Gregory Dennis, Between the Lines: Stills, Collins and Judy’s blue eyes
Stephen Stills and Judy Collins were always an unlikely couple.
When they met, he was a brash kid with a magic touch on the guitar, from a newly broken-up band called Buffalo Springfield. She was one of the reigning queens of folk music.
He saw her at the Whiskey a Go-Go in L.A., on a night when Eric Clapton was playing with his new band, Cream. Stills went up and kissed her hand. She brushed him off.
But then Stills lobbied his way into the studio where she was recording the album “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” with a cover that highlighted her enormous blue eyes. They immediately began rock’s most famous love affair.
But the affair was subject to the whims of their emerging fame and her attachment to a psychiatrist who thought she should see Stills just two days a week. So he was left helplessly hoping to spend time with her, Thursdays and Saturdays.
The affair soon ended but was immortalized in music, especially in “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” on the first Crosby Stills & Nash album.
Stills went on to the consumption of copious amounts of cocaine and a drinking habit. Collins went in for drinking, too, but she has managed to produce a long series of gorgeous albums. Stills — on his own, in Manassas and as part of Crosby, Stills, Nash and sometimes Young — well, Stephen didn’t do too bad, either.
They both stopped drinking long ago, and their fond friendship has survived. Now they have a new album and are on tour together.
I’d seen Collins in concert several times, most recently a few years ago in Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater. I knew that even at age 78, she could sing every note she had at 28.
But Stills? I wondered about him. Their new album does its best to hide the raggedness of his voice. All those years of living the high life seemed to have taken their toll.
Nonetheless, I plunked down a hundred bucks for two tickets to last Sunday’s show in Albany.
Approaching a show like this one, I always wonder if it’s just for nostalgia. We want a new twist on the old vibes to come alive when we see performers who emerged from Sixties and Seventies. Bob Dylan did that at his recent show in Shelburne. But nobody wants to build an evening around the music of a band like Paul Revere and the Raiders, gray haired, overweight and dressed in ill-fitting Revolutionary War costumes.
We go to shows like this hoping once again to be witnesses to greatness.
We also go to be reminded that we were young once, and that inside us still beats the heart of a kid. To know that despite the passing of the decades, despite all the compromises we have made, we’ve persisted and so has some essence of our ideals. Just showing up shows some small commitment to living as fully as we can.
But was the music still worth five hours on the road to and from the emptiness of Albany?
I needn’t have worried about that with Stills and Collins.
The short summary: She still sings like an angel, and he still plays a devil of a guitar. She’s one of the finest pure singers ever. And some guitarists rate him as the absolute best.
They are, together, a bit of a musical mismatch. His instincts are still to rock out, leaving her on those numbers to be little more than a backup singer. And when she takes the lead on Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and “Chelsea Morning,” it’s his turn to just strum along.
Their song choices, however, are excellent. The new album features a recent Leonard Cohen song, “Everybody Knows”—probably included at the insistence of Collins, the earliest and most faithful interpreter of the Montreal-born Cohen.
As Collins said on Sunday night, the recently deceased Cohen “was such a smart man. He died the morning of the election.”
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died
But mostly, we’re there for the enduring power of the old songs. Listen to my bluebird sing. Questions of a thousand dreams.
And of course the sublime “Suzanne.” Judy Collins leading us down to that place by the river, where you want to travel with her and you want to travel blind.
Stills introduced “For What It’s Worth” as being “from the way-back machine” and bemoaned its continuing relevance. Then he ripped off a string of impeccable, arpeggio-laced solos to punctuate how something’s happening here but what it is ain’t exactly clear.
All I could do was sigh, lean over to C. and say, “That’s Stephen Stills up there!”
Because whatever one says to mark a moment like that — well, it’s never enough.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here most every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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