At a folk-music club one night in 1968, Janis Joplin leaned across the table and said, “You know, one of us is going to make it. And it’s not going to be me.”
“Janis’ words have haunted me for more than four decades,” writes Judy Collins in “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes,” her new memoir. Joplin had no idea how close to the edge Collins, a heavy drinker, was living.
“Janis was expected to fly too high and eventually to crash. I was expected to be the flower-child folksinger who might soar but would come softly to my feet in golden fields.”
Two years later, Joplin was dead of a heroin overdose.
Life has hurtled many a challenge at Collins, including the loss of her only child. But it’s been abundantly generous, too, with talent, beauty and the determination to succeed. At 72, she is singing, recording, writing music and books, mulling her own biopic and happily married to her longtime love.
Collins, author of a half-dozen books, will speak about her life Thursday in an appearance in Toledo, Ohio, sponsored by The Toledo Blade and the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library. Will she sing?
“Oh, who knows. It comes upon me from time to time, but, of course, it’s not a concert,” she said in a telephone interview.
Collins shares a Manhattan apartment and a country home in Connecticut with husband Louis Nelson, a designer who created the long wall at the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington.
She intended to name the new tome “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: Sex, Drugs, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Music that Changed a Generation,” but that was shot down after booksellers said it didn’t match the public’s perception of her. The title references a hugely popular 1969 song in four parts, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” written by her then-boyfriend Stephen Stills and recorded by Crosby, Stills and Nash.
“I wanted to get into the history of the music, the clubs, the songs, the recordings, the albums, where I recorded them and when, what was going on, my love life, my sex life, the story of my drinking. I wanted to get it down. It was time. I was about to turn 70,” she said. “And also to celebrate 50 years in the music biz.”
Sony has optioned “Sweet Judy” for a feature-length film, for which she’ll be producer. “It’s very cool,” she said.
She’s not as concerned about who portrays her in the ‘60s and ‘70s as she is with the vocals: They must be lip-synced and she will re-record the songs.
An inveterate journal-writer, she’s drawn on her diaries for her books, including “Sanity and Grace” (2003), chronicling events leading up to and following the suicide of her son, Clark, in 1992 at the age of 33.
“Always trying to get it right, always trying to beat the devil, always trying to beat the clock. Thank God I finally found a doctor who knew what was the matter with me,” she said. “Doctors are the last people to know about this illness really; drug addiction, alcohol, food addiction. If you’re an addict, you’re an addict, and if you don’t get help you have a good chance of dying.”
“I’m not doctor-dumb. I go to a lot of fancy, smart, celebrated doctors and most of them do not know a thing about addiction and alcohol. They don’t get it. They don’t understand it. They still think it’s a moral issue and they’re clueless.”
Not only is Collins’ singing voice beautiful (she studied voice for 32 years), but her enunciation rings like a bell.
“Clarity of the lyric, that’s all that counts. It’s the whole purpose of studying; clarity of the phrasing makes sure your voice is in shape.”
She exercises and meditates daily. Having studied classical piano for 10 years as a youth, she routinely practices piano scales and pieces by Mozart, Debussy or Chopin.
How does she manage long tours, such as the three weeks in Australia from where she’d returned the night before this interview?
“I eat well, sleep well, carry my own food with me. I’m very disciplined about it. You have to live like an athlete. You are an athlete.”
She’s writing a new book, is looking forward to 100 concerts in the coming year, composes, records (“Bohemian” is her new CD, with many original songs) and has recorded mini-CDs to accompany two children’s books, “Over the Rainbow” and “When You Wish upon a Star.” She’s produced many of her 38 albums.
“I write, sing, travel, watch movies when I get a chance, exercise, see a lot of family. I have a big family.”
In the coming weeks, she’ll turn 73 and celebrate 34 years with Louis.
“For an old hippie, I don’t think that’s bad,” she laughs.