Iconic singer Judy Collins reflects on life, career ahead of 2 rare shows at The Ark
But, particularly, they look back on the 1960s (and to a lesser extent, the ‘70s), which is fitting, since the ‘60s is the era when she launched her career—and was obviously marked by numerous and significant changes in American society, culture and music.
A few years ago, when pondering what the book’s central themes should be, “I was thinking about how I would soon be turning 70, which is definitely a milestone birthday that prompts a person to look back on their past, and the experiences that shaped your direction,” says Collins, now 72, who comes to The Ark for two sold-out shows on Thursday.
In the book—titled “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music”—“I wanted to create some of the portraits of the people I had worked with, and focus on the music and the writers and the experience of living through the ‘60s,” she says by phone while rolling down the highway in British Columbia, on her way from one gig to another. “I wanted to explore, in more detail, the folk scene in Greenwich Village in the ‘60s, especially at The Bitter End, because everybody worked there, including all the comics.
“I was really intent on capturing the texture of what it was like in the Village at the time, what those artists were like, as performers, and really focus on the musical territory.
“And, I also wanted to explore my relationship with Stephen, to sort of close the circle, because we’ve stayed friends for 40 years now.”
The “Stephen” she is referring to, of course, is Stephen Stills, who had a famous romantic relationship with Collins in the late ‘60s that inspired him to write “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which was a huge hit for Crosby, Stills and Nash.
Another reason Collins wanted to devote a section of the book to her remembrance of her romance with Stills was her sense of how important that song was at the time.
“That song not only had a big impact on me, because it captured an important, powerful time in my life, but it also had a big impact on music,” recalls Collins. “The way it was written, and arranged, it had a romanticism and harmonic freshness that affected the way a lot of writers and bands approached writing. It influenced a lot of artists, in that many of them became more personal when it came to writing songs, I think.”The book also goes into some detail about her father, a blind singer and radio-show host whose career took him from Seattle to Hollywood to Denver, and who introduced Judy to many well-known artists along the way. But she also writes about his alcoholism, and how his rages impacted Collins: She suffered from debilitating anxiety when she gave her first performances as a classically trained pianist, and she writes about how, by the time she graduated from high school, she’d already attempted suicide once.
In the book, she also explores, in more depth than in her previous two autobiographies, her own struggles with alcoholism and depression, and describes the many years she spent in psychotherapy. She recalls how even the best psychiatrists, at the time, failed to recognize her alcoholism—and that the fact that was in psychotherapy caused her to lose custody of her son, Clark, during her divorce. She also details how her friends checked her into an experimental rehab facility in 1978—which, she says, saved her life. In addition, she explores Clark’s own depression and addiction, and his eventual suicide. (Collins has previously written two books about being a survivor of suicide.)
As she was working on the book, she had a conversation with her editor about how it would “be interesting to also release an album at the same time, with the same theme, that would include songs that would also trigger memories of that era,” she says.
“So, for the album (titled “Bohemian”), I chose a group of songs from that general era that I’d always wanted to record,” says Collins—like Joni Mitchell’s wistful “Cactus Tree,” and Jimmy Webb’s lilting, Latin-inflected “Campo de Encino,” and Jacques Brel’s pensive “The Desperate Ones,” which was featured in the popular, long-running “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” musical revue that debuted in the Village in 1968.
“And I’d been wanting to do a new version of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Pastures of Plenty,’ which spoke to the issue of immigration, which was a big issue in the ‘60s, and obviously still is today,” says Collins. The song is a much-covered one, and ‘60s-era versions include renditions by Bob Dylan, Cisco Houston, Dave Van Ronk and Country Joe McDonald.
“And when I began writing my own songs for the album (the disc includes four of her original compositions), I also wanted to create images that would conjure recollections the ‘60s music scene, like in the song ‘Big Sur.’”
While she was in this reflective mode, Collins was also thinking about her mother, who died in December 2010, at age 94, so she wrote “In the Twilight,” a sensitive and affectionate tribute to her mother that includes some of Collins’ earliest memories of her mom. “I wanted to capture the romanticism of her life, and also the specifics of her life,” describes Collins.
Given that Collins has been so popular for so long, one might think that it’s unusual for her to be playing a small, intimate room like The Ark—that she mostly plays larger theaters. But, not so, says Collins.
“I play rooms of all different sizes—I do halls, and I do rooms that are smaller than The Ark, like The Carlyle, in New York, which seats 300 people. I do like playing the smaller rooms, but not necessarily because they’re more intimate. I feel like a show can be intimate even if it’s in a theater. That’s my job, to make the music intimate, no matter what size the room is.”
Kevin Ransom is a free-lance writer who covers music for AnnArbor.com who can be reached at KevinRansom10@aol.com.