Judy Collins: Light shines in Judy's blue eyes
Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Judy Collins survived the wild days of the Sixties and Seventies but, she tells Barry Egan, after she gave up the booze there was another challenge to confront – coming to terms with the suicide of her only child
'I am yours, you are mine ... " In 1969, Stephen Stills of Crosby Stills & Nash wrote Suite: Judy Blue Eyes about his then girlfriend Judy Collins – the radiant woman sitting opposite me now in a Dublin hotel suite. "He came to play the song for me at a hotel room in California in April – just before my birthday," she recalls of the famous song that Stills' band opened with at Woodstock that year.
"We were breaking up. It was not going very well. He didn't like therapy and he didn't like New York. And I was in both!" she laughs. "Stephen was six years younger than I, which I think made a different in those years."
You were a cougar of your time, I joke.
"Yeah! That's right!" she laughs. "And he was very insistent all the time on everything and I was not having it. So he wrote this song which was supposed to get me back."
What did you say to him?
"'It's not doing it'," she laughs now, nearly four decades later. "It is a beautiful song though."
This indomitable 74-year-old woman, of course, launched the careers of everyone from Joni Mitchell to Leonard Cohen. Judy, who is playing shows in Ireland in two weeks, recorded Cohen's Suzanne and Mitchell's Both Sides, Now when they were relative unknowns and gave them exposure to go forward into the legends they are today. She also became something of a superstar herself along the way.
Mitchell famously sang Both Sides, Now over the phone to Judy, who cried when she put the phone down, so overwhelmed with inspiration was she. Collins won a Grammy award for her version in 1968. A certain Bill and Hillary Clinton were so inspired by hearing Collins' 1969 recording of Chelsea Morning that they named their daughter Chelsea. Judy, who sang it at President Bill's 1993 inaugural ball, became friends of the Clintons, often sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom. "For eight years," she wrote in her 2011 book, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life In Music, "I went in and out of the White House like I owned it. I would stay up and talk to Bill until 2.30 in the morning and think, 'My God, when is this man going to let me get to bed?'"
There were many such late nights in Judy's career in the late Sixties and Seventies. There were evenings tinged with a madness – GBH of the liver and the mind – particular to the times. One summer night in 1968, Judy Collins ran into fellow singer Janis Joplin at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. They were both wired on booze, were both alcoholics.
Janis said to her: "One of us is going to make it, and it's not going to be me." Not long after, in October 1970, a very drunk Janis died of a heroin overdose in room 105 of the Landmark Motor Hotel in LA. She was 27.
Judy Collins – who recorded her first album A Maid Of Constant Sorrow in 1961 when she was just 22 – was headed for the same early grave as Joplin with her heavy drinking. She finally got sober in 1978.
"I stopped drinking because I was dying," Judy says now with a loud-ish laugh.
"I would drink anything," she smiles, those famous blue eyes sparkling in the sunshine. "Half gallons of vodka. That was really my style. I am alcoholic. An alcoholic drinks. Good times. Bad times. Highs. Lows. Happy days. Bad days. It doesn't make any difference. And I never tried to control my drinking. I had a couple of medical situations which meant I wasn't allowed to drink, and I was a good girl so I didn't. I didn't want to die of liver failure. But it is a compelling illness, because it will take you down whether you want to go there or not."
Judy, the golden voice of Stephen Sondheim's Send In The Clowns as well as Amazing Grace, has exorcised many demons in her long life: alcoholism, depression, her attempted suicide, her son's suicide, among them. She survived. She had her last piss-up on the morning of April 19, 1978. She woke up bleary-eyed at 5.30am, still drunk from the night before. She immediately started drinking again "to get the thing going. I was always drunk. I didn't bother with hangovers".
With an appointment in Pennsylvania, she poured the contents of a bottle of vodka into a jar and put it in her purse. "I knew I was going to need it when I got there," she says. "At 7.30 in the morning I went into the ladies' room and drank the rest of the vodka."
"I was a very happy drunk," she adds. "I had a very good time until I passed out. And that would be the story of every day. I stopped because I was dying. I had no choice. My career was going fast. My friends were leaving the ship, abandoning me. I was unable to work."
Her father Chuck, a blind radio host who was part the golden age of radio, she says, had his own problems with drink. She can recall it in her childhood vividly and the effect it had on her.
"I am a firm believer that alcoholism is a genetic issue and it doesn't really matter where you were raised," says Judy, who was born Judith Marjorie Collins on May 1, 1939, in Seattle, Washington, one of five children.
Part of the story of Judy Collins is that she made her public debut at the age of 13 performing Mozart's Concerto for Two Pianos. She seemed destined to be a star of some description one day. What is less well-known is that a year later she attempted to take her own life with an overdose of aspirin. I ask her what brought the suicide attempt on.
"I think it was because I was in an alcoholic home," she answers, matter of factly.
"And I think the pressure that I was under. That's why I understand teenagers and what kind of pressures they are under – pressures to succeed. I was in an environment that was like that, because there was a lot of pressure on me to perform. I was a concert pianist and I was expected to learn these very complex pieces."
Judy was working on a piece by 19th-Century Hungarian composer Franz Liszt, La Campanella. "It is a miserable piece of miserable," she laughs. "I was learning it. And I was not up to speed. My father wanted me to play it in public at a big show that he was doing. I revolted. My father was like: 'You have to play it.'"
What was her parents' reaction when they found out she had tried to kill herself?
"My father wrote me a letter, which I read to my husband recently. What did you say about that letter?" she says, turning to Louis Nelson, who is sitting on a chair beside her in the Four Seasons hotel in Dublin.
"He didn't have any understanding of the child's emotions," he says. (For the record: not long after giving up the drink in 1978, she met Louis, an architect, at an Equal Rights Amendment fundraiser. In 1996, they married and live happily in New York.)
I ask Judy was did her father say in the letter.
"My father basically appealed to my sense of duty: that it was not in the interests of the world that I should try to get out of this. He felt guilty. It was an apology of sorts. 'I am sorry that I am often unpleasant about being more demanding than I should be of my children.' He was always expecting the best."
Asked did she grow up in a non-verbal family – where fathers write letters to their daughters about their suicide attempts – Judy says: "God, no. But we didn't talk about that. We talked about everything else. Because suicide was not ... the same thing with alcoholism ... you didn't talk about it. You didn't acknowledge it. You acknowledged the physical thing. I had polio. I had migraine headaches. That was talked about a lot. I saw a lot of doctors about my migraine headaches but never suicide."
Judy says she realises now that she also suffered from depression before the suicide attempt at the age of 14. "It had started earlier. I'm sure the depression was also part of the suicide. I think it was a combination of the pressure, the demands, the alcoholism and the depression I was suffering too."
In her early 20s, Judy says she got a handle on her depression "pretty quickly. First of all you had to try to control it. You have to exercise every day, which I started when I was 22. I was very self-aware. My father was like that too. He was a learner, he was a seeker. He was interested in nutrition. He might have had a serious case of alcoholism but it didn't stop him from wanting to know everything about anything in terms of health and diet and what it could be if you were really on the right track," she says. "So I was desperate – through the mediation, the therapies, the books – to find out what the answer was at all times ... "
In 1992, Judy was left gasping for the answer when tragedy struck. In January her son Clark Taylor committed suicide at his home in St Paul. He turned on the ignition of his Subaru car and poisoned himself to death with carbon monoxide. It was his third and final attempt. He was 33 and Judy's only child.
Incredibly, when Judy was 10 years old her father told her that a neighbour had committed suicide, by poisoning himself with carbon monoxide in his car; Judy was to marry the man's son, Clark's father Peter, in 1958. (They divorced in 1965.)
Do you ever really recover from the suicide of a child – your only child?
"I have dealt with this in a way that is typical of me because I am an activist. I have always been a social activist," says Judy, who in 1969 while testifying in court in support of the Chicago Seven – the radical hippies who were accused of trying to incite a riot at the Democratic National Convention – began singing Where Have All The Flowers Gone? by Pete Seeger.
"I have always been political in my points of view and done what I could, when I could, and tried to take the bull by the horns, you know, 'What can I do?' And the first thing I can do is I can stay on the planet. And then the next step – Louis and I went through this together – we started going to suicide recovery groups and reading and writing. I have written a number of books about this issue," she says, chief among them, Sanity and Grace: A Journey of Suicide, Survival and Strength.
"And that has led to another level of healing and sharing experience. I have probably six or eight during each year where I am talking to either suicide recovery groups or mental health groups.
"So that I can tell my story and then usually afterwards, I get to hear other people's stories. Just when you think you have had something terrible happen, somebody will tell you something that is inconceivable to you. 'How would I survive that?'
"Camus said it was the single philosophical question of one's life – no matter who you are or what time or what era or wherever you are," Judy says. She is referring to the French philosopher's 1942 essay The Myth of Sisyphus in which he writes: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest – whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or 12 categories – comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer [the questions of suicide]."
"I do think, in the last 20 years, a lot of things have changed about people's attitude about suicide and to get help for it," says Judy, who has a 25-year-old granddaughter, Hollis. "The level of information on suicide has dramatically changed since my son's death because there was nothing in the book stores then."
There were two books now, she adds, The Savage God by A Alvarez ("I never read it because it was too dreadful and it doesn't talk about solutions") and My Son My Son by Iris Mitchell Bolton, "which is about the death of her son. That book is very specific about what to do. It is not the dark end of a road – it is a way of shining light on this situation."
Did you get clarity looking back on what happened and why?
"I know exactly what happened," she answers.
"He was also an alcoholic. He got sober in 1984 and was sober for seven years; he went into relapse and in the relapse reverted to home base, sort of. He had tried before when he was drinking when he was younger. Some people go to it and some people don't. I mean, for some people at 14 to be in a depression and to go straight to the idea of suicide is unthinkable, and for others it would be the natural step. It is not because his father's father took his life in the same way. It is not because suicide is genetic or in the genes; I don't think so. Depression is. But I don't think suicide is.
"So, you know, with all of these things, what you do, I suppose, is try to educate yourself as much as possible – cry your eyes out, do whatever you have to do to stay in a situation where you are healthy and try to get through it."
I'm actually starting to well up and suddenly don't know quite what to say to this incredible woman. Instead, I turn to Louis and ask him how he would describe his wife. I'm waiting for him to break into song and sing 'I am yours, you are mine'. "She is a terrific person," he beams, "an amazing artist ... "
I swear I can see sweet Judy's blue eyes light up.
Grammy award-winning singer/songwriter Judy Collins – who will be inducted into the Irish American Hall of Fame later this month – performs two intimate Irish dates: at the Pavilion Theatre, Dun Laoghaire, on Tuesday June 18 and the MAC Theatre, Belfast on Thursday, October 3. Bookings: www.paviliontheatre.ie and www.themaclive.com