Judy Collins' memoir Sweet Judy Blue Eyes tells the fairy tale story of a talented woman's career in the music business beginning in the early sixties when middle class women were largely raising families or otherwise standing by their man. But it also details the undertones of an adulthood spent in denial of alcoholism and depression and in living a public life posing as an invulnerable person when Collins was anything but on the inside.
In a breathy and candid style, Collins talks about her marriage at 19 and a long custody battle for her only child of that marriage, son Clark Taylor, who committed suicide in 2003. She discusses, with some regret, her need to earn money after her divorce from Clark's father which resulted in intermittent living arrangements with Clark as he was growing up. Collins' self-portrayal is one of a tenacious woman who succeeds in using her talent to both earn a living and work for the social and political change she so ardently believed in.
Judy Collins writes openly about her battle with alcoholism, her many affairs with talented men, including Stephen Stills who wrote for her the brilliant and heartfelt tribute Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. From photographs included in the book, as well as snippets of conversation from Collins' perspective, it appeared they were madly in love and perfect for each other but needed to part for the sake of their respective careers. It was also a west coast/east coast sort of dilemma. Stills living and working in Laurel Canyon and Collins wanting to remain in New York City close to the folk scene in Greenwich Village and to her son who visited from Connecticut.
When writing about her relationships, Collins used good judgement and restraint. Always a class-act. Here is what Collins wrote about the night she and Stephen Stills broke up and how he shared the song Suite: Judy Blue Eyes with her:
"It would have been enough that he could spell out the troubles in our love affair, but the song itself was so glorious, so transporting, that had it not been about me, I would have dreamed it might have been - it was a triumph of writing, of feeling, of his deep melodic gifts. I had heard a lot of songs and sung some that had become hits. I knew I was listening not only to my story but also to a song that was going to be for all times, not just for ours. It was a classic and it broke my heart."
As a reader, I was happy to be transported to the canyons of Southern California and the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the time. Many names from both coasts and beyond are dropped in the book - Dave Van Ronk, Phil Ochs, Peter Seeger and of course, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez. Collins discusses her friendship with Leonard Cohen and muses as to why they were never lovers. (I'd be wondering, too.) Collins mentions Joni Mitchell several times, once describing her at a party in west L.A. this way:
"From time to time a certain look would pass over her face as she caught the eye of someone or noticed something she didn't cotton to, but then, like the sun peeking out from the clouds, she would break into a smile or even a song."
Once, when in the company of Janis Joplin, the latter leaned over the table to Collins and said "You know, one of us is going to make it and it's not going to be me."
My only objection to Sweet Judy Blue Eyes besides the icky-goo title is...urrr...the airbrushed and exaggerated photo that was chosen for its cover. A naturally beautiful woman like Judy Collins shouldn't feel the personal or public pressure to look perfect. If one looks inside the jacket to read her story, it soon becomes obvious that the life of Judy Collins was anything but perfect.
The Judy Collins Website
My next book was going to be Truman Capote's In Cold Blood from 1966, but a very special book fairy sent me this book and so Truman will have to wait. I need to be right here, right now. :-)