Switching from Singer to Scribe with Amazing Grace, Judy Collins Writes a Searing Self-Portrait

updated 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/07/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

The image, from a 1967 album jacket, seemed to sum up the mood of an era: In a meadow dotted with yellow blossoms wandered a golden-haired young woman, to all appearances the quintessential flower child. Eighteen years would pass before the woman in the meadow set out to create a truer image—the story of her life without flowers or illusions. She would write about the years when she drank a quart of vodka a day, about a bitter custody battle for her son, about coping with polio, tuberculosis and bulimia, about her illegal abortion and about "running from one lover to the next, hoping to find something that would take away the pain of living."

With last month's release of her autobiography, Trust Your Heart, Judy Collins, 48, has confronted head-on the demons that plagued her during a recording career that has spanned 26 years and included 22 albums, six of them gold. She also reveals an unexpected talent, recounting her life with the flair of a seasoned novelist. "She's a perfectionist," says her editor, Nan Talese, who doled out a reported six-figure advance. "Someone said to me, 'It's not fair. She has this beautiful voice, and she can even write.' "

A compulsive reader and diarist, Collins based her book on decades of journal entries. Deciding what to write didn't always come easily. "There was a point where I wasn't going to discuss my drinking," she says. "But sanity intervened. Without it, the book would be someone else's story." Another challenge involved telling her story without betraying the trust of old friends and ex-lovers—one of them singer Stephen Stills, who in the 1969 hit "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes" expressed his frustration when Collins refused to commit more than a few days a week to him. In the end she compromised about the extent of her revelations. Though she touched on both the highs and lows of her four-year romance with Stacy Keach, for example, she left out "vivid and marvelous things because they would have been an invasion of his privacy. It's my ambivalence, my up and down moods that I was describing, not his."

As a musician Collins knew exactly what she wanted, a quality that did not always work in her favor. During 24 years with Elektra Records, she developed an unconventional mix of rock, folk, show tunes and orchestral numbers. Her albums moved so far from the electric style of most Top 40 music that Elektra wouldn't renew her contract in 1985. "I never fit into a box," says Collins. "The minute they thought I was something, I was something else." Her latest album, which bears the same title as her book, has sold 100,000 copies since its release last April on the Gold Castle label.

Though Collins rarely chose to express it in her music, her life was bittersweet from the start, profoundly influenced as it was by her late father, Charles Collins, a blind radio host, pianist and pop singer. He had a loving but feisty relationship with Collins' mother, Marjorie, who according to Judy, "raised five kids and her husband too." Stubbornly refusing to use a cane, Charles maneuvered as if possessed with radar. "I always thought not that he was blind," writes his daughter, "but that I was invisible." At 5, Collins began playing classical piano with her father's encouragement. Nine years later, after the family moved from Seattle to Denver, Collins felt such pressure to perform a perfect Liszt piece for her father's show that she tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of aspirin. Later, after a year at Mac-Murray College in Illinois, she married former Navy pilot Peter Taylor and became a mother at 19. The marriage lasted five years. "I was a wild girl," says Collins. "When things didn't go well at home, I was looking for trouble in other places."

One of those places was Greenwich Village, where Collins began singing in clubs with a group of friends that included Bob Dylan, John Phillips and Peter, Paul and Mary, all virtual unknowns at the time. In 1962, Collins took sick on the road and was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. With no money of her own or from her husband, who was then attending graduate school in Connecticut, she was admitted as a charity case at a Denver hospital. After four months of isolation and immobility, she became utterly caught up in the music scene again. Late one night at a farm in the Cats-kills, Bob Dylan taught her to sing "Mr. Tambourine Man." "I was asleep upstairs," she writes, "and the rough, sweet voice weaving through the dark house found me in my bed and drew me down." In 1967 Joni Mitchell sang her song Both Sides Now to Collins over the telephone. When Collins recorded the song a year later, it became her biggest U.S. hit.

In a chaotic era Collins often paid a price for her freedom. In 1963, while helping blacks register to vote in backwoods Mississippi, she was threatened by white vigilantes. That same year Collins and Taylor divorced, and in 1965 she lost a long custody battle for their son, Clark. "The jury didn't editorialize about their decision," says Collins. "But I found out later they didn't like me because I was in therapy, which was not usual in those days." Collins' health, too, was often at risk. In 1966 she contracted hepatitis. Having always considered herself overweight, Collins was terrified of gaining weight after she quit smoking in 1971, and she suffered briefly from bulimia. Later a throat disease required the singer to be silent for days at a stretch before an operation cured her in 1977.

Throughout those years Collins felt an odd kinship with another singer who would seem to have been her exact opposite: Janis Joplin. "Her inferno was an outer one and mine was an inner one," says Collins. "But we were very much the same." A victim of what she calls "the Irish virus," Collins was always a heavy drinker. Between 1974 and 1978 her drinking, sometimes combined with pills prescribed to calm her, turned into an all-day activity. She finally went to a Pennsylvania clinic for five weeks of treatment. "It was hard living with a person who was going through so much," says Clark, who at the age of 9 had chosen to live with his mother. "I could never be sure whether she was going to be pleasant or inexplicably angry or aloof." In retrospect his mother understands. "I wasn't aware of it then," she says, "but I'm sure my drinking was difficult for him." After a period of estrangement she and Clark have mended their often-rocky relationship. Overcoming his own alcohol and drug dependency, Clark, now 28, married this March and works repairing computers for the St. Paul school district.

Collins' personal life has stabilized in other respects too during the last decade, due in large part to her lover of nine years, Louis Nelson. She and Nelson, who runs a design firm, divide their time between a four-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side and an airy modern Connecticut home designed by Nelson. Because of their separate work schedules, Collins and Nelson still plan a weekly "date night" for movies or dinner at home. They also have causes in common: In 1985 they were arrested together while protesting outside the South African embassy in Washington, D.C.

Finally Collins seems to have put her life in sync with the sweet tone of her music. "Louis has helped; my therapy has helped," she says. "I'm more focused on what I want rather than focusing on who wants me to do what." No longer a drinker, Collins swims or runs nearly every day and will spend the next few months starting a novel and writing songs. But the contradictions in her personality still surface from time to time. Curling her bare feet under a pillow on her sofa during an afternoon conversation, she seems both charming and funny. Yet only a few minutes earlier, Collins, who demands control over even the tiniest detail of her various projects, had chewed out her assistant about a book publicity problem. "She wants to be warm and open with people," says Clark, "and yet there is a survival instinct that tells her, 'Don't be too vulnerable because you've been screwed around a lot.' "

The lilting title song on Trust Your Heart includes the chorus: "The heart can see beyond the sun/ Beyond the turning moon/ And as we look the heart can teach us/ All we need to learn." Such sentiments bring to mind the question that Joni Mitchell once asked after hearing one of Collins' songs: "Judy, after all the s—t you've been through, how can you still be so romantic?" Today Collins smiles and responds, "That's the whole point of life: to maintain your optimism and sense of wonder."

From Our Partners