I was having dinner some nights ago at a little Italian joint in Culver City. Got up to hit the men’s room, but it was occupied, so I stood in a rather dank hallway to wait. Suddenly, a side door from the restaurant flew open and a fairy appeared, clad in semi-diaphanous robin’s-egg-blue gown, gorgeous white hair swirled up like confectioner’s art. Two steps, and the fairy disappeared, having either walked right through a wall or into the ladies’ room, I wasn’t sure which.
It was then that I realized that it wasn’t a fairy. It was Judy Collins. Not that there is really much difference, for all intents and purposes.
So it was an odd bit of fateful foreshadowing, as it turns out, because a week later the vision reappeared in front of me--on stage at the Valley Performing Arts Center in decidedly earthly Northridge, doing what she has done since age three: singing. Lavender skirt, sparkly white blouse, red sequined jacket, cumulus cloud of white hair. And a voice a fairy would envy.
Actually, the voice appeared first, there in the darkened auditorium, a cappella, hauntingly intoning a few lines from “I’ll Be Home For Christmas.” The same song she sang, she later told the audience, when she debuted on stage as a child. “Of course, it was April,” she said, to laughter.
And so did the great Judy Collins--sorry, Ms. Collins, you now are saddled with that honorific--begin a two-hour solo concert/bio narrative, beneath a Christmas candelabra of poinsettia and pine, last Friday night. She began with a rousing, sunny “Chelsea Morning” (Joni Mitchell), touched on Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Livingston-Evans, Stephen Stills, Irish folk, Jacques Brel, and a couple of her own songs along the way, finishing with a neatly understated reading of Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns” (which she must be tired of singing by now.)
Collins’ life would be rejected as a novel. Her adored father was blind; she came down with polio at eleven and spent six months in isolation; she was groomed to be a child prodigy classical pianist; she bravely rejected Rachmaninov in favor of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
“It was hard to explain to my piano teacher that I was going to sing ‘Jimmy Crack Corn’,” she told the audience, in what has become a famous anecdote. “And my teacher later sighed, ‘Oh, little Judy, you could have gone somewhere. . .’”
Where she went, in the early ‘60s, was Greenwich Village, where she became part of the folk revival and the who’s-who of now-legendary names (she sat outside a basement door one night and listened to Dylan write “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which she lovingly sang in Northridge to great effect.) She made her big-time debut at Carnegie Hall in 1962, promptly contracted tuberculosis and spent six months in a hospital, became heavily involved in the protest movements of the ‘60s, drank with Janis Joplin, dropped with Michelle Phillips, became the namesake of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Somehow, she also managed to be a champion alcoholic (“In my family, they said if you couldn’t drink, you probably couldn’t read”) rehabbed out of it in 1978, survived the unimaginable horror of losing her only son to suicide, wrote autobiographies, released a new album, Bohemian (with three very fine self-penned songs, on her own Wildflower label) last year. . .
And at a trim, toned, petite age 73(!), she performs about a hundred concerts a year. Her iconographic silvery soprano still sails out powerfully, even thrillingly.
“I went through all of it, the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll,” she told the full house, remembering that she wanted to use this well-worn phrase as the title of one of her autobiographies, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes. “My publisher said, ‘people don’t really think of you that way.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you read the book?’”
The facts, debauched and otherwise, of this fabulous, tumultuous, tragic, triumphant life really become so much back-story when she performs, aside from narrative value. What you are seeing is an artist and trouper at work, skills strong, burnished, substantial, surprising. Oddly, when she la-la’d a line from the Rachmaninov piano concerto No. 2 (I think), it was so arresting that you almost wished she’d have just kept going, and you couldn’t help but wonder what sort of pianist she might have been...
The evening came in two sets, the first with Collins strumming acoustic guitar and accompanist/musical director Russell Walden at piano (and some vocals), the second with Collins-in-black at the piano. She drifted in and out of snippets of songs as she told her story, here a bit of “My Funny Valentine,” there a touch of “This Land is Your Land” and “Moon River.” There was a nice John Denver medley of “Leaving on Jet Plane / Country Roads / Leaving on a Jet Plane,” a singalong of “Silver Bells,” and an a cappella rendition of “Danny Boy” that somehow made this impossibly sad old song impossibly sad all over again. (Credit: Irishness.) There were two Jacques Brel art-songs, “The Desperate Ones” (on her Bohemian album) “Sons Of,” Stills’ “Helplessly Hoping,” Cohen’s classic, “Susanne,” but for this listener’s interest, the highlights were her own songs: the epic, “The Blizzard of Colorado,” and, notably the new “Big Sur” from Bohemian, a transcendant, poignant rhapsody: I know this stretch of road, I’ve been here often / The ocean rolls as far as you can see / The rocky coast is misty in the sunlight / The seagulls flying low are flying free / An the waves are like my memories and desires / Spreading out to carry me along / and I remember everything that mattered / The times when I was weak instead of strong...
It became apparent, as the evening of journeyman, or journeywoman, performance drew on, that Collins’ still-glorious vocal instrument has been a great gift to her, one that has carried her along through a great deal in life, and that, at least for two hours in Northridge, was a gift to an appreciative audience. A Christmas gift.