17 December 2019

Ol’ Blue Eyes is back

No, not Frank Sinatra but the great folk singer, Judy Collins. Liz Thomson renews acquaintance with the woman who discovered Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell

By Liz Thomson

April 1969, the Holiday Inn, Santa Monica. Judy Collins was out west to play a concert. Her affair with Stephen Stills, ignited a year earlier, was “thrilling but sometimes rocky”. Collins had refused to leave New York – her friends, her cats, her therapist – for what she saw as the vacuity of Los Angeles. Collins was anticipating a pre-concert tumble. Stills arrived, took a lovingly restored 1930s Martin from its case and sat on the bed to play. “The big, ringing open chords of his guitar and Stephen’s clear tenor” filled the room:

“Chestnut-brown canary

Ruby-throated sparrow

Sing a song, don’t be long

Thrill me to the marrow

Voices of the angels

Ring around the moonlight

Asking me said she so free

How can you catch the sparrow?”

 

Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. Collins knew in a heartbeat she was listening to a classic, and it was about her. It broke her heart: “It’s a beautiful song but it’s not going to get me back!” She cried, they hugged, he gave her the Martin. “Now you have the song, and the guitar. And my heart,” Stills said as he left.

Judy Collins with Stephen Stills at Big Sur, Hot Springs 1968

 

Next month , Judy Collins arrives in Britain for her first tour in decades, a dozen dates beginning at the newly refurbished Grand Central Hall in Liverpool. In the 1960s and early ’70s, she was a regular visitor, easily filling the Royal Albert Hall. Like her friend and contemporary, Joan Baez, she continued to sing and record but struggled in the 1980s and ’90s.

Her long career is something of a miracle. She’s survived polio, TB, depression and attempts to take her own life, and the suicide of her only child. All this and decades of serious drinking. But the past 40 years have been clean and fulfilling.

The hair is no longer chestnut but the famous eyes are as big and blue as ever and her luminous smile reaches them. “I’m so lucky that all those terrible sins of the past didn’t do me in,” she told me, as she prepared for a sold-out ten-day residency at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in Greenwich Village. The season marked the release of her latest album, Winter Stories, and concluded Collins’s year-long Vanguard Award and Residency, an acknowledgment of her influence and legacy. It’s easy to forget what a force she was – many people have no idea that it’s to Judy Collins that both Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell owe their careers.

Judy performs live during a tribute concert to Bob Dylan at the Wintergarten in Berlin, May 2016

Cohen was an award-winning but impoverished poet and novelist when he turned up at Collins’s door in 1966, just as she was recording In My Life. He played her Suzanne and Dress Rehearsal Rag, a contemplation of suicide to which she could sadly relate. He was unsure if they were even songs. Collins recorded both immediately and went on to feature Cohen’s work on numerous albums.

It was she who persuaded him to sing publicly, though he was so terrified the first time he did it that he fled the stage midway through Suzanne. Surprisingly, given his charisma and sex appeal, they did not have an affair but remained friends until his death. “I had the good fortune to be involved with Leonard and push him out on stage. I told him he had to sing and he told me I had to write,” she said.

Cohen read through Collins “dark notebooks”- journals she’d kept through years of therapy and in which she’d written down her dreams – giving her an assignment of five songs. Since You’ve Asked marked her song-writing debut and she’s thrilled when people tell her they played it at their weddings. “Leonard was a fabulous man and very generous.”

Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins and Taylor Swift meet at the 41st Annual Songwriters Hall of Fame Ceremony in New York, 2010

As to Mitchell, that introduction was made via telephone in the small hours of the morning by Dylan keyboardist Al Kooper, who she’d met soon after arriving in New York. He had been playing a gig, Joni was in the audience, and they’d gone home together. But instead of taking him to bed she sang him a song.

Kooper, impressed, rang Collins who heard Both Sides Now down the telephone. She recorded it, along with Michael from Mountains on Wildflowers. It was Collins’s version of Chelsea Morning, not Mitchell’s own, that inspired the naming of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter.

Perhaps that rankled with Mitchell. After all, Collins was not featured in the all-star cast assembled to celebrate Mitchell’s 75th birthday in November 2018.

“Joni has nothing nice to say about anyone,” Collins said, sotto voce. “I’m never on her invitation list. I made her a star, yet Both Sides Now makes her mad as hell. It’s always shocking with Joni. She has crafted her life to make people mad and insult them. I’ve put in a lot of hours making phone calls, sending her notes, flowers. And I’m so in awe of her writing that I don’t care!”

Judy Collins and Joni Mitchell, 1968

 

Though never a singles artist, Collins has enjoyed transatlantic hits. Both Sides Now was one and Amazing Grace which spent 32 consecutive weeks in the UK chart, another. Her recording of that was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Recording Registry as “culturally, historically, or artistically significant” Send in the Clowns jostled for airplay with Queen and the Bay City Rollers, and reached number three, just as A Little Night Music arrived on the London stage and Stephen Sondheim’s name entered general consciousness.

We met for the first time not long after that and Collins told me then she’d love to take on a Sondheim stage role. While she hasn’t (yet) done so, she did record an album: A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim.  

The eldest of five children, she was born in Seattle. Her parents would disagree as to whether she was named after the biblical Judith or Judy Garland – it was the year of Over the Rainbow and the Great American Songbook loomed large because it’s what her father sang on his live radio shows. Chuck Collins, who was blind, lived as though he were sighted, refusing dog and cane, which probably exacerbated both his Irish temper and his drinking. Judy, remembering the supplies of hand-painted glass eyes that arrived in the mail, once wrote that: “I often felt not that he was blind, but that I was invisible.”

Judy Collins performs on "This Is Tom Jones" TV show, December 1969

She was nine when the family moved to Denver and Collins was immediately hospitalised with polio. Recovered, she resumed piano lessons: Dr Antonia Brico had played duets with Albert Schweitzer and studied conducting with Sibelius, becoming the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Judy was just 13 when she made her concert debut, playing a Mozart concerto under Brico’s baton. She was poised to perform Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto when a chance encounter with The Gypsy Rover drew her into folk music just as the revival was beginning. To the disappointment of Brico and her parents, all thoughts of life as a classical pianist vanished.

In spring 1959, married with a new baby, Collins got her first professional gig – Michael’s Pub in Boulder, Colorado: three shows a night, five nights a week, a hundred bucks. She never looked back and was soon in New York, “transplanted immediately and completely … I lived on West 10th and Hudson. I still have some of the furniture I bought on the street for almost nothing.”

Collins has vivid recall of “a special time, an amazing time. There was an easiness about the folk community – in London too. Everybody knew everybody.” Collins’s career followed a typical path: downtown clubs such as Gerde’s and the Gaslight, then New York Town Hall, then Carnegie Hall, then the world.

She was part of a remarkable scene. Collins had run across “a scruffy brat singing bad versions of old Woody Guthrie songs” in the Gilded Garter in Denver. Bob Dylan had arrived in Greenwich Village at the same time as she did. “I thought: he’ll never make a living.” Collins also recalled a weekend at the Woodstock home of Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. “Bob was there and [his then girlfriend] Suze Rotolo, and Sally, Al’s wife. After a great festive evening, lots of food and drink, I woke up at about three in the morning and heard a melody coming up the stairs from the basement. I don’t know why I woke up – it wasn’t loud and I was pretty drunk,” she recalled. “I made it down three flights where Bob was sitting behind a closed door writing My Tambourine Man. I sat for a couple of hours and listened. ”

From left to right, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, and Billy Joel in New York, November 1985.

 

Collins first encountered Stephen Stills in the tumultuous spring of 1968. She was in LA to record Who Knows Where the Time Goes – its title song plucked from a Sandy Denny demo – and Stills was booked to play on the sessions. They met at a Laurel Canyon welcome party and drank and sang all evening, trading verses and harmonies. Collins noticed his eyes were a different shade of blue to her own. Stills told her he was about to form a group with David Crosby, who happened to be producing Joni Mitchell’s second album. Collins remembers that Stills kissed her for the first time during a playback of My Father.

Their break-up was dramatic but they never lost touch, and happily admit that it was an encounter at an American Association of Retired Persons convention in Orlando that spurred their musical get-together for an album, Stills & Collins: Everybody Knows (2018), and tour.

Stephen Stills and Judy Collins perform at Atlanta Symphony Hall, August 2017

The tie-dye and patchouli of their 1960s heyday may have faded along with Stills’s hearing, but Collins’s voice has endured despite the drugs, cigarettes and especially alcohol, not to mention eating disorders. Inevitably there was a price to pay along the way. By the mid-Seventies, her once-silvery voice had become unreliable, her vocal cords damaged by drink and bulimia.

In 1977, she had to make-or-break laser surgery to remove a haemangioma. Miraculously her voice recovered, notes added top and bottom, yet still she drank. Early the following spring she acknowledged the problem, checking in to what she described as “a drunk farm” in the Pennsylvania hills. She emerged after three months for a date with Louis Nelson, an industrial designer and graphic artist with whom she has since shared her life. They live on New York’s Upper West Side with Coco Chanel, Rachmaninov and Tom Wolfe, three glamourous Persian cats. “Louis’s a wonderful man, a real artist in his own right. We have a very good life and we have friends and things we love to do together.”

In 1992, her son, Clark Taylor, who had struggled with alchoholism and drug abuse for years, committed suicide at the age of 33 in a car she had bought him. Collins has spoken often of her son. She told the Seattle Times: “Alcoholism is a disease … To blame would be like saying if Clark had cancer, he got it from me. That’s a hopeless and useless exercise.” Collins has since written a book on suicide and speaks regularly on the subject.

 

Collins marked her eightieth birthday with a lunch party for family and friends, who included Robert Caro, the biographer of President Lyndon Johnson, Gloria Steinem, and Baez, who bought her a pink, sequinned jacket a symbol of how far they’ve come since they both burst on to the scene in the Technicolor glow of the early 1960s.

Judy Collins (L) and Joan Baez perform together, 2009

Collins was always ahead of the curve, her childhood training as a classical pianist equipping her with the musical smarts to spot a good song in not-so-obvious places. When she signed to Elektra in 1961, founder Jac Holzman declared: “We’ve found our Joan Baez”. Yet, from her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow, Collins ploughed her own furrow. By Judy Collins #3 she was fully in stride: Anathea and The Bells of Rhymney, which she sang at the Royal Albert Hall on the night of the Aberfan tragedy, are still exhilarating a half-century on. By the mid-1960s she was recording Brel, Brecht/Weil, Randy Newman and extracts from the “Marat/Sade” suite, which she put together from Richard Peaslee’s music for a Peter Brook play, and she was working with Joshua Rifkin, a Bach scholar who would bring Scott Joplin to popular attention.

The 1960s was a time when art forms collided, nowhere more so than in Greenwich Village, and artists were free to explore and collaborate unfettered by commercial pressures. “Oh my God, it was fabulous and I was so lucky,” Collins reflects. “We had that little slice of time where a lot of things were coming together, places we could play, record companies that figured out how to distribute and sell these records,” which were “a vehicle through which everybody learned new songs, making the whole folk revival available to everybody.”

Collins’s own songs are beautifully constructed miniatures – sophisticated narrative lyrics paired with piano accompaniments that could only come from someone classically trained. She practises daily (scales and exercises, then Chopin or Rachmaninov, or perhaps Debussy), and writes at the piano, although she has now brought the guitar back into her concert work. She began singing lessons in the 1960s, as her phrasing and evenness of tone across her wide range testify, and knowing how to use her voice enabled its survival despite the trauma. Unlike Baez, who announced she was retiring earlier this year, she hopes to be able to sing on for years.

Judy Collins circa 1972 in New York City

While she’s long favoured satin and sparkle over boots and jeans, Collins has a folkie’s heart, continuing a lifetime of standing up to be counted, not least on mental health issues. This is the woman who went to Mississippi in summer ’64 to register black voters; who took to the witness box at the trial of the Chicago Seven to sing Where Have All the Flowers Gone in support of friends Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin; who’s written songs for Che Guevara and, more recently, the Dreamers.

Like her 1960s confrères who hoped they had changed the world forever, she is aghast at where we find ourselves. “We’re in such bad shape. The lies, from the top down. But we did live through Vietnam and we will live through this. We think when we get something done it’s done,” she said. “Everything freezes over and then spring comes and we have to become farmers again and take care of it. Music can change the world, and it does.”

All photographs Getty Images

 

Further reading

A Judy Collins Playlist

Anathea, the opening track from #3 (1963) is thrilling, Collins’ voice swooping, soaring, tumbling over her strummed guitar and upright bass. The diction is perfect, the rendition dramatic.

Sons of, from Whales and Nightingales (1970), is one of several Brel covers. Profound words carried by a simple lilting melody sang with feeling to strings and piano.

Someday Soon from Who Knows Where the Time Goes? (1968) is an Ian Tyson number. Collins’ vocal matches the abandon of the lyric, a touch of bluesy glissando here and there enhanced by pedal steel and electric lead. A memorable slice of Americana before anyone so named it.

Famous Blue Raincoat from Living (1971) is one of many Cohen songs (it’s hard to choose a “best”, they are all so different) but there’s something wonderfully mesmeric about Collins’ account of this deeply personal song. It’s so very different to Cohen’s of course but no less intimate. Indeed, so intimate listening makes you feel like a voyeur.

Send in the Clowns from Judith (1975) is a perfect miniature that deserves hit status. Beautifully arranged, for piano, strings and cor anglais, you’d never guess listening to it that Collins’ voice was in meltdown. Knowing what she was going through makes it almost unbearably poignant.

The Blizzard from Winter Stories (2019) is a big ballad, Collins returning in her imagination to the Colorado mountains. Originally recorded in 1990, this version is true to the original, but recorded with new musicians for her latest album. The singer-composer is at the piano for this rich and layered story-song.

Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music by Judy Collins (Crown, 2011)