Judy Collins is walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a Monet landscape makes her think, in a roundabout way, of Woodstock. Yes, she was there, of course she was, but she never got a chance to perform. “I didn’t sing because Bill Graham,” who helped book the acts, “was not a fan,” she says. “He hated me. I was a New Yorker and he was the West Coast, and Joni and all of that…” she trails off. “The Jonis…” She means the other two points in the folk-goddess trinity, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.
Are she and Mitchell, whose songs helped make Collins famous and who then got famous herself, friends? “We’re certainly civil to one another. I write her notes saying, ‘You’re brilliant, you’re brilliant, I love you, I love you, thank you, thank you, thank you.’;” And what did she think of Mitchell’s most recent album, released by Starbucks in 2007? “Excuse me, but I hated that.” Why? “Well, I don’t know. I’m very locked into those early years of hers.”
Collins, raised in Colorado, still seems like a lady of real canyons, despite having lived the past 46 years in Manhattan, most of them with her husband, designer Louis Nelson. In May she celebrated her 70th birthday while performing at the Carlyle (a return engagement is set for the fall). And on July 26, she’ll sing on Governors Island.
The Met, for her, has always been a sanctuary from all this work—and a spur toward more of it. “I allow it to seep in. You owe it to yourself—I call this an artist’s date—to go by yourself to a movie or museum or play and really let the art feed you—” She breaks off, eyes darting away, when we near some Georgia O’Keeffes. “Just look at this section!” Is she an O’Keeffe fan? “As a woman, she had to work very hard to make her own statement. I identify like mad with that.”
Magritte is another artist with personal resonance. “I got very interested in Magritte after my son died … when that happens to you, you focus on people whose lives had been influenced by suicide.” (Clark Taylor, Collins’s only child, took his life in 1992, at age 33, after years of battling depression and addiction.) “Magritte’s mother walked into the sea when he was young and drowned herself,” she continues. “There was a big Magritte show at the Met shortly after Clark’s death—and I could see it. I could see it all.” Collins, who has been sober for three decades, has since become an advocate for suicide survivors. “He informs my life all the time. I dream about him quite a bit.”
Downstairs, in the lobby, people begin to smile at her. Three middle-agers approach. “We love your music,” one says. “Judy Collins, right?” She unleashes a flurry of thank-yous.