Judy Collins turned Leonard Cohen into a singer and had plenty of hits herself. At 78, she’s as outspoken as ever, writes Ed Power.
It’s like the Sixties never happened, laments Judy Collins. One of the most prominent protest singer of her generation, Collins did her bit to break down barriers and fight prejudice.
Now she is the citizen of a country of which Donald Trump is president.
“Yuck, yuck, yuck,” says the 78-year-old folk artist, joking — but only a little.
“I want to throw up. It’s terrible. We’re living through an awful time. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting screwed. And the healthcare system is going down the tubes.”
Collins occupies a pivotal position in popular music. As a face on the Greenwich Village folk scene, she was a contemporary of Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. She is credited with discovering Leonard Cohen — not least by Cohen himself. And she championed Joni Mitchell, plucking the Canadian from obscurity by having a hit with Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides Now’ in 1967.
She also inspired one of the greatest ever break-up songs, Crosby Stills and Nash’s ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’. The ballad was written by Stephen Stills shorty before Collins left him for actor Stacy Keach. Nearly 50 years later, it has lost none of its transcendent ache.
“It was just wonderful,” she says of ‘Judy Blue Eyes’. “I was just bowled over by the song. It’s probably in the top 10 of broken-hearted songs. It’s known as the best break-up song in the business.”
She has stayed on exceedingly cordial terms with Stills, with whom she recently recorded a duets album, ‘Everybody Knows’ (“He says the reason we are such good friends is that we married other people”).
And she was close to Leonard Cohen up to his death in November 2016. It was Collins who had
originally cajoled Cohen into becoming a singer, insisting the then obscure poet accompany her to an anti-war fundraiser in New York and perform his lament ‘Suzanne’ (which she would go on to cover).
“He’d never sung [in front of a large audience] before then,” she recalled in an interview shortly after Cohen passed away. “He got out on stage and started singing.
"Everybody was going crazy—they loved it. And he stopped about halfway through and walked off the stage. Everybody went nuts. . . . They demanded that he come back. And I demanded; I said, “I’ll go out with you.” So we went out, and we sang it. And of course, that was the beginning.”
“I was always close to him,” she says today. “He was just a wonderful man — the complete person. He was the real deal — generous, kind, grateful. He never stopped talking about how I discovered and made him famous. Most people who are songwriters, they just don’t care —they will turn around and diss you in the press. That wasn’t Leonard.”
Collins was born in Seattle, the eldest of five. Her father was a blind singer and radio host. When she was aged 10 he moved the family to Denver, where he took up a job presenting a music show.
A piano prodigy, Collins went on to study classical music with Antonia Brico – the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
But tension soon developed between student and mentor over Collins’ burgeoning interest in folk, then regarded as barely an art form. Years later, she invited Brico to see her perform.
Afterwards her old teacher sighed and said, “Little Judy – you could really have gone places.”
Collins was inevitably drawn to New York, where the Greenwich Village scene was, by the early Sixties, coalescing in earnest. She discovered the left wing folk of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger and initially found acclaim as a covers artist, re-interpreting songs by Dylan and Seeger.
She also absorbed their anti-establishment views. Collins was close to the leaders of the anti-war Yippie movement and put herself at personal risk participating in voter registration drives in the pre-Civil Rights era American South.
She remains more active than ever two years shy of her 80th birthday. Last year she performed over 140 concerts and released two albums, the Stills collaboration and a A Love Letter To Stephen Sondheim (she had a top 20 hit with ‘Send In The Clowns’ in 1975).
“I’ve also just published the tenth of my books,” she says. “It is about something a lot of people deal with: an eating disorder. I’ve also written about alcoholism and the suicide of my son.”
Her son, Clark, took his life in 1992 at age 33, after struggling with a heroin habit. His parents had divorced when he was a child and, in the throes of alcoholism, Collins had lost custody of the boy.
In her book about his death, Sanity and Grace, she revealed that she had attempted to kill herself, overdosing on aspirin at age 14. She had felt under pressure from her father to excel at school.
“I think we write about things that interest us at any age,” she says. “What I’m interested in is nature, my own process, my friends — what I’m mad about. We always start with autobiography and move from there into storytelling.”
The treatment of women in the music industry is an urgent topic at the moment. Coming up in the Sixties folk scene, Collins knows what it is to work in a male-dominated environment .
“A lot of bad behaviour has come out. I think much of it has to do with the fact our so-called president is a bully and assaulter of woman who has talked about it publicly and has not been held account.
"This whole upsurge of women coming out and telling the truth — it is not only about people who are accused like Weinstein and Charlie Rose. It’s also about the president.
“I was not dealt with in a predatory way,” she continues. “I had a couple of experiences in my childhood — men who were either fraternity brothers of my father or dentists or strangers.
“That happened… and those people are long gone. Maybe, later on, I made it clear I was never going to be pushed around or given a difficult time. I was very self- contained and unapproachable. Men and certain other people had a hard time approaching me. I had a veneer of iron-clad protection.”
Judy Collins plays at Triskel in Cork on Wednesday, January 24 and, as part of Temple Bar Tradfest, St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin on Friday, January 26.
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