Albert Grossman, who had put together Peter, Paul and Mary as a folk-singing trio, once suggested to Judy Collins that she become part of a trio, too. She would sing with two other women, Judy Henske and Jo Mapes. "We can call you the Brown-Eyed Girls," he said.
The problem with that idea is apparent both on the cover and in the title of Collins's lilting new memoir of a great musical career, five decades old and still going strong: Collins has the most transfixing, otherworldly blue high-beams ever seen above an acoustic guitar. She has eyes so blue that her onetime lover, Stephen Stills, once put them in a song title. Some combination of her eyes and voice once prompted Richard Farina, the poet, songwriter, and hell-raiser who was her great friend, to write about her with the words "If amethysts could sing ..." Anybody who has ever heard Collins -- and it's hard to imagine anyone who has not -- knows exactly what he meant.
As she writes in Sweet Judy Blue Eyes (a play on Stills' "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," which became a hit for Crosby, Stills and Nash), Collins decided against wearing brown contact lenses and singing with two partners. She had a strong sense of her own identity, even during the troubled and tumultuous times that her book describes.
Although Collins has written other books about aspects of her life (among them creativity, dedication to art, and a family struggle with addiction), this one is the omnibus, with the big story and the boldface names. It is written graciously and poignantly, with a big blue eye toward posterity. "My life has taken me from innocence to rage and back again," she writes. "Those precious early years seem oddly clearer to me now, at 70. The people I knew and loved and the drama of that diamond-bright time move closer as they slip farther away."
Cue the music in your head, especially if you found any guilty pleasure in Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us, a 2008 book about Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon. Collins writes of her early years in Colorado with a blind father who had a Denver radio show (the song "My Father" comes to mind) and then her late teens in the mountains, running a rustic lodge with her first husband, Peter Taylor, and occasionally seeing a cowboy or two. (Think of the lovestruck familiarity with which she sings "Someday Soon.")
It was her husband, she says, who suggested that she try for a singing career, even though that would take her far from home and from their young son, Clark. Long years on the folk-singing circuit would eventually cost her custody of Clark after a bitter custody fight. Collins progressed from Denver to Chicago, where she saw the singer Bob Gibson and his banjo "charm the birds out of the trees" and took his advice to lighten up. Josh White, with whom she also performed in the late 1950s, had words of wisdom when Collins worried about an incipient drinking problem: "The travel will probably kill you before the whiskey does!"
Collins is a contemporary of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, and other folk luminaries of the time. That means her book can take its place among others about the early 1960s in New York, from David Hajdu's Positively 4th Street to Dylan's Chronicles: Volume One. (That time and place will attract even more interest if the Coen brothers make a film about it, as they are said to be doing.) As Sweet Judy Blue Eyes indicates, being soused did not keep her from being a reasonably keen observer of her contemporaries, even if she describes one of her love affairs as having lasted one night, two weeks, or a month -- in retrospect, she finds it hard to tell. Her involvements with women, she says, "did confirm that I was really attracted to men."
Collins enjoyed the rare status of somebody who could get a song played on the radio in those days. So she became a magnet for writers, and she describes her relationships with many of them, from Joni Mitchell (chilly -- and cue "Both Sides Now") to Leonard Cohen ("Suzanne" and so many others). "I have always been grateful that I did not fall in love with Leonard in the way that I fell in love with his songs," she writes. "I could have, certainly."
This book also describes Collins' wildly counterproductive experience with Sullivanian therapy, and how it contributed to the lyrics to "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes," a song about a standoff that only she and Stills understand; her struggles toward sobriety; the death of Clark, who had his own addiction problems, and her enduring marriage to Louis Nelson, who she married in 1978 and has been a mainstay in her life ever since. Along the way, there are the Oscar-nominated documentary, Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman, that she produced about her music teacher, Antonia Brico; her testimony at the trial of the Chicago Seven (she began to sing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?", and the judge ordered her gagged, with an actual hand over her mouth); and her painful break with Elektra Records after a long and successful run there. Collins is not shy about opposing injustices. And Elektra's treatment of her, she says, was one.
Although much of the book's attention is devoted to music, Collins also finds time to describe an eating disorder that led her to weigh herself -- frequently -- both with and without her earrings on. And the list of those she thanks at the end of the book includes Coco Chanel. Collins has developed a ravishing visual identity to rival her aural one over those 50-odd years. Who knows where the time went? And who knows what Coco Chanel has to do with it?
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