"The Past Is Part of Your Future"
Young Lovers Turned Old Friends, Judy Collins and Stephen Stills (Re)Unite for Tour

By Lee Valentine Smith

"I'll be seeing you in all the old, familiar places…"
The voice on the recording is unmistakably Judy Collins. Driving across country the morning after the first show on tour with Stephen Stills, Collins is temporally out of cell range but her short outgoing message electrifies the listener just as she has for over half a century on records and in live performance.

She quickly returns the call and her candor, charm and effusive sense of humor solidify her spot as not only one of the finest performers of the folk-rock era, but as one of the most famous muses of the '60s.

A couple of years before his career-defining role in Crosby, Stills and Nash (and sometimes Young), Stills was a busy singer-songwriter/session musician and member of Buffalo Springfield. When he was called in to play on Collins' third album in the spring of 1968, sparks flew and the two began a brief - and by all accounts intense - affair that resulted in some of his best-known songs, including "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" originally captured live at Woodstock, a mere 48 years ago this month.

Now the duo of Collins, 78 and Stills, 72 are currently on the road for an ambitious trek, promoting the September release of Everybody Knows, their first full-length record together.

It's the morning after the first show of the tour. I've purposely avoided reading any reviews or comments so I can hear about it straight from you.

We had a fantastic time! Chicago is a wonderful audience out at the Ravinia and it was just went so well, everything about it. We feel like we're already in the groove.

It seems like with the tour and album and all the buzz leading up to it, you two are all over the place. How'd this reunion come about?

We've been thinking about it for a few years. Finally, we both had openings in our schedules where we could do it. My management has really done a splendid job in coordinating the concerts, the album, the tour and the press. It's been exciting and now we're in it, so it's great.

Since your combined body of work spans decades, how did you select the set? Was it a matter of what to leave out?

I think that's probably the best answer. We've figured out what to leave out and then just do the rest. We had a number of months in rehearsal while we pulled the album together, to decide what we wanted to do. It's a work in progress but we had a pretty firm idea of what we wanted to do from the start.

Over the years a relationship changes, but in the case of public personas, it's even more layered. How has your relationship with Stephen changed over the years?

We don't fight anymore! For this I said, "I'll do anything you want - except what I don't want to do."

"Everybody Knows," the title track of the new album, is a nice tribute to your old friend Leonard Cohen and it really works as modern social commentary.

I'd started singing "Everybody Knows" a few days after Leonard's death, which was a big blow to the world but particularly to me since I've had such a close relationship with his music. I discovered it, well he discovered me in the first place. Then I'd gone on to record so many of his songs. And because of the political climate, I thought it was the perfect song. So I've been doing it after November 7 of last year. I had played it enough that I got very comfortable with it. Then Stephen and I'd been talking about what we were going to try to include if we were going to do this, or if we ever got to the point where we'd do a CD, or an album. It's out on vinyl by the way, it's so wonderful to have a vinyl record again. I sent him a version of it that I'd recorded in concert and he said, "We have to do this!" So I was very happy that he agreed. And not only do we like the recording we made, but also NPR likes it - so that's always good. And Billboard likes it; they're happy with it.

I like it too. It's a great version.

Good! And now you like it, so there ya go.

You mentioned the lyrics. If ever there was a time to revisit that song, it's now.

Yeah, I don't know. What else are ya gonna do, ask ["beleaguered" Attorney General Jeff] Sessions if he wants to come on the road with us?

Now that would be an incredible bill.

Well perhaps it would be a better use of his time.

Since we're talking about the national climate, do you think this era will inspire a great art movement as in the '60s? We're right in the middle of the 50th anniversary of the "Summer of Love" and that was an incredible time for both you and Stephen.

Of course, horrible things happen and beautiful, creative things get written. Creativity doesn't stop because of politics. Unless they shoot all the singers and the artists. They've done that. People and places have done that in the past. But before they get to us, we'll have something to say I'm sure.

Have recent world events directly influenced your own songwriting?

I'm personal in my art, which is, of course, politics because politics start at home. It starts with your attitudes, your love affairs, your personal stories. That's where it all begins. One of my new songs is about the American Indian, but it doesn't speak in broadsheet terms. You know, yesterday I discovered that Lawrence Ferlinghetti is now 98 years old! I was reading some of his poetry and thinking, "Oh my God, what a cutting edge that man had." His work was very direct. I don't know if I read much of his work when I was a kid in high school, but he's still writing and I couldn't believe he's still around. Amazing. So I'm sure I'll get more graphic as things go along here. In a way, my song "River Of Gold" which is on the new album - because Stephen liked it, which was thrilling to me - is about the world. The way we destroy our world in whatever ways.

Right, from personal to global.

Yeah! Yeah, exactly.

Looking at the tracklist, there are a lot of full circles on the new record, starting with the fact that there's an album at all.

That's true. We do see a lot of symbolism in this connection of reuniting. It's a good message that it can happen, a very positive message. You know, the past is part of your future.

How'd you guys meet? Was it at a party at [photographer] Henry Diltz' house like with everyone else in Laurel Canyon?

Stephen may think we did meet there, I don't know. But no, I'm the exception to the Henry Diltz rule. I was doing an album in California in 1968. It was eventually called Who Knows Where The Time Goes and Stephen was part of the band.

I knew he was on that album, but I thought it was because you guys were already an item.

No, he was brought into the session. He came on board with the band.

And what a band that was.

Yeah, a lot of illustrious players. Van Dyke Parks was in that band as was Jim Gordon who is still in jail for killing his mother because he was a cocaine freak and went out of his mind. Chris Etheridge, Buddy Emmonds and James Burton - and Stephen Stills. As it turned out, we had an affair and he wrote "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes."

But the affair itself was very short-lived.

But we always stayed in touch with each other. It was very surprising. I've been to his shows, we've known each other's spouses, we hang out with each other's relatives. I was always kind of mixed up with his family. His sister Hannah is a wonderful artist and she did a number of drawings for my songbook in 1969. We were always in touch in some way. Always.

That's very healthy - and so rare.

It is. For instance, I'd go down to visit him in Florida. Whenever I'd have a break-up, I'd go down and spend some time with him. But when I got sober in 1978, I was planning on going down to where he was recording. He said to me, "Don't come because you can't stay sober down here." And he was absolutely right. That's what a friend says to you. When we first started rehearsals for this record, he said to me, "You know, we should have gone straight to this instead of the romance." I said, "Yeah but then you'd never have written "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes!"

Judy Collins and Stephen Stills play August 9 at Symphony Hall. For more information, please visit atlantasymphony.org.


CLICK HERE TO View THE Digital version of the August 2017 ISSUE.


Meet Our Sponsors