Judy Collins Knows Where The Time Goes

Judy Collins and Stephen Stills first collaborated in-studio 50 years ago when he played guitar on her recording sessions for Who Knows Where The Time Goes. It might be a fitting statement for their recent joint tour celebrating that anniversary, were it not for the fact the doomed loved affair that spawned one of the great breakup songs of the rock era also produced a deep friendship that has spanned the decades.

Judy Collins
– Judy Collins

To mark the anniversary, Collins and Stills reunited in the studio to record an album – Everybody Knows ­– a cheeky play on their relationship as well as an homage to the late Leonard Cohen. Collins had a starring role in Cohen’s career, too – convincing the Canadian poet to step onto the stage and perform his own songs. They, too, remained friends until Cohen’s death last year.

Collins and Stills recently wrapped a 45-city tour in support of Everybody Knows, performing mainly in secondary and tertiary markets in performing arts centers ranging from 500 to 1,500 seats. Collins told Pollstar that despite pre-tour jitters, she and Stills are pleased with the results – and from box office reports, it appears, so are fans.

Though she is already back on the road with a solo jaunt, fans can look forward to an announcement of another 50 shows with Stills in 2018.

The muse behind “Suite: Judy Blues Eyes” and other songs recently spent an hour on the phone with Pollstar, talking about the tour, her music, her relationships with Stills and Cohen, as well as the early days of her career as one of the first wave of the folk revival in the 1960s when she was signed by legendary Elektra Records impresario Jac Holzman.

Looking at Pollstar’s touring history for you, it looks like you could be called one of the great road warriors. Does being on the road ever become a grind?

Oh, it’s never a grind. I’m always excited and challenged by it. It’s one of the better times in one’s life, you know? It’s a great tour to be on. It’s exciting; it’s historic, it’s musical, it’s passion. It’s like being in musical couples’ therapy, which is great fun after 50 years. We should have been in it in 1969 when we just didn’t make it.

You’ve been quoted saying the best thing that happened is that you both married other people.

That’s very true! It’s a very healthy relationship. He’s married to a wonderful gal now that I’m very friendly with and he and my husband get along very well. It’s a different kind of open marriage!

We worked through many things over many decades and got to really know each other. When we started doing this project, Stephen said, “We should have gone straight to this and skipped the romance.” And I said, “But you wouldn’t have written ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.’” It’s an amazing song. It never gets old. It’s very classic and timeless. We end the show with it, and it’s a great deal of fun doing it together. I would never have imagined it would happen. There’s been a great deal of surprises in life.

Stephen Stills and Judy Collins
Anna Webber
– Stephen Stills and Judy Collins

Are you traveling together or separately, and by bus or plane? What’s it like being on the road with Stephen after all these years?

He travels in his own bus and most of the band and crew and materials travel by bus and truck. I fly. I’ve always flown. It’s good to have a little bit of separation of church and state. And then of course we all have our rehearsals and most of our meals together.

We have our show, and then we split and run to the hotel. I learned that a long time ago. We do our meet and greet. I used to have things like bottles of vodka but that doesn’t happen anymore, thank God. No drugs, no booze, no crap. No smoking. It’s great; I don’t think there’s anybody on the buses who smokes. I haven’t smoked for, I think, almost 50 years. I stopped in 1970. That was the beginning of my being stressed into an eating disorder, but I didn’t smoke any more, at least.

You must have a touring routine down to an art form.

We have a very concise plan; I never have not been on the road, really. It’s very easy. Sometimes you run into a problem with traffic or the plane. But I can’t imagine how they manage to do it; they get may luggage and belongings 95 percent of the time exactly where they are supposed to go. My clothes, my dressing room bag, travels on the bus with the rest of the wardrobes so when I get to my dressing room it’s there. I carry my personal luggage with me.  I always travel with a lunch and I usually travel with food in my suitcase if I’m flying. Those kinds of details are important. The catering at the halls is always very good, so we always have choices.

We get there, I’d say I get to the theatre at 3:30 or so, so I can practice. I practice the piano every day, even though I don’t play piano on this tour. I’ve had hand surgery a few months and I must get the hand back, so I must practice. Then we do our rehearsal which is always fun, gathering together and regrouping and going over the last show. If we’re doing something new, practicing that. And then everyone has dinner, then we’re off to our dressing rooms or, in his case, and the band’s case, the bus to get ready. Then we’re on stage for close to two hours and then we get quickly to the hotels and sleep.

Musicians traveling for their work are a special breed. I always liked traveling, from an early age with my family. It wasn’t so terribly unusual to start traveling as a performing person in the ‘60s – in the late ’50s, actually. But I have been doing it ever since I’ve been making a living. You learn the tricks of the trade. You learn to get your hair done or put it under a wig or hat or something; how to do your makeup in under 7 minutes, and how to get your laundry done and how to take the time out about once a week to really straighten out your suitcase.

I think for a lot of people on the road, food is the big issue. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is to have a plan. I eat certain things, I carry them with me on the road, so I don’t get caught being hungry somewhere and having to eat junk. I think that’s a big issue with a lot of us. That’s a big learning curve, I think. I’ve always had chicken soup on my rider, things that are plain, grilled foods, things that are easy.

Exercise is another thing people are challenged by. I had to start working out when I was 23-24, because I had depression and I knew that I couldn’t deal with it unless I exercised. It must be easy; it must be simple. You can’t depend on going to the gym because sometimes they’re open, sometimes they’re not. When I get to the hotel after the show, I run. I run in the hotels. God forbid there are wooden floors because I cannot run on wooden floors. That’s how I manage the 30 to 45 minutes I need on a regular basis a few times a week.

Sounds like good advice even for non-touring, non-musicians.

Well you must be an athlete to do this. You must be able to get up at four in the morning, get yourself together and catch the shuttle or whatever you use to get to the plane. And you have to be able to sleep. You have to learn to make sure it’s part of your regimen, that you have to be able to sleep. I’ve been sober now for many decades but I did not sleep well when I was drinking. But I sleep in every new bed I get in, which is pretty much every night. Usually it’s ever night; every other night sometimes. I’m really lucky because I sleep very well. The other thing you have to beware of – getting too hungry, angry, lonely or tired so that you freak out or eat too much or get stressed out to the point where you’re a danger to your traveling companions.

Let’s circle back to the record. Have you worked with Stephen in the studio or performing live before this?

We met on the recording sessions for “Who Knows Where The Time Goes,” which was my eighth record for Elektra. He didn’t sing with us, but he played guitar with the band, which was quite a great band with Buddy Emmons and James Burton and others.

Some years later, we played on Graham Nash’s television show. He played guitar for me and I sang “Someday Soon” and I think Graham maybe sang some harmonies with me. That must have been 30 years ago. It was a nice show. We made a recording six or seven years ago of a Tom Paxton song, “The Last Thing On My Mind.”

Then, Stephen was in New York doing shows for the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. He got came over to my house and my team was there to record and we recorded “Last Thing On My Mind” together. So that was the only time we were ever in the studio together until now.

So now, we started rehearsing. We flew out to California and his place for a few hours every three to four weeks and we rehearsed the songs that are on Everybody Knows. Then we recorded in in April and May. In June, we rehearsed in Chicago and then opened our 50th anniversary show at Ravinia Fest on June 26.

We were ready. We were rehearsed and delighted. We’d worked out a sequence already before we even hit the stage. Of course, it’s a learning experience since we’d never done this before. But it’s turned out to be just a total pleasure and easy and so much fun. And there I am, standing on the stage; a girl singer and guitar player in rock and roll band. And I’m working with Stephen Stills and get to hear all his great guitar solos up close!

Stephen Stills and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills & Nash
Andy Argyrakis / ConcertLivewire.com
– Stephen Stills and Graham Nash of Crosby, Stills & Nash
Chicago Theatre, Chicago, Ill.

You both are legends in your own right, and Stephen has a reputation for being headstrong – all of the

The amazing thing is really the contrast on this tour. I’m not the only one around him to be aware of it. Everyone around him is aware of it. This is very different. He’s not only very happy, almost gregarious, I’d say – he seems to be released from a lot of issues or tensions or whatever you’d want to call them of being with the group. And he’s very happy and this is a very happy tour.

We don’t have any issues, really. He’s delighted — like a kid in a candy store. He’s thrilled to be having such a positive experience. We’re doing a lot of storytelling and reminiscing between  songs. There’s sort of a glue that’s holding this together because it’s an ongoing story that has all kinds of resonance with our pasts. There’s no fighting, there’s no arguing, there’s no temper tantrums, there’s no drama. It’s just fun.

I think for any group on the road that’s traveling together that’s just a tremendous relief. It allows you to enjoy the music and the company and doing what you’re doing. Both of us feel so wonderful. We can’t believe we get to do this again and again on the stage.

Were you nervous at all about working with Stephen?

I was just nervous about this tour. Not because I don’t know him well; I do know him well. We’ve remained friends all this time and we’ve had long dialogues. He can be in Australia and I can be in New York and we can spend a couple of hours texting back and forth. We’ve met together, we’ve had dinner with our spouses, we’ve gotten to know better one another’s families, so we’ve always had a close friendship over these years.

But still, when you contemplate you’re going to go out on the road with somebody, and it’s a new thing you’ve never done before, you’re looking at a pattern of flexibility. That’s one thing he’s commented on, that it’s good to be in a “yes” group instead of a “no” group. Everything is, “OK, all right, why don’t we try that,” instead of banging your head against the wall.

I think I was nervous the minute we got in to the studio it was clear that this was going to be a situation where we are here to make each other look good and sound good, and all our efforts would go into creating a show that would make everybody feel good. And that would be fun for us. Why do it otherwise? You couldn’t do it. We both have 50 years in the saddle, in both of our cases (58 for me), but he’s been at it a long time and so have I. we’ve learned a lot and we’ve certainly learned how to get up on stage and do the best job we know how to do.

What was the catalyst to decide both to go into the studio and to go on tour? Was there “a-ha!” moment?

My manager has been behind the scenes and on top of this for a couple of years, deciding, nervous or not, that this is was a good thing to do; this was an exciting thing. It’s an artistic challenge and what we do, as artists, is we look for them and try to get the nerve to take them on. So my manager, Katherine DePaul, has been the spearhead of getting the two of us to agree. And then she spearheaded getting our agent to find out whether anybody was interested. Does anybody want this, after all? And what is the market like?

She has done that and constructed and organized and plunged ahead. She’s done the brunt of the work to make it happen. But you must have that; there’s no way you can approach this otherwise because there are all kind of issues to sort out, personalities to deal with, and they’re all kind of behind the scenes. There’s two teams working together who are all new to each other, learning each other’s foibles and each other’s strengths is important. Katherine is really the manager in charge of what’s happening here, and she’d done a really great job.

Of course, we had to get a record done. We had to have product, posters, artwork, all of the details worked out carefully. You don’t want to land someplace and have nothing to sell. Between myself and Stephen, we’d been talking about this for a long time, probably 10 years ago. I saw a Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young show in New York (the band’s “Freedom of Speech” tour of 2006), and my husband and I went. First of all, I noticed that Stephen was, let’s be frank, restless, irritable and discontented in personal ways about what he was doing and where he was going in terms of his health, his process, and so on.

Over the course of these 10 years, he’s changed dramatically. Physically and in a lot of emotional ways. We started talking on and off. “What would it be like? Could we really do this? Do you think we’re up to it?” So we started nattering back and forth in text about what we might do – should we do the new material? Should we do the old material? We threw a lot of things on the wall and some of them stuck. Some of the thoughts that we had actually came to fruition.

“Everybody Knows” is something I started singing in concert after Leonard Cohen’s death. I thought it was suited to the political climate and to honoring his great gifts. I sent the recording of a performance to Stephen and he said, “Oh, we’ve got to do that.” My manager suggested a couple of things: first, she suggested he sing the song he wrote about me which nobody knew about including me, for about 40 years: “Judy,” which he says is the predecessor to “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” He sang it in the studio in 1969 when he went in by himself after hours. He had his engineer turn on the tape and it now exists. It was lost for 40 years, maybe 45 years. When it got back into his hands and he discovered it, and I discovered it, it was like, “That’s interesting. Another song about me! What fun!”

We nattered around about this for two or three years then settled on what made sense to do in the studio. “Houses,” the song I wrote about Stephen in about 1972, made it. He had never heard it, because of his hearing issues. He’s been deaf from about the age of nine. It’s amazing what he does with that kind of physical impairment. The doctors told him when he was nine that this was a condition that would get worse and worse, as long as he is alive, and it has! But he’s overcome it, which is remarkable and he does all the things one has to do to keep on stage and play.

In regard to “Houses,” I recorded it in 1975 on the Judas album, which has “Send in the Clowns” on it. He said, “Let’s do ‘Judy’ and ‘Houses.’ – it’s like a dialogue within the show about tour relationship. It casts a certain kind of spell but it’s sort of magical. It isn’t Cinderella, but it’s close.

Leonard Cohen
Chris McKay / WireImage.com
– Leonard Cohen
Fox Theatre, Atlanta, Ga.

You had a different kind of relationship with Leonard Cohen though..

I was his discoverer. We met because we had a mutual friend in New York, who was one of his college classmates at McGill University in Canada. She always was talking about this wonderful, brilliant but obscure poet in Canada. Then she put me together with him in 1956 because he’d started writing songs and wanted me to hear them.

It’s taken me a long time to figure out why he came to me. I was the only person in Greenwich Village who wasn’t a singer-songwriter. I didn’t write my own songs and he knew that, but he knew I’d had success with recording songs by Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Tom Paxton, Eric Anderson and so on. So, he knew that I was open to listening and it would be a pretty good shot that he could get a foot in the door, which he did. And he came to me with these songs that nobody else had heard and he did not sing in public. He would not sing in public. But he sang them to me, and I would record “Suzanne” and “Dress Rehearsal Rag” and put him on the map.

From that time, 1966, we were close friends. I had recorded dozens of his songs and I forced him to sing in public. We were in New York at a fund raiser and I pushed him on the stage and made him sing. He didn’t have a perfect debut, but it convinced him that he would have to sing his own songs. Shortly after that, he got his recording contract with Columbia Records

The other thing that happened between us, that I think solidified our lifetime friendship, was that he asked me why I wasn’t writing my own songs. And that was the beginning of my songwriting. The first album that Stephen and I worked on, Who Knows Where The Time Goes, had a number of songs on that album and one of them was “My Father.” Recently, I’ve had a big flood of songwriting after my album with Ari Hest, which was nominated for a Grammy. We’d been writing a lot and that just continued, so I have a new song of mine on Everybody Knows. Stephen said, “I love it and I want to record it” so we recorded “River of Gold,” which is my most recently recorded song that I wrote. It’s a fascinating jaunt.

You’ve also been longtime friends with Jac Holzman, who signed you to the legendary Elektra label.

He did. Absolutely. One of the people I worked with when I was 19, in Denver at a place called the Exodus, was Bob Gibson. Bob Gibson discovered Joan Baez. He called George Wein and said, “Listen, I’ve found this girl, Joan, and she’s going to open your first Newport festival because she’s brilliant.” So of course, she did, and it went on from there. She was the first-time kind of blast-through in the more commercial area of exposing ourselves to the world. So, two years later, Bob and I worked together and Bob called his friends in New York including Jac Holzman, and said “I think I ‘ve found your Joan Baez.” Jac came to see me in Denver, which I didn’t know until 50 years later, he came to see me, and he said to Bob, “She’s not ready” and two years later he saw me in New York with The Clancy Brothers on a television show. He came up to me and said “Hello, I’m Jac Holzman and you’re ready to make a record!” That’s how I got my first contract with Elektra Records. After we shook hands on it, it lasted for 25 years. He is a genius, and I adore him. We are still very close friends. I see him frequently. We talk on the phone; we remain extremely close.

What happened to the topical writer/performer in the age of Trump? Whose work do you admire or hearkens back to that era?

Steve Earle does it very well, I think most of us in that genre tend to write about life. We’re more likely to include every aspect of one’s life, and politics starts in the bedroom. Politically incorrect behavior starts with sex and the way we treat other human beings, people who are different, or live in a different place.

If you want to know what your politics are, look at your checkbook. Who do you support? What do you do with your time? Where do you go? Who do you see? Who do you talk to? How do you talk to them? It’s the fundamental ingredient as to whether you’re living in a society that is progressing backwards or forwards.

Most of those songwriters wrote about their lives, and life is politics. I’ll let you guess mine – I rail on Facebook all the time against this presidency. I don’t get it.

Everybody knows what’s going on. Then I think, tomorrow’s another day. We’ll get through it. We hold on to dear life. There’s an app called Five Calls. You can get it on your phone. It presents the issues and your representatives’ phone number. We are paying for this completely fucked- up mess. Take some action, any action, that is possible. Even things that seem impossible, some people are able to do more and some, less. It’s the conscience of this country that we throw out this irresponsible essence