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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Eleven from Eleven and One From Eight

Am I too late to wax enthusiastic about my favorite music of 2011? No? Good. Here goes:

First, a caveat. These are not necessarily 2011 releases. These are 2011 discoveries. But now that I’ve compiled the list, I see only one release earlier than 2011. How hip am I.

Second. What an amazing year of music (for me). It’s as if I reawakened from a long sleep.

Okay, here really goes. In no particular order, the 12 that rocked my ’11 the mostest.

The Drums Portamento (2011) Brooklyn-bred band, born about the time British New Wave took over the covers of NME, Smash Hits, and The Face. Although they were babes-in-arms during the post-punk British invasion, they channel that gloom-pop vibe with eerie accuracy. Their music takes e back to The Cure, Scritti Politti, Joy Division/New Order, Depeche Mode, Aztec Camera on a magic-carpet ride of nostalgia. Yet their sound is so clean and fresh, they may as well have (re)invented the genre. There is smart, crisp giddiness to their rhythms and the melodies are irresistible. And true to their influences, they sing of depression, unrequited love, and doom in the most addictively-danceable fashion. I adore this album.

Fleet Foxes Helplessness Blues (2011)  This takes me to a place in the 1970s that by rights I am too young to have experienced in its full-throated, drug-laced moodiness. Therein lies the magic of melody combined with memory. With CSN harmonies, Pink Floyd acid-sad lyrics, Simon and Garfunkel earnestness, Fleet Foxes still sound like they’ve created something completely new in the over saturated folk-rock genre. It’s all very soul-searching and serious, however, so if you want to get a hilarious take on a really beautiful album, seek out the review by NME.

If By Yes Salt on Sea Glass (2011)  I can’t stop listening to this. Other-worldly, classic, irresistible. Just released by avant-garde pop musicians and songwriters Petra Haden (Charlie Haden’s daughter) and Yuka Honda. It’s the full package: enchanting tunes that stick in your head, lyrics with meaning, studio engineering that’s clean but far from sterile. Brian Eno should be proud- his legacy shines through. David Byrne makes a guest appearance.

William Fitzsimmons Gold in the Shadow (2011) Although as personal and introspective as The Sparrow and the Crow, there is a sense of peace, renewal, and hope in this beautiful, spare album. Fitzsimmons’ soft voice draws you in with melodic intimacy and holds you with the lightest grasp. Psychotherapy via an acoustic guitar.

The Head and the Heart The Head and The Heart (2011) This 6-piece band came together during open mic night’s at Ballard’s (Seattle) Conor Byrne pub. They are so ridiculously good- if you aren’t aware of them, you soon will be. Their fan-base has grown organically and their tunes will hook you on the first list. Roots rock- more self-serious than the Avett Brothers, more soaring than The Decemberists- smart and sweet, pop-tinged, heartland goodness that feels very connected to the Pacific Northwest, even if several of the band members hail from beyond.

Bon Iver Bon Iver (2011) Singer-songwriter Jason Vernon recently released this uber-seductive album that crosses the line from folk into impressionism. Angelic harmonies and earthy melodies swirl above your head and slip under your skin. Strings, horns and woodwind sections are interwoven into smart electronica. The music may be esoteric, but the lyrics are not. Themes of escape, intoxication, memories of places passed through and loves passed by are sobering and beautiful.

My Morning Jacket Circuital (2011) I’m wearing a hole in this CD. It’s been my summer soundtrack. Rich and mellow, urbane and timeless. There are shades of Paul Westerberg, Beach Boys of the Pet Sounds era, Pink Floyd. And I don’t mean to suggest that Circuital is derivative, it just has these groovy classic elements.

Sigur Rós Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (2008) I looked it up. The album title translates as “with buzzing in our ears, we play endlessly” Some of my favorite running music is brought to my ears by Sigur Rós and Jónsi- something about the soaring, melodramatic, celestial harmonics with Super Trooper beats and words I cannot understands lets me transcend the tedium of pavement pounding and enter into Endorphin Land.

Pickwick Myths (2011) EP. Best.New.Seattle.Band.  Defying genre and definition, there’s nothing else out there like this sound. It’s soul, it’s retro, it’s cerebral pop. It takes me back to the smart and clever Brit soul revival of the 80s, but no electronic theatrics to muddy the pure aesthetic. This grooves and moves.

Portugal. The Man In The Mountain In the Cloud (2011) Remember AOR- Album-Oriented Rock? When a collection of songs on vinyl sounded like they were written and recorded to fit together as a concept. The 70s are dead. Long live the 70s. There is something so fabulously Bowie, Supertramp, Queen, Pink Floyd about this band, this album. So American, Head is a Flame, You Carried Us, Share With Me The Sun- oh hell, the whole thing rocks. This is one that with every listen I hear something new.

Ryan Adams Ashes and Fire (2011) Fame and illness have mellowed Ryan Adams. He can’t claim struggling, independent, lonely guy musician angst any longer (didn’t he marry Mandy Moore recently?), but here he doesn’t even try. Whatever scheme he had for rockstar god status he’s let fall by the wayside and happily so. This is a warmly-produced, mature, sombre album. Adams’s vocals shine through, there are ballads a-plenty, but it sounds like he’s writing and performing for his own soul. I love it, though I’ll return to Demolition when I need a little Adams as punk-roots rocker.

Feist Metals (2011) This is absent of the pop hooks found in The Reminder. It’s far more ethereal and spiritual- more distant, yet more touching. There’s not a song on here that I didn’t immediately like and many that I’m now growing to love, particularly The Circle Married the Line, Get It Wrong, Get It Right, and The Bad In Each Other.

Can I Keep the Music?

It drives Brendan batty when I forget to turn off the car radio (yes, radio. We’re working with the shabby-chic theme by keeping the original “sound system” in our 2001 Toyota Corolla). And since I’m a big fan of the upper end of the volume dial, cranking the ignition generally means getting a blast of All Things Considered or Shabazz Palaces (if it’s gonna radio, it’s gotta be public. Commercial radio ranks near the top of things that send pointed, ruby-red fingernails screeching down my internal blackboard).

Yesterday I did it to myself. After laps at the pool and a decaf Americano at El Diablo, I tucked myself into our grey, dented chariot and revved her up. Out of the plastic speakers came roaring The Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel’s Messiah. I did what any sensible person would do faced with the dozens of soaring voices of the Robert Shaw Chorale. I turned the volume higher and added my own uncertain soprano to the mix.

The Messiah, written by Baroque composer George Frideric Handel in 1741, is one of the Christmas season’s most iconic works. It was originally intended as an Easter composition, celebrating the birth, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It didn’t become a popular Yuletide tradition until well into the 19th century, but now it swells and soars in cathedrals, concert halls and car radios during November and December, as sure a sign of Christmas as the flocks of poinsettia that congregate at Fred Meyer as soon as the Halloween candy is taken away. And I never tire of it.

I adore sacred Christmas music, particularly medieval and Renaissance English, French and German carols in a minor key: O Holy Night, Silent Night, O Come O Come Emmanuel, What Child Is This, Coventry Carol, Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabella, the Wexford Carol…They hint of mystery and magic, of cold winter nights when the sky bursts with bright stars or the air is hushed by falling snow. This music framed my childhood memories of Christmas and is the foundation of the joy and wonder for the season that I hope I never outgrow.

The irony of my adoration of sacred music is that I do not believe the mythology which inspired the compositions. I’m one hundred percent on board that Jesus of Nazareth was a real man, a great teacher and humanitarian, and that he was a martyr to his faith. But it stops there for me. I have no use for religion of any kind. From my upbringing, which included stops in Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, non-denominational Evangelical, Protestant this-that-and-every-which-way churches, I turn full circle to the unhindered state in which I was born. With that slate wiped clean, I willingly admit the presence of a higher power- God, if you will, since we’re speaking English and of the Western World. I’m not an atheist nor an agnostic; to put it simply, I don’t believe in a Messiah. I believe the North Star of my moral compass is a force which surpasses all understanding, but that this force has not, nor will it ever, take human form.

So, this could be a tricky time of the year. It is Christmas after all; how does a non-Christian celebrate a holiday honoring the birth of Christ? Of course, the holiday season is more than just the 25th of December (a date aligned with pre-Christian seasonal traditions, not the birthdate of Jesus). It is a season that transcends religion, that embraces and celebrates the universality of nature and humankind.

This time of year is powerful. I have come to regard winter as that most peaceful and private of seasons, when I find myself listening the most closely to the silence within and without. It is a season of renewal, of the longest night that heralds the beginning of growing light and life. No matter the nature of one’s faith, we come together at the holidays to celebrate family, tradition, compassion and peace. We bring light to dark nights through our music, our dinner tables, our rituals and our hearts- which seem to open a little wider before we set shoulder to the grindstone on January 2.

This is what I celebrate. I celebrate the nature of faith that is most deeply present this time of year: faith in tradition, faith in the promise of a new year, faith that hope is greater than anger, that peace will overcome conflict. That music is one of the most potent expressions of emotion makes sacred holiday music a powerful blend of tradition, hope and divinity. I’ll turn up the volume on any of these any chance I get.

Sweet Solstice, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to All!