by Richelle Kimble
She’s a woman of strong identity, a self-driven advocate and a world-class tourist; she’s a survivor of soul-stealing fame and a social activist. Judy Collins, the legendary folk singer with over 30 albums, is coming to Grand Rapids to perform. You may have the privilege of hearing her talented voice, but this is where you’ll hear the story behind the joyful smile of wisdom that she’ll be wearing.
She fell in love with folk music at a young age, despite beginning her musical career as a piano prodigy. Artists like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan encouraged her to trade her piano for a guitar. She hopped aboard the folk music circuit in New York City when it was just beginning. Although she was a recipient of the genre, she was also part of its boom.
“The music was just pouring out of the wall, and I was catching songs and also starting to write them,” she said. “It was a flood of creativity, and I was right in the middle of it!”
Parallel to her musical career was a dismal journey that began with her first drink. As a teenager, she sat in her home, sipping on bourbon dispensed in a nice glass. That drink would trigger the genesis of her depression and substance abuse. It blossomed so strong in her teen years that, although she attempted suicide, she “was always too drunk to form a plan.”
Her alcoholism hit a lifetime high in the mid ‘70s. She was an active alcoholic, though, one that easily misguided the public; she never missed a show, never missed a date or missed being on stage. She was high functioning and seemed to hide successfully behind the veil that alcohol draped over her. The media considered her the flower child of her kind, especially in comparison to other performers who identified with alcohol and drugs publicly.
“It comes with a lot of great things and troubles, that’s how life is. You can’t have one without the other.”
Despite the symbolic cry in her first album, A Maid of Constant Sorrow (1961), her success efficiently hid the fact that her depression was climbing. In 1977, her perilous lifestyle was finally unveiled by a terrible work year. Collins explained that she practically couldn’t perform with her state of alcoholism and entailed growing vocal trouble. She entered vocal surgery with hope, and the miraculous result was enough to aid her journey toward sobriety. She admitted herself to treatment, endured a brutal, withdrawing 35-day detox, and was sober in ’78.
“I don’t have any longer what was hanging over me for 23 years, which was despair and alcoholism and everything that went with it,” said Collins. “People can get lucky, and I did.”
The resilience that accompanied her during her road to sobriety sparked a passion that altered her lifestyle and career direction. The aggressive rehab method she partook in was blunt and without aid. Collins experienced raw withdraw aside the emotional and mental disarray of breaking a powerful habit. Nowadays, she considers those who don’t get medication “thrown in their faces” to be fortuitous, the rehab process to be more sloppy than in the past, and the overall healthcare process to be problematic.
“I’m a twisted nerd that can’t bear the thought of anything being treated with medication, really, except a broken neck or a broken bone,” she said. “I’m lucky that nothing was given to me except a few days of valium to detox [during my recovery].”
She kept these values through the daggering experience of losing her only child to depression in 1992. Her son, Clark, struggled with clinical depression and substance abuse, a situation that was close to home for Collins’ close-knit family, as her father and other members suffered similar challenges. The recovery was a long, arduous road. Collins strengthened relationships with inspiring people who’d survived suicides such as Iris Bolton, Mariette Hartley and Joan Rivers. Collins admitted that she was “very sure [she] wasn’t going to survive the emotional chaos,” but she did, without anti-depressants, medications or alcohol.
“They were angles of Mercy,” she said, speaking of those who encouraged her through the heartbreaking time. “They would walk me through it. It’s amazing that they were there. They knew.”
Now, Collins shares her story and speaks for several mental health organizations and suicide watch programs in order to inspire survival and be a resource for others. In addition, her book Sanity and Grace covers the ins and outs of her emotional quarrels.
“I find it to be so tremendously satisfying and authenticating to my life,” said Collins. “Talking about it and letting people know that they can get help.”
The public perceived her career “high” to be the mid ‘70s when her music was reaching the top of the charts. Collins disagrees, highlighting her alcoholism and self-destructing habits that came with her initial breath of fame. “I was a mess!” she said. “Everything is in the perception of others. You have to look behind the cover to truly know what’s going on.”
Collins says she is currently at the peak of her career. She notes her 100-plus shows a year that allow her to travel the world, her opportunity to write and share her wisdom with others, and most of all, being happy and loving what she does daily.
“Many, many things that are incredibly wonderful are happening and have happened,” she said. “I make a living, I’m on top of my game, and it’s spectacular.”
Collins resides in Manhattan with her husband, Louis Nelson, and their three cats Ralph, Coco Chanel and Tom Wolfe. She lives a very healthy lifestyle and is free of all substances, eats mindfully, meditates and exercises daily. She proves that 75 years young is no time to stop living.
“By having a career that is flourishing that you’re devoted to, you never stop learning and growing and having new projects,” she said. “It’s bound to be healing. I will never retire. I will play until I fall.”
Her passion of music, activism, family and others seem to shine a bit brighter in the absence of her alcohol reliance. It’s the power of sharing, learning and witnessing others in a state of joy that reveal her distinguished smile. That’s what you’ll see on October 17; a smile instilled with hope, gratitude and wisdom from a life well explored.
Spend An Intimate Evening with Judy Collins at Grand Rapids Civic Theatre on Friday, October 17, 2014