Whenever the music landscape of the 1960s and `70s is revisited, one name invariably makes the short list of artists who made a difference.
That would be Judy Collins, the extraordinary soprano singer-songwriter (two Grammy Awards and membership in the Grammy Hall of Fame for “Both Sides Now”), classical piano prodigy, guitarist, filmmaker (nominated for an Academy Award in 1975), feminist, political activist, and author of memoirs and fiction (nine books in all).
Collins sang “Amazing Grace” and “Chelsea Morning” at Bill Clinton’s 1993 presidential inauguration, an occasion she recalls with fondness.
But there have been darker sides to her life. In 1992, her son, Clark, committed suicide at age 33. To save herself from total devastation, Collins chose to take a private “spiritual journey” in conjunction with an ongoing public campaign to foster an understanding of suicide as an illness-caused event.
In 2003, she published “Sanity & Grace,” a memoir that detailed how she survived the aftermath of her son’s death.
Her new book is “The Seven T’s: Finding Hope and Healing in the Wake of Tragedy” (Tarcher, $14.95, 192 pages). It’s an inspirational step program of healing and self-help for anyone who has lost a loved one, especially to suicide.
Back in the day, Collins knocked around clubs and played folk music for scant pay until an Elektra Records producer recognized platinum when he saw it and signed her. She recorded her first album, the groundbreaking “Maid of Constant Sorrow” (1961), in only five hours. More than 40 albums have followed.
In the earlier years of her career, however, demons lurked. She struggled with bouts of alcoholism and drug abuse, bulimia, depression, suicidal thoughts and stints in rehab centers. Those devils have since been exorcised.
In the late `60s, Collins had a highly publicized romance with musician Stephen Stills of the legendary group Crosby, Stills & Nash. Stills was inspired to write two songs about their time together, “Bluebird” (“You sit there mesmerized by the depth of her eyes ... soon she’s goin’ to fly away ...”) and the classic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (“I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are ...”).
Collins, 67, lives in New York City with her husband, Louis Nelson, who designed the mural wall portion of the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Right now Collins is continuing a U.S. concert tour that culminates in three California appearances in September. I caught up with her by phone at her apartment.
Since your son took his life, your own life has been largely dedicated to helping those in situations similar to your own.
It’s horrible with a child. Anyone who’s lost someone suddenly ... I had a friend who died of cancer recently, with very short warning. At the funeral somebody said, “At least we got to say goodbye.” But you don’t get a chance with sudden losses.
In 2003, you wrote “Sanity & Grace,” in which you shed light on the subject of suicide.
There was nothing else to do with (my son’s suicide) except to explore it and try to clarify it and pass on (information) to other people so they might get something out of it. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I started to speak at suicide-prevention groups and grief and mental-health conferences. Because of that, I put together the idea for “The Seven T’s.” I wanted to (create) a practical, hands-on (guide) and offer my own experience. Those left behind certainly don’t have a planned program of how they’re going to get through the grief. That’s what I’m trying to give a sense of (in “The Seven T’s”). We all make this up as we go along, since there aren’t any rules for this thing.
“The Seven T’s” maps a plan for moving forward from tragedy. The “T’s” are Truth, Trust, Therapy, Treasure, Treat, Thrive and Transcend. Which is the most important to you?
Transcend. I came across a Zen 365-day meditation book by (a guru) and used one of the quotations in the “Transcend” chapter. It says, “Disasters may well change us deeply, but they will pass. We must keep our deepest convictions and remember our goals. Whether we remain ash or become the phoenix is up to us.”
Your son had been clean and sober for seven years before he took his life.
His father’s father took his life in the same way. Sometimes the indicators (of suicide) are so deep and the camouflage is so clever that you wouldn’t know. Out of the 35,000 people who die by their own hands each year - and there are probably another 15,000 to 20,000 more suicides camouflaged as accidents - a huge number were alcoholics or undiagnosed depressives, probably bipolar.
I tried to take my life when I was a teenager, and when I was drinking (as an adult) I was always suicidal, always calling the doctor and saying, “Put me in the hospital, I think I’m going to do myself harm.” When you’re an alcoholic, that comes with the territory.
How have you managed to cope?
I have found other ways to treat my depression - meditation, exercise, a healthful lifestyle and therapy. Antidepressants don’t really do it for alcoholics. I haven’t taken them since I’ve been sober, but I know if I took them I’d become addicted to them. Sobriety is the only solution.
Obviously, this has been a life-altering process for you.
In my son’s departure, I certainly feel that something quite extraordinary has happened in my life. You never know where this kind of tragedy is going to take you or what kind of a gift you’re going to find because of it, as (author) Iris Bolton puts it.
Also, one of the keys to coming out in a new place is forgiveness. Forgiveness is a big, big, big topic. There’s a quote in the book that says, “To seek revenge is to dig two graves.”
You could have ended up bitter and resentful, but “The Seven T’s” is hopeful and spiritual.
I was certainly on a path, which started with music and the church and my need for and belief in a higher power and various attempts to find that. When Clark died, I already had a spiritual practice of meditation that had been very well grooved for a number of years. That was the only place I could go for healing.
You belong to Self Realization Fellowship, a nonprofit group founded on the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, who wrote “Autobiography of a Yogi.”
At meetings, we make an invocation that includes all saints and all gurus from all religions. That’s really a good bet for me because it doesn’t leave anybody out in case there’s something going on.
From the moment of my son’s death, I was surrounded by people who were willing and able to reach out and help me, and I was willing eventually to let them. Clark’s departure has led me to places I would never have dreamed of going.
You wrote and recorded a wrenching song titled “Wings of Angels” about your son. Let me quote a lyric: “You are in the falling snow / You are beauty going forth / Sun above the mountain’s peak / I would give the sun and moon / Once more just to hear you speak.”
I wrote it within the year after Clark’s death but couldn’t bring myself to record it until not too long ago.
There are hundreds of self-help books on the market that profess to help the grieving with their losses and to foster closure. Can there really be closure?
No, there can’t be closure; it doesn’t exist, what does it mean? You’re never finished. My relationship with my son goes on every moment of every day. And that is a wonderful thing.
Let’s shift to music. Your new CD, “Judy Collins Sings Lennon and McCartney,” will be out July 17, and you’ve been holding concerts since April.
It’s great to hit the road and celebrate! The tour is such a great antidote for the book and the process. I’ve got a whole bunch of concerts left, and I’ll be singing with Dar Williams and Nanci Griffith, mostly in September.
You’re one of the legends of music, but surely you paid dues in the early years.
There were times when it certainly was a burden. Everybody thought the `60s were so great, but I know how much pain there was. I was just trying to live through them. I had a marriage that broke up probably because of my career. We were so dumb we didn’t have the good sense to get some (counseling) help.
There was a lot of hard work. Those clubs where I was singing ... you’d start at 7 at night and wind up at 3 in the morning, usually half in the bag. I don’t remember where I was most of the time. I forgot some important things. So when they say, “If you remember the `60s, you weren’t there,” they’re right.
Fortunately, I wrote a lot of it down in journals, which I will be doing something with.
What difference to the world has Judy Collins made?
That’s not up to me to say. I know I’ve made a difference to my own journey in my ability to discipline myself, to get some work out and make a living - no small accomplishments. To sustain a career of almost 50 years in the field of my choice is pretty amazing to me. That’s with the help of my fans, because they’ve paid the rent and kept my work out there.
In retrospect, do you see yourself as a singer who happens to tell stories, or primarily as a storyteller working in the medium of music?
I’m a storyteller who sings. I’ve spent decades studying and working as a musician; that’s my medium. But without the stories, what’s the skill for? It may be wonderful music, but I would have evaporated without the stories.