I’ve been a fan of Judy Collins forever–some of her greatest hits and quirkiest songs were my anthems and her work wears well. Not so much the life recounted in her memoir. Such a creative genius, sensitive intelligence, major talent, raging alcoholic and faithless lover. She drank her way through most of the heyday of peace, love and folk music, knew everybody before they were anybody, and embraced free love–or at least overlapping serial monogamy–with the passion of a true zealot.
Early Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Stephen Stills and a roster of musical greats are woven in and out of the story of a Colorado mountain girl with a larger-than-life dad who never let blindness hold him back and never let moderation curb his drinking and destructive rages. Judy adored him and when she could, she emulated the drinking, if not the fierce temper. She admits booze ran her life but blames her own naiveté and her unconventional therapists for decades of blackout drinking and daily intoxication. She was a high-functioning drunk, able to perform and mix socially as long as she was within reach of a bottle. It’s the sad refrain of a remarkable life and a career that made her a huge star. Drinking and the gypsy life of a performer cost Collins her marriage and eventual custody of her son, even as it left us with amazing music.
The stories of how gigs got put together, meetings resulted in brilliant collaborations and hits, history happened and wrote itself into the music, are fascinating. She sang through the eras of civil rights struggles, the Kennedy assassinations, the murder of Martin Luther King, Woodstock and the Viet Nam War protests. She shared club dates and stages with Janis Joplin and knew the Baez family well, loved and left Stephen Stills before Crosby and Nash, hung out in Laurel Canyon with Joni, discovered the songs–like “Both Sides Now” and “Send in the Clowns”–that would make her albums go platinum and launch careers for a few songwriters. She wrote her own haunting music, found a lifelong voice teacher in the apartment next door to hers on the Upper West Side, tried and failed to keep her son safe from the family curse of drinking and addiction that would eventually take his life.
Sweet Judy Blue Eyes is a riff on Stills’ “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” that he wrote when Collins was leaving him for Stacy Keach. It gets a little hard to keep up with her—but the dish on the Greenwich Village coffeehouse scene, the beginnings of Elektra Records, the jam sessions that turn into memorable hits, the endless travel, the hook-ups and the break-ups are an intimate glimpse of the world behind the album covers and the footlights. I was exasperated at the excuses for the incessant high-risk drinking but it was an accurate portrait of a drinker’s life—not a pretty picture. I was happy she managed to sort it out, kick the addiction and find a committed, healthy long term relationship. The sorrow of a son lost, the friendships that survived those rocky, heady early years, the lyrical music are all in this book—with a few black and white photos for nostalgia buffs and more tour itineraries than even the staunchest fan will be able to keep track of.
Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music Judy Collins | Crown 2011