of “checking out the show with a glassy eye,” getting a front row seat to the dancing light in the sky before him. It’s neither tongue-in-cheek nor entirely straight faced. Sullivan isn’t entirely dismissive of what he sees, nor is he suspending all disbelief. There’s a kind of casual, “Well, would you look at that” kind of attitude to his observations. But the sense of wonder is central to the song, his quiet awe echoed by a swirl of strings and layers of flutes. It’s a little otherworldly, in the same way that a lot of late ’60s folk psychedelia is, but it’s still a rich and comforting sound.

In listening to “U.F.O.”, it’s easy to hear why this is an appealing theory about what happened to Jim Sullivan. Not because it’s likely—I doubt anyone could come to that conclusion so readily—but because it provides some kind of comfort. In “U.F.O.”, he’s enthralled by what he’s seeing, but it’s a feelgood vibe, like maybe those aliens just might be alright after all. (Or the Lord—it’s really more about that.) The truth about Sullivan is probably less outlandish but a lot sadder. He probably died alone in the middle of the desert, and that’s something that most of us probably wouldn’t want to fathom. Given the circumstances, I’d probably prefer to be the subject of urban legend too. And when I think of Sullivan looking toward the sky at the incredible sight before him, I can’t help but smile at the thought of him on some interstellar journey beyond our understanding.


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