Book Review: Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life In Music by Judy Collins

Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in MusicSweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music by Judy Collins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The opening notes are unmistakable. The sweet chords in E pour forth from Stephen Stills’s guitar, sounding like early morning California sunshine feels: warm and flirtatious, dancing on an ocean breeze as it kisses you awake. It has always been one of my favorite songs. It never fails to transport me to a time beyond my memory, a place that now fades into American mythology: California, late 1960’s. It is “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”, first performed by Crosby, Stills and Nash on August 18, 1969 at Yasgur’s farm, two weeks before I was born. Each time I hear this song, I feel I missed the best part of a generation.

How could I not read Judy Collins’s memoir Sweet Judy Blue Eyes? Stephen Stills vividly captured the passion and pain of their love affair in his joyful, yet plaintive epic song. Judy was his inspiration, his muse, the older woman who broke his heart.

Judy Collins’s music conjures up different images. Her voice takes me to the milky, muted greens and blues of my childhood in Oregon and on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula in the early – late 70’s. She is pop radio on rainy Saturday afternoons. She is nap time and tomato soup. Comfort tinged with melancholy.

Ms. Collins, who was 71 when she penned this memoir, does a simple and lovely job of laying out her early years as a budding folk singer, first Colorado, then Chicago, before breaking into the folk scene in New York in the early 60’s. Other reviewers accuse her of name-dropping, but how could she not? She was hanging out with and performing alongside Joan and Mimi Baez, Peter Yarrow, Bob Dylan, Marshall Brickman, the Clancy Brothers, John Phillips- and this is the very early ’60’s – ’60-’64 – years before the Summer of Love. These were small clubs in Greenwich Village, before Dylan’s plugged-in performance at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival that heralded a new era in music: folk-rock.

Judy was at the vanguard of the folk music revival, breathing new life into traditional and classic folks songs, and wrapping her rich, mellow soprano around new compositions by Joni Mitchell, the Byrds, Sandy Denny and Leonard Cohen, among many others.

She was also at the forefront of the hard living, substance-abusing lifestyle that characterized so much of the 60s, and which killed many of its brightest hopes. It was lifestyle that nearly killed Judy Collins.

Her father was an alcoholic; Judy fell victim to the disease very early in her career. She became pregnant and married her first husband, Peter Taylor, in 1958, when she was 19. The marriage lasted until 1965, just as her career began to soar and her partying turned to alcohol abuse. Her son Clark committed suicide in 1992 at the age of 33, after a terrible battle with addiction and clinical depression, conditions that Judy fought from young adulthood until she sought treatment for her addiction to alcohol in 1978.

Sweet Judy Blue Eyes tells two stories: one of a long, dynamic moment in time and one of Judy’s experiences within this era. Most of the period she covers in her memoir she spent in an increasingly thick haze of intoxication. By the time she met and fell in love with Stephen Stills in 1967, she was drinking to keep sober. Collins tells her story so brightly, in such a matter-of-fact, linear style, it’s hard to fathom the depth of her self-destruction. There were suicide attempts, deep depressions, a divorce and custody battle and countless love affairs. Yet, inexplicably – because we never really get inside Judy’s head – her star continued to rise. Starting in 1961, she recorded an album a year until 1978 (then started again in ’79). She toured constantly, until the alcohol fried her vocal chords and she had surgery in 1977.

I have to think that the smooth reserve she displays while describing two decades spent on a physical and emotional roller-coaster is because she can hardly remember much of it. It may also be that the years and the happiness she has found since meeting her now-husband have softened her and calmed her need to tell-all; she paints her comrades, lovers and business partners in the softest of colors, and does not explore her despair at failing her son.

Judy Collins’s story has the happiest of endings, despite the immense pain of her losses. She met her second husband in 1978, the day before she entered a rehabilitation facility in Pennsylvania. She has been sober and with Louis Nelson since; they married in 1996. She and Stephen remained friends, performing together on her 2010 album, Paradise. She is arguably a stronger, better singer now than she was forty years ago; only her dear friend Joan Baez can make the same claim.

I stopped several times while reading this book (which took but a weekend) to research some of the cast of characters: I read about the life of Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s long-time, angel-faced girlfriend, whom he left for Joan Baez in the mid-60s; about Joan’s ethereal sister Mimi and her charismatic husband Richard Farina; I discovered a YouTube video of Joan and Mimi performing live at Sing Sing prison in 1972 – God, they were so beautiful (Joan still is, sadly, Mimi died in 2001 of cancer); I watched an interview with Joan Baez talking about the twisted genius of Bob Dylan; I learned that Stacy Keach was once considered the preeminent American stage interpreter of Shakespeare. I knew him only as Mike Hammer!

I would give this book 3 stars for writing, for Judy’s honesty and reflection; 5 stars for reviving my interest in the artists and events of the era. I’ve a lot of catching up to do…

Time it was, and what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence, a time of confidences
Long ago, it must be, I have a photograph
Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you

So sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1968. It’s a time I will never know, but which I adore reliving through someone else’s memories.

And now I know the way I feel when listening to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” is exactly the spirit which inspired it: longing, tenderness, hope, innocence and love. All the best parts of a generation which lost so much to the worst parts: addiction, cynicism and simply growing old.

Remember what we’ve said and done and felt
About each other
Oh babe, have mercy
Don’t let the past remind us of
What we are not now
I am not dreamin’
I am yours, you are mine
You are what you are
You make it hard

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