UFO: A Cosmic Album, An Unsolved Mystery
Written by Emily O'Brien on December 13, 2022
In 1969, psychedelic folk musician Jim Sullivan released U.F.O., his first album. Six years later, in 1975, he disappeared into the desert outside of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, never to be seen again.
U.F.O. is an easy listen. It feels like driving your grandfather’s baby-blue Ford pickup out of town, into the scrubland until you reach the desert. The sanguine folkiness feels familiar and welcoming. Sullivan’s rich voice is almost comforting, each song like an old friend recounting a ghost story. It isn’t until you really pay attention that you catch the hitch in his voice. The cosmic American instrumentals and psychedelic arrangements are the fabric into which Sullivan weaves his surreal tales.
The first line of the album is right to the point; “I found a magic man.” From there, Sullivan croons about having known a lover in a past life, highways calling out to him, a floating boy, and ponders whether Jesus Christ was really an extraterrestrial who came down in a UFO. It’s entirely possible that these are just instances of an eccentric musician experimenting with storytelling, but given what we know about Sullivan’s fate, they take on an air of mystery.
Sullivan was only able to release U.F.O. with funding from friends. In the late sixties, he had moved to LA and made connections with people like Harry Dean Stanton and Dennis Hopper. He had an uncredited part in the movie “Easy Rider” and spent much of his time with other Hollywood hopefuls. However, his dream of making it big never became a reality. He was never able to sign a record deal, and released U.F.O. on a tiny label owned by a friend. His next album, self-titled and released in 1972, also failed to chart or make favorable sales.
His career failings, coupled with issues in his marriage, drove Sullivan to alcoholism. Depressed and desperate, in 1975, he set out alone on a drive to Nashville, where he hoped to find more luck. On March 5, he checked into the La Mesa Hotel in the small town of Santa Rosa, New Mexico. It was later reported by the police that he didn’t sleep there; the bed hadn’t been slept in. According to an interview with his wife, Barbara Sullivan, she received a cryptic phone call from him that day, but she failed to provide more details.
Sullivan’s car was found a few days later at a ranch about 25 miles out of town. In it, police found Sullivan’s guitar, clothes, money, and a box of his unsold records. Sullivan was nowhere to be found. He remains missing even today, almost fifty years later.
Since his disappearance, countless theories have come out. Due to his reliance on alcohol, he may have been disoriented and become lost. It’s possible he committed suicide. Some claim that he was murdered. The ranch where his car was found allegedly belonged to a family with mafia ties. Of course, a favorite theory, shared by his late wife, is that he was abducted by extraterrestrials.
We will never know what happened to Jim Sullivan. His story is bitter and mysterious. However unlikely it is that aliens made off with him in the New Mexico desert, there’s no question that his disappearance paints each listen of U.F.O. with a tinge of mystique. While not a perfect album, U.F.O. will be remembered fondly; both Sullivan and his album are absolutely worth investigating.