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Finally, Judy Collins's Own Story.
on August 2, 2015
Although she has written other books, Judy Collins had never written a full autobiography until this book appeared in 2011. It was about time that we had a biography of Judy, who whether in Greenwich Village in the early sixties or Laurel Canyon later on, always seemed to be at the center of things during one of the most musically creative and culturally turbulent times in our history. She writes the book (and she really did write the book; there's no ghost writer) in a clear, almost conversational style, easily readable.
All autobiographies are suspect to some extent, in that you're getting what the subject wants the world to know, but this one seems open and truthful, not portraying its subject as a great heroine, but rather just the stories and details that make up any life, leaving you to decide things. What there is is a guarded sense, a point past which she does not go in explaining just what was going on in her mind at that time, but in a life as busy as hers was we can not be sure she was aware of everything herself. The book starts with her earliest years on the West Coast and then mostly in Colorado, the formative years that led her from singing at family gatherings, to singing in isolated mountain lodges and then a succession of folk clubs that brought her a growing fame and eventually a record contract with Jac Holzman's Elektra. It includes her study under Antonia Brico and her life with first husband, Peter Taylor.
After that, the book focuses on her most creative years from 1961 to the late seventies and is as much about her songs and albums as it is about the other parts of her life. This is of great interest in her case because Judy Collins was a very involved artist, always choosing her material and working with arrangers like Joshua Rifkin and producer Mark Abramson as a virtual co-producer of her albums. We see her growth and development as she goes from interpreter of traditional material to one of the foremost singers of the songs of the new generation of singer-songwriters just coming up, from Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton, to Eric Andersen, Phil Ochs, Randy Newman, Donovan and Joni Mitchell.
She knew everyone, and they all appear here. She lived a bohemian life and this was the sixties, so she had lots of relationships with the men, both long-term and brief. There was always a kind of pristine quality to her personna and demeanor, the kind where you might hesitate to offer her anything stronger than herb tea. But she had a genuinely wild side that is a surprising contrast to her image. Judy has always been known as a gracious person and she is king to everyone she writes about. Nowadays it's common for book agents to insist on gossip, dirt and scandal to create controversy to sell the book. It's to her credit that Judy skips over any dirt (and she must know a lot) and remembers the good things about old friends and acquaintances. She was disappointed when Jac Holzman sold Elektra to Warner's without telling anyone, and her relationship with Joni Mitchell was strained, but that's about as far as it goes.
There is one person she is unsparing with and that's herself. Though a professional in every way and always seeming calm and collected, she was often in a state of confusion and depression living a life that was always teetering on total chaos. That was largely because there is a villain in the story, a very long and difficult struggle with alcoholism that ruined times of her life that should have been happy and which was threatening to kill her by the mid seventies. It's hard to imagine, but as she relates, "I could not walk, talk, think or function without a quart of vodka in my system." The last part of the book deals with her final triumph over addiction, a family inheritance that took both her father and her son away.
I can not imagine any fan of Judy Collins, or even anyone interested in sixties music not finding this book interesting. Such a fascinating life at such an amazing time. I only wish she had written more.