NY1’s Budd Mishkin continues his series, “One On 1,” with a profile of a musician who has been singing her whole life, and isn't stopping now; Judy Collins.
It's been almost 40 years since Judy Collins first sang, "Who knows where the time goes?" Who knows, indeed. But that voice hasn't gone anywhere.
"I think about the lyrics, and I think about the clarity of the lyrics and what that means,” she says. “And of course there's a lot of luck involved, too, because you have to stay healthy."
When Collins performs in concert, as she did recently at the Beacon Theater, she knows that her fans will accept and even eagerly anticipate new material. But the emotional attachment is still to the old songs.
So are the old songs ever a burden?
“Well, think about ÎDanny Boy’ - is that ever a burden? Never,” Collins says. “I get excited by new material and I want to sing it, but I also want to bring the timelessness of the other songs in as well. So there's always a mixture."
Collins' latest album, "Portrait of an American Girl," is representative of her career in that it contains a wide variety of styles. And yet, when she is categorized, and her performances advertised, Collins will often hear the same description - "60's folk legend."
“I used to resent it, but I don't anymore because I think Îfolk singer’ says something,” she says. “Maybe they can eliminate the Î60's.’ I think Îsinger’ would be a preferable moniker, but you can't fight it.”
Collins came to New York in the early 60’s, and quickly became part of a thriving folk rock scene in Greenwich Village.
“Everybody was there,” she says. “[Bob] Dylan was singing there in the same club I was, Dave Van Ronk was over at the Gaslight, Joni Mitchell was singing down the street somewhere.”
Collins was known as an artist who would champion the songs of her friends who were then unknown songwriters. People like Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen, who encouraged Collins to write her own songs.
"If they could do their own thing, in a voice that was theirs, I must have a voice that I could reach to that would be unique and that would be my own,” she says. “ÎSince You've Asked’ was my first song. I was very lucky; first song, 40 minutes - I mean, then of course you don't realize how hard it's going to get. They fool you. They get you into this, they seduce you into this business of thinking it might be easy. It's not easy.”
Collins is best known for songs like "Both Sides Now," which won a Grammy in 1968 and helped land her on the cover of Life Magazine a year later, and "Send In the Clowns,” which brought a second Grammy in 1975.
But she's also known for a song written to her and about her. A relationship with Stephen Stills of the group Crosby, Stills and Nash in the late 60’s inspired Stills to write one of the most popular songs of the rock era, "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.”
"We had a very intense love affair, and the song was intended to get me back," she says. “Things were kind of disintegrating between us, and he came to a hotel in Los Angeles where I was staying and he sang me that song, and I cried. I mean, wouldn't you? It’s a gorgeous song. But, yes, when I walk into a grocery store and hear ÎSuite: Judy Blue Eyes,’ it does give me a start.”
It was a long journey for Judy Collins from Seattle, Washington to Washington D.C., where in 1993 she performed for a new friend, a big fan, who was about to take a new job; Bill Clinton.
"I of course was thrilled, always, to be invited to the White House, and it was something to have eight years of being able to kind of go in and out that door," she says.
Pictures with the Clintons and letters from the White House are but some of the mementoes in the apartment Collins shares with her husband Louis Nelson, rooms filled with happy memories.
But personal sadness has long walked hand-in-hand with professional success for Judy Collins. Her father was an alcoholic, and she too struggled with alcohol and depression. She would eventually check herself in for alcohol rehab in 1977.
Her first marriage in the early 60’s fell apart soon after the birth of her son Clark. And then, as her career was flowering, Collins was involved in a four-year custody battle, which she lost.
"It was just terribly hard,” she says. "When people say, ÎDon't you wish for the 60's?’ No, I don't, because I would never want to go through that again."
But perhaps the most serious issue Collins faced at various stages of her life is suicide, a struggle detailed in her book "Sanity and Grace." She attempted suicide as a teenager.
Her son Clark, who eventually came to live with Collins, struggled for years with drug and alcohol problems. He eventually went into rehab, got married and had a daughter. Collins called it a time of "joy and celebration."
But in 1992, at the age of 33, Clark Taylor suffered a relapse, and committed suicide.
"Being a survivor of suicide brings a different journey, a hard journey,” Collins says. “I'm not trying to compare, but there are things about suicide that are tougher than other sorts of situations because they affect the entire mode of continuing, because of the taboo."
Understandably, the idea of continuing in the aftermath of her son's suicide was almost impossible. But friends and family encouraged Collins to keep singing.
She eventually got to the point where she began to explore the issue of suicide and write about it, even asking herself why she hadn't talked with her son about her own suicide attempt, as she puts it, her own "journey to the edge of the night."
“I think the secrecy that is surrounded with suicide is something that I was affected by, even though I might not have known it, even though I was not uncomfortable talking about it,” she says. “But I don't think I saw its relevance in the life of a child of mine. It is a fact that Clark is really a part of our lives. I mean, he's here, we talk about him. He's very present."
Collins' musical career has spanned four decades. It's ironic that, as she was struggling with her own personal travails, her fans would often tell her of how her music helped them get through theirs.
"That I have so much in my life that is positive and powerful, and to have people say, ÎYou've helped me through something,’ you know, what they don't see perhaps is that the first person that gets helped by the artist's work is the artist him or herself," she says.
Judy Collins is 65 now, with long grey hair, and still those blue eyes. She was in her 20’s when she first sang "who knows where the time goes?" Yes, who knows indeed.
But through all of the success and sorrow, the one constant for her has been the music.
"Music allows us to connect in the truly meaningful ways that we need to,” she says. “And we do it in other kind of ways, we do it with other kinds of art, but music is really the direct line to the heart, and it's hard to get much better than that.”
- Budd Mishkin