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Judy Blue Eyes: Collins' "Sweet" conversation with Stephen Stills for Writers Bloc session

Michelle Paster

After a few minutes of introductory chatter between Judy Collins and Stephen Stills on stage at the Saban Theater on Monday evening — a Writers Bloc event with the two former lovers/collaborators and still friends discussing the former’s new memoir, Sweet Judy Blue Eyes: My Life in Music — Collins suddenly paused and turned to the audience:

“Just to get this out of the way,” she said, and then began to sing, unaccompanied:

Bows and flows of angels hair, and ice cream castles in the air….

Delighted gasps, sighs and rising cheers came from the audience, many members of which hold Collins’ version of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” as one of the songs, one of their songs,  a life landmark that has stayed with them since it was a hit in 1968. And as she finished the brief performance, just the first verse and chorus, even Stills sitting next to her smiled and shook his head in wonder, as the voice we’d just heard was as pure and powerful and moving as when we first heard it 45 years ago.

A few minutes later in what unfolded as a freewheeling conversation, as much two friends catching up with colorful tales and asides as a discussion of a book, Stills reminisced about his first awareness of the singer. He’d moved to New York in the peak of the Greenwich Village folk boom, was “living on pennies” while playing at “basket clubs” where tips were the only pay and staying with a friend in very spartan circumstances. But the friend had a few albums, one of which had a cover photo of a woman with “cornflower eyes,” as he put it, and he found himself entranced both by the image and the voice contained within.

“I spent a whole year, shivering in winter, listening to that voice,” Stills said.

“I now know why we came here tonight,” Collins said back to him. “I never heard that story!”

And, in return, there was a revelation prompted by a question from the audience about Collins’ 1975 song “Houses.” Stills, it turned out, was unaware that it was an affectionate reply to his “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” the musical tribute he wrote to her which became the showpiece of the debut Crosby, Stills & Nash album in 1969.

Anecdotes were scattered — in both senses of the word — throughout the evening:

There were tales of Collins’ young adult “pioneer” life in rural Colorado. She glowingly talked about her father Charlie, a blind radio broadcaster who died just days before she and Stills started working on her landmark Who Knows Where the Time Goes album, and, she said, the subject of her next book. And there was back and forth about music business foibles, relating both to Collins’ book and Stills’ vast career, which is being documented in an elaborate box set, titled Carry On, with a great number of previously unreleased and rare tracks, due for March release.

A few details remained fuzzy, notably the time and place when Stills first played “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” for her. (He says it happened with CSN gathered in a house he and Collins shared in Sag Harbor. She’s not so sure.)

After more or less sorting that out, Stills looked at his friend and said, “I don’t know how to thank you for that song.”

Collins looked back at him: “Nor I you.”

As the audience Q&A segment at the end wrapped up, Stills walked off stage and returned in a moment bearing a guitar. After a little conferring, Stills started playing and together they sang Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind,” a ‘60s folk classic that they did as a duet just three years ago on Collins’ Paradise album. They got through one verse and chorus, then neither could remember the second verse, but closing with a perfect refrain for the reminiscing:

I could have loved you better

Didn’t mean to be unkind

You know that was the last thing on my mind