The legendary singer-songwriter discusses her latest projects and upcoming tour with longtime friend Stephen Stills.
Legendary Folk Singer and Author Judy Collins
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Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley. Tonight a conversation with Judy Collins. She is no doubt one of the reigning legends of folk music. Over her illustrious career, she’s recorded more than 50 albums. She joins us to talk about her latest project, a love letter to Stephen Sondheim, her very personal memoir “Cravings,” and her upcoming tour with long-time friend Stephen Stills. We’re glad you joined us. A conversation with Judy Collins in just a moment.
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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.
Smiley: So pleased to welcome Judy Collins back to this program. The Grammy-winning singer/songwriter, she is one of the most prolific folk artist in all of music history. Next week she begins her cross-country tour with longtime friend Stephen Stills. Ms. Collins, an honor to have you back on this set.
Judy Collins: Thank you. I’m so pleased to be here. I watch you from my home all the time.
Smiley: Well, I wanted to have you back here again.
Collins: Glad to be here.
Smiley: I thought about you a few months ago when I saw the news of the passing of Leonard Cohen.
Collins: Yeah. We had a 50-year friendship, personal, and musical, and professional. And it’s a terrible loss.
Collins: Terrible loss. You know, he came to see me in 1966, to play me. He said, “I can’t sing, and I can’t play the guitar, and I don’t know if this is a song,” and then he sang me “Suzanne takes you down to her place by the river.” And that was it.
Collins: That was it.
Smiley: How would you describe his gift? I’m laughing at his commenting “I don’t do this, I don’t.” What he did, he did remarkably well.
Collins: He did remarkably well.
Smiley: How would you describe his gift?
Collins: Well, he was a genius, and a monk.
Collins: A combination of which is unbeatable, I guess.
Smiley: Yeah, yeah.
Collins: And he never stopped writing great things. When I’m going out with Stephen Stills on this tour, we start in Chicago next week, and one of the songs we’re singing is a song of Leonard’s called, “Everybody Knows.” And of course it’s perfect for the political time.
Collins: That we’re in. He never stopped. Of course, he had intention of stopping. He didn’t want to really continue to–
Collins: –to go out. And lived a — he pretty much stayed up on the mountain, Mount Baldy, outside of Los Angeles, meditating with his guru, his rochie. And then he lost all his money because his business manager ran off with it in one way or the other. It was gone. And so he had to go back out. And of course, that’s when suddenly the world knew that they’d finally gotten the chance to go and see Leonard Cohen.
Collins: He was amazing. And by the way, not just a great artist. But a generous artist, somebody who was a friend of mine in every way. He introduced me to all his best girlfriends that are still — the ones that are still on the planet or still good girlfriends.
Smiley: Yeah. Yeah.
Collins: That’s a sign of a true friend, you know.
Collins: And I pushed him onto stage. He didn’t want to sing, of course.
Collins: And I was doing a big concert at some place in New York, and I put him on stage. I said, “you have to sing in public because people now know your songs, since I’ve recorded them.”
Collins: “But they want to hear you sing “Suzanne.”
Collins: And he said, “no, I can’t do that. I can’t.” And he sang, and wonderfully. And from then on, he sang in public.
Smiley: The rest is history.
Smiley: You mention that song, “Everybody Knows.”
Smiley: That you and Stephen Stills will be singing on tour together. I’m going to come back to the tour a little bit later in this conversation.
Smiley: With you and Stephen starting in Chicago, as you mentioned, next week, but you used that phrase “perfect song in these political times.” So I’m going to ask this question, you finish the sentence. So, everybody knows what?
Collins: [Sighs] The war is over. And the good guys lost.
Collins: And the fight is fixed, and the poor stay poor, and the rich get rich. Those are the lyrics.
Collins: That is the truth.
Collins: Leonard always told the truth, and you know, he was also the smartest man I ever knew, because he was smart enough to die the morning of the election. [laughs] I said, “that’s my guy.” That’s my guy.
Smiley: He was like, I can’t take it now. I’m out of here.”
Collins: “I’m gone.” And left us, of course, left us with his last album, which is called “You Want it Darker.”
Smiley: Oo, yeah.
Collins: He was a wise, deep soul.
Smiley: Yeah. You are good friends with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
Collins: I certainly have–
Smiley: Their daughter Chelsea is named–
Collins: Named after–
Smiley: Do you want to tell this story?
Collins: Well, I was told by the Clinton’s when I first met them in 1991, when he was actually still Governor of Arkansas, and they came to see me. And he said, “you know, we named our daughter Chelsea after your version of “Chelsea Morning.”” Of course, I always think that when they see Joanie Mitchell, they tell her the same thing. [laughs] Because, you know.
Smiley: Because they’re the Clintons.
Collins: They’re diplomats.
Smiley: No, they’re funny. Yeah, yeah. They’re diplomats. Exactly. [laughs] That’s funny. So, just very quickly, since I know you were so vocal in your support of Hillary during the campaign.
Smiley: And since you just referenced the song “Everybody Knows,” how are you processing these first six months?
Collins: Oh, God.
Collins: Yeah. One astonishing violation of the rule of law, the way we normally live, the ideas that we hold close, after the other. I mean, every day it’s a violation of one of those things I thought was — some rule that I thought was never going to get broken–
Collins: –certainly in high office. You don’t know what to expect. I think it — take a deep breath, and roll with it, and hope to God that the people who know what they’re doing do what they know how to do.
Smiley: Mm. I’ll leave it right there, then. And switch gears to the music. This project, “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim,” was seen, of course, here on PBS, and I’m told by the folk at PBS that it did remarkably well. Tell me about this project.
Collins: I discovered Stephen Sondheim — actually I didn’t know who he was in 1973, and I thought I would have to learn to dance, then, because Donna Summer was marching up the charts–
Smiley: Yeah. Yeah.
Collins: –you know, in her little skirt and her heels. And that was a time when I mentioned that Leonard had introduced me to a couple of his good friends. And his friend, Nancy Bacall, called me. This was, I don’t know, five or six, seven years after I’d met Leonard, and she said, “I’m going to bring you a vinyl, an album of Little Knight–”
Smiley: What’s that?
Collins: Oh, yeah. [laughs] Old — you know, we’re putting out a vinyl of our new album–
Smiley: You should, because everybody — you know, it’s retro. Everybody does it.
Collins: Yeah, everybody’s doing it now.
Collins: This is the hot thing, to have a vinyl record–
Collins: –where you can read things, and see a picture, and learn who’s on the CD, on the vinyl.
Collins: So, she brought me this, and she said, “now I want you to play this song.” And I put the needle on the cut, and I played “Send in the Clowns.” And that was — I have letters from him saying “thanks so much for my first top 10 record, single.” And then for about, well, for 25 years I’ve wanted to make this–
Collins: –album, this TV special. And finally, PBS, I love PBS. Thank you, God, for PBS. And for you on PBS. And to all of us. And they gave me the green light, and they said, “okay, it’s time.” And so I recorded it in Colorado with an orchestra, and it was on this spring. And I hope continues to be on PBS.
Smiley: Oh, trust me, you’re now doing a PBS.
Smiley: They’ll be running it, and running it, and running it. [laughs] And pledging it, and pledging it, and pledging it.
Collins: That’s good. That’s good. The more money PBS makes, the happier I am.
Smiley: Yeah, that makes two of us.
Smiley: That makes two of us. Well, it’s a wonderful project, and I’m glad you did it.
Collins: Thank you.
Smiley: You sounded as lovely as ever.
Collins: Thank you.
Smiley: The most recent project, though, that I’m anxious to talk to you about is this new book, “Cravings: How I Conquered Food.” I guess, because I’ve known you over the years, and you’ve been on the program a number of times, I knew a bit about your past, and the drinking and the food and all that. We’ve talked a bit about that, I think, in our previous conversations. But I didn’t know the extent to which you struggled, until I got a chance to get into this text. Tell me about your struggles with food.
Collins: Well, they say sugar is the gateway drug.
Smiley: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Collins: And of course, I had a sugar addiction from the time I was very young, as most of us, many of us do.
Collins: And it developed into an eating disorder. You know, it was a dance with alcoholism. I mean, they work well together.
Collins: I must say. [laughs] One helps the other out, I guess. So for decades, I was back and forth, going on various diets, trying to get things together, trying to find out how crazy I was or if I should be locked up, or how I could handle this. This is how these things go. These are mental illnesses, by the way. They’re not just moral weaknesses. They’re really issues that drive you a little crazy.
Collins: And so, over the years, finally, I got sober 39 years ago, now, which I can’t believe. Thank you, God. And then I was able to really deal with the food issue. And over the years, I found a solution, which I write about in this book.
Collins: It’s very simple. And you know, this diet business in this country is about a $38 billion business.
Smiley: And growing.
Collins: And growing.
Collins: And people are always trying. They go — and I’ve been on all these diets, you know, whether it’s Atkins or anybody else.
Smiley: I’m going to cut in — let me cut in quick. What I loved about the book, every diet you’ve ever done, you actually write about in the book.
Collins: Yes, I do.
Smiley: You tell a story about it. It’s just fascinating.
Collins: I do. And I also do little biographies of the diet gurus, starting with, of course, Atkins, and Jean Nidetch, who started Weight Watchers.
Collins: You know, I called her up. When I was writing the book, I called her up in Florida. I found her down there.
Collins: She’s in a home, was before she died. She sounded like she was like 17 years old. “Hi, how are you? Nice to talk to you. Oh, yes, I’m a fan,” she said. And I said, “well, I’m a fan of you, and I want to know how you knew that you had to have a group.” Because she started in 1961. She said, “well, I was a fat woman with a fat husband and fat friends. And I thought we should all get together and talk about it, and work it through.”
Collins: So, I wrote about a lot of diet gurus, and my basic message is, and you do get to the solution here after you go through all the chapters about my life, and about these diet gurus who are fascinating. I even wrote about Tarnower. Remember Tarnower, who was shot by his girlfriend?
Collins: I guess his mistress. I don’t know what you would call her. They were lovers for a while, and then he left her and she got mad and shot him. And that’s what we remember most about Tarnower. Not so much–
Smiley: Sadly, yeah.
Collins: Sadly, not his diet. But then I realized the bottom line is grains, sugar, flour, corn, and wheat. Nada. Can’t have them. And that’s where I got my recovery. Because without those things, I don’t have any cravings. That’s why I called it “Cravings.”
Collins: How I conquered food. The other word was how I conquered the food.
Smiley: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. [laughs] Yeah, I got you. [laughs]
Collins: You got me? I mean, it’s a struggle.
Smiley: Can I just say, just hold it a second. I have a moment here. I’m been doing this show what, we’re 14, 15 seasons in, and we’ve had to bleep out a number of things over the course of this show. I’ve never had a guest who self-bleeped. [laughs] I think that was the first time ever that I’ve seen somebody. You just made Greg somewhat, Molly, somebodies job just got easier.
Collins: Oh, good.
Smiley: They didn’t have to bleep what you just said. I love the self-bleep, yeah.
Collins: Well, they wouldn’t — they self-bleep me in — the publishers self-bleeped me because I wanted to put that on the cover.
Smiley: Yeah, well, yeah, yeah. Well.
Collins: But I just couldn’t do that. They wouldn’t let me do that.
Smiley: Yeah, well.
Collins: But anyway, there’s hope. That’s what’s so good of thinking about this. And some of the people who are running the literature, the diet — the guy who wrote “Wheat Belly” has that.
Collins: He understands about the wheat. The wheat’s the key. Anyway, the main thing is I’m happy, healthy, well, no problems with this for me for about nine years now I’ve been–
Collins: –completely absent on this particular direction. And I just wanted to share it. I wanted people to know there is hope. It’s not this frantic looking for the next book, and the next diet, and the next, and paying all this money. I did it, too.
Smiley: Yeah, yeah.
Collins: So that’s my — that’s my hope, that someone will read it and feel that they have a chance to get well, too.
Smiley: Let me talk about the food first. Maybe the alcohol will come up, but on the food front, how did the cravings and the struggle with those cravings, Judy, how did — how did it impact your artistry?
Smiley: Your performance?
Collins: That’s a good question.
Collins: I grew up in an addictive family. I had alcoholism, some food addiction of some kind. And I also got in my DNA, I got something a lot of us have. I think I see it in many people. I think you probably have it, too. We work. There’s a work ethic that goes on no matter what’s happening.
Collins: It’s a drive, and from the very beginning, when I was 19, I knew I was an alcoholic.
Collins: But I didn’t know what to do about it. You know, I knew what it meant. It meant I had to drink.
Collins: But I also knew I had to work, and I’ve always been passionate about what I do. I love what I do. You know, I do 130 shows a year. I travel. I write books. I make records. Because that machinery is in there, in my system.
Collins: And so no matter what I was doing, no matter, well, until the end, and then, you know, the end was I was dying–
Collins: –when I was drinking and couldn’t stop. So it finally catches up with you, and I think the last three or four years, everything that I was doing had caught up with me. And even when I got sober, I still had the issue of the food to deal with.
Collins: But, you know, thank God I got lucky, I found people who knew, I went into treatment for the drinking. But all the while, I mean, when I was in rehab, I’m planning my next record. I mean, I don’t know when I haven’t been planning my next record.
Collins: It’s something that’s so wonderful, and in a way, it works even when I’m not at my best. So that was my good fortune to have that kind of, you know, my dad used to drink a lot, and then in the morning, he’d wake up happy, he never missed a job, he was at a radio show for 30 years. He was singing, he was smiling, except when he wasn’t, later on in the day. But that, I think, is something that — also, all my life in the beginning, as a kid, I had to be disciplined. I had to practice. I practiced the piano, you know–
Collins: –I was a concert pianist for some of those years. And so I had to be always doing the next right thing in a way. So that was sort of part of my — part of my good fortune, because when I started to have a career that has, thank you, allowed me to make a living, and to reach people with music, and I think music is service. I think people need live music desperately.
Smiley: Mm-hmm. Absolutely.
Collins: Just to get through–
Collins: –this life. You know, I watch your show a lot because so many of the people that you have on the show talk about how they got through tough things, how they managed to stay around. And I think what they give, what people give out, they get back.
Collins: So I’ve been lucky in that sense. And also my health is good.
Collins: You know, I’ve had a lot of struggles, like everybody does.
Collins: But I’m very fortunate that I really do have good, somewhere, DNA.
Collins: Some kind of good health.
Smiley: See, I’m just reveling in the comment that you made a moment ago, because you know how much I love music, all types of music.
Collins: I know you do.
Smiley: That’s why I talk to so many artists on this program.
Collins: Yeah. I know. I love it.
Smiley: I just — I love it. And I love it in part because every one of us has a sound track to our lives.
Smiley: And I can’t imagine — I can’t imagine living, quite frankly, I wouldn’t want to live if I couldn’t have music.
Collins: Yeah. I mean–
Smiley: I just don’t know — my life would be so empty and so hollow–
Collins: Yeah. Yeah.
Smiley: –if I didn’t have some music on the sound track.
Collins: I think when I’m doing a concert, first of all, I’m going through a kind of meditative state. I’m thinking about memories, I’m thinking about, I mean, one of the great actresses of the century said, “you know, I can do my grocery list.” I don’t do that. I’m dreaming.
Collins: I’m remembering lovers, friends, times I’ve — and all of the people in the audience, they’re doing the same thing.
Collins: They’re all in their own–
Collins: –sound track of their own–
Smiley: That’s right.
Collins: –their own memories, their own — and it’s very healing, because it’s hard in this time where we’re all connected with our devices, it’s hard to be quiet in a place where you’re listening to something beautiful, and that you have a time to reminisce, to sing, to meditate, to dream. It’s a real privilege to be in the audience and be able to do that. And it’s a privilege to be able to be up there–
Collins: –going through the same, or not the same, but a similar status of being now kind of made aware of the very moment that you’re in.
Smiley: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Collins: And that’s part of what it so — why it’s so powerful.
Smiley: What do you make of the fact that your instrument has held up? Because that’s the thing that just completely boggles my mind when I hear you. That I’m juxtaposing what I’m hearing coming out of your mouth with the struggles I know you have had–
Smiley: –and yet your instrument has held up.
Collins: I got very lucky. In 1965, I’d already made four or five, six records. I don’t know five, I guess. And I started to lose my voice all the time.
Collins: I’d go out and I’d sing a little bit, and it would be gone. So I was friendly with Harry Bellefonte, and I asked his musical director if he could recommend a teacher. And I also asked another friend, who ran a music camp up in Lennox, MA, if they could recommend a teacher. And they both recommended the same guy.
Collins: And it’s a short story. I called him. I’d just moved to the Upper West Side. I called him and I said, “please, please, please everybody recommends you.” He said, “no, I” he found out what I did. He said, “oh, no, you people are not serious. I’m not interested.” And I [laughs] I begged and pleaded, you know, I got down practically on the phone, I sort of got down on my knees and made a fool of myself. And he said, “okay.” And I didn’t know where he lived.
Collins: I walked out my front door, turned right, walked past the elevator and knocked on his door.
Collins: And I studied with him for 32 years. And he taught me what to do.
Smiley: Wow. That is a short story.
Smiley: And a short walk. [laughs]
Collins: Yeah. Very short walk. And that’s really why I can sing the way I sing. I know that. And I’ve had a lot of problems. I had to have the surgery.
Collins: And so, but yes, I’m very fortunate, because I found the right teacher.
Smiley: You mentioned earlier being on stage and having these reminiscences. And about your life and your former lovers, et cetera, et cetera. So for those who’ve been fans of yours for years, we know that you and Stephen Stills were an item, way, way back in the day.
Smiley: How funny is it, or maybe funny is the wrong word. You fill in the blank. What is it to be on stage starting next week with Stephen Stills, whom you’ve known forever, and dated back in the day? Which you guys have never toured together.
Smiley: You’ve performed together, but you’ve never toured together.
Collins: We met, of course, in 1968 in LA. We were — I was making an album called “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” And he was playing. And we had this mad affair. I always say that the rumors lasted longer than the affair [laughs] but of course, the songs–
Collins: –Blue Eyes, he wrote for me.
Collins: And but we always remained friends.
Collins: You know, there was a time when I would run down to Florida to get together with him if I had a breakup with somebody, but we’ve always remained friends. And during the past 10 years, you know, I’d go to see them, we’d start talking, we’d have dinner here, and I know his family, I know his kids, I know his wife. I just always have — we’ve always remained friends. And we started talking about what would it be like to go to do a show on tour. And we send texts back and forth with lists of songs. You know, these are the ones we could do, and what about this. And finally it sort of opened up, because as you know, probably, anyway, publicly, there’s been sort of a decision not to work anymore. So, it was time. And so we’ve been working on this for a few months. We’ve had a — we made a record.
Collins: It’s called “Everybody Knows.”
Collins: Stills and Collins. And we go out on next week sometime, the 26.
Collins: It’s our first concert together with a wonderful band at Rivenia, a big, beautiful outdoor–
Smiley: It’s a venue. It’s a great venue.
Collins: It’s a great–
Smiley: I’ve been there many times. So are you excited about this, scared about this, or both?
Collins: –yes. [laughs] Yes. I wake up in the middle of the night going “what?” And then of course, we have — we have rehearsals, and I think “oh, my God, this is everybody’s dream.
Collins: Including ours.
Collins: And it’s so interesting, because we’re both so public, and our, let’s say our relationship was very much a fact of the social context in which we lived, of the 60s, and all the people that were together in those days. And coming out of that, to have something that’s lasting, that’s a friendship.
Smiley: I’ve got a minute and a half to go, and I’m asking — I could talk to you for hours and days, you know that.
Collins: I know. I know.
Smiley: But I’m asking you this because I really am curious to your response. And that is what is the trick, and I don’t want to use the word trick, but what is the methodology for remaining friends with former lovers? That’s such a vital thing. And some of us — some of us adults just can’t seem to master that.
Collins: Well, I think it’s hard.
Collins: I mean, things happen. Things are said which cannot be unsaid.
Smiley: Unsaid, yeah.
Collins: But I do have — it’s been lucky most of the people I’ve been involved with I’m still friendly with. Even the guy who walked out on me. [laughs] He sent me a video of his hip replacement recently. You know, that’s kind [laughs]
Smiley: Life goes on.
Smiley: Yeah. Yeah, well.
Collins: I don’t know of what the secret is, and I couldn’t bear to let go of certain people that I always had–
Collins: –liked for whatever reason that we were together. But I’m happily married to a wonderful man. I’ve been with him for 39 years, which I think is very good for a hippie.
Smiley: Yeah. Yeah. There you go.
Collins: For an old hippie.
Smiley: I’ll leave it right there. If you’re in Chicago, you heard her say Rivenia next week.
Collins: Yeah. Yeah.
Smiley: In Chicago. Stills and Collins will be together. Judy Collins’ most recent project. It’s called “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim.” There’s a CD and a DVD if you want to get either/or both. And her new book is called “Cravings: How I Conquered Food.” She’s a busy woman now and always. Judy Collins, I love you. Good to have you back on this program.
Collins: I love you, too, Tavis. I watch you all the time.
Smiley: I love you for that. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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