Judy Collins is a true renaissance woman. She paints, she is a published author of five books—so far—she has always been a political activist, and of course she is best known as the singer/songwriter with the lyrics of a poetess. She was 21, right here in Boulder where she first performed at a local hang out, Michael’s Pub.
She’s also very funny and quick-witted. This writer has been a big fan of her lilting, crystalline voice over the years. After all, her melodic folk songs have chronicled the past five decades. Her music comes from a deep place and as much as it has been a balm to the rest of the world it has been a saving grace for Ms. Collins herself. She has shown her vulnerabilities and processed her own inner devils through her music and her writing; one can follow her interesting life through her lyrics, and a sense of wisdom and peace within emanates from her.
We all start life with roughly the same set of tools to shape our futures; some of us face more challenges than others along the way. Collins has been through hell and perhaps at some point she heard Winston Churchill’s words: “If you are going through hell, keep going,” because… she did. Though she is happy and healthy now, there was depression, alcohol addiction, and divorce. There was a six-month recuperation from tuberculoses in a sanitarium, just after a debut in Carnegie Hall (1962). And there was the suicide of her only son, Clark (also an addict) in 1992. She was reeling on a rickety and frightening roller coaster. Though the pain of a suicide never goes away, Collins faced the demons, triumphed and even flourished. Who knows if she would be the same sparkling soul without the hardship, which seems to have polished off the rough to expose a gem; she exudes a bit of “That’s all you got?”
The majority of Ms. Collins’ fans are aging hippies and baby boomers. Haven’t most of us taken stock of our lives, looking back at what we wanted and where we are now. Looking at Both Sides Now? Judy Collins can be proud of weathering difficult times then, and like the phoenix (after a fashion) she has lifted above it and made it out the other side with grace and aplomb.
Collins often tells interviewers that she feeds her inner self through exercising, meditating, journaling (which she has done all her life), and writing her memoirs. She also says that she loves what she does, that this is fundamental for her. She loves the travel, her husband, and her three cats, Rachmaninoff, Coco Chanel, and Tom Wolfe.
“Rachmaninoff” is not a surprise; Ms. Collins made her musical debut as a concert pianist when she was just 13 with Mozart’s Concerto for Two Pianos. She loves opera—Faust, Carmine—she adores The Met, and she even knows about the ‘new’ three tenors, IL Volo! (Very impressed here.)
Much of her career and accomplishments can be found in the many, many interviews about Collins online. Here are a few of the simple things about her.
Ms. Collins has been married to Louis Nelson for 33 years. That in itself is an accomplishment. Louis says what he loves most about his wife is that “She is still curious and fun and childlike.” Leonard Cohen and Jimmy Webb (who wrote Glen Campbell’s songs for him) are among those she would count as the songwriters of our time, and if she could see anyone perform tonight, it would be Chris Brown, or maybe Adele. Paul McCartney performed at The Grammy’s this year; Collins wasn’t terribly impressed. And about Whitney Houston’s death, Collins sadly mused, “Another addict bites the dust—another sad casualty of the music industry.”
She has beautiful white hair (Louis, too, in fact), which she wore up during her performance last week, that she says takes too much work to maintain because she gets lowlights and highlights. On stage she wore all black: leggings, a sequined tank, black jacket, black boots. Ms. Collins is as lovely as ever. Those famous blue eyes are indeed piercingly luminous, and of a color that really has no name of its own.
She grew up in Colorado and still thinks of it as home, at least spiritually. The altitude doesn’t affect her voice. She thinks Obama is perhaps a little soft around the edges, that President Clinton sent her a note of congratulations on her most recent book, and that the three most critical issues facing us today are civil rights, protecting the unions, and health care. That women must have a voice and rights to control their own bodies (Go girl!) A good spy novel is always on her nightstand, even on the 80-100 touring performances she gives every year. She also journals every day, and says that everyone should.
Ms. Collins figures her career is only about half over, and her performance last week was that of a promethean troubadour and consummate entertainer. She weaves an intriguing dialog—memories, anecdotes about her contemporaries (Joan Baez, Woody Guthrie, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman,etc.), and commentary on the political mood of America.
Collins is still pouring out creativity with a new album release, “Bohemian,” last year, a NY Times bestselling collaborative rendition of “Over the Rainbow” for children, working on a Broadway play or two, and many other projects.
Yes, there were a few breaks in her voice. She’s over 70. Most singers start squeaking more than trilling at much younger ages. Any breaks heard in her voice in fact added to the pleasure of hearing her perform.
She had a way of touching her hair when she was speaking that was especially endearing. The audience, a very full house at beautiful Boulder Theatre, appeared completely transported as she sang the songs we all remember like “Send in The Clowns,” “Amazing Grace,” and of course “Both Sides Now.” Newly written material gave hints of her mother’s passing and the children for whom she writes (she sang a special song to her niece in the second row). Songs that spoke of her perspectives on the changes all of us experience and her life, as it is now.
This writer is newly enamored with Judy Collins; she is the stuff of legend.