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I am yours, you are mine, you are what you are. Stephen Stills, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”
Nineteen sixty-eight, the year I met and fell in love with Stephen Stills, was a leap year. In the Chinese calendar, it was the year of the monkey, a year destined to explode with creativity, social upheaval, and tragedy. The U.S. involvement in Vietnam had escalated into all-out warfare and was tearing the country apart. Martin Luther King Jr., in whom we invested so much hope, had been murdered in Memphis on April 4. The day after King’s assassination, Robert F. Kennedy made one of the last speeches of his life at a political gathering in Indianapolis originally intended as a rally for his run for president, reminding the weeping audience of black and white mourners that he, too, had lost a brother to a white man with a gun and urging them, as the Greeks had put it, to “tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.”
Many young people were marching against the war, and music captured our conflicting feelings of disenchantment and romantic idealism, from the traditional folk songs of the Weavers, “Wasn’t That a Time” and “Rock Island Line,” to the powerful laments of singer-songwriters, Dylan singing “A Hard Rain’s A‑Gonna Fall,” Phil Ochs singing “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and Joan Baez singing “Silver Dagger” in her haunting soprano. This incredible music was everywhere, playing on Top 40 and FM radio mixed in with the Beatles’ “Lovely Rita” and “Eleanor Rigby,” the Byrds sparkling with Jim McGuinn’s twelve-string guitar on “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and the Mamas and the Papas urging us to leave cold New York and dream of sunny California. “I’d be safe and warm, if I was in L.A.,” they sang, their heartbreaking harmonies draping the airwaves with longing. There was the angst-filled psychedelia of the Doors with Jim Morrison begging us to light his fire, and Grace Slick, singing with Jefferson Airplane, her seductive voice drifting on the silky sound of her band: “One pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small.” All these songs were hitting the radio waves side by side with the reports of casualties in Indochina.
The intermix of news flashes and this wistful and sometimes furious music made the atmosphere of the times seem almost otherworldly. “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” cascaded across the country as Dylan put his lyrics to our tears and our rage.
It was a time of undeniable destructiveness as the war raged and the young trashed their bodies and their lives with the drugs many of us thought were so cool. I remember singing in the dusk of summer, the audience primed with wine, organic cheese, and fruit for a long night of music. I put fresh flowers in my hair and through the lace of my Mexican wedding dress. I had bought a full-length leather vest that had roses painted on it, and leather bottoms were stitched to my Levi’s. I wore my hair straight and threw my head back. We were free, all of us, to be, to love, to live, in a world different from the one our parents had inhabited. We were going full steam ahead, and yet we floated like water lilies on a pond, dreaming of a billion suns.
It was a time of tremendous hope and of tremendous naivete, a pivotal period in which we would see how far we could push the wall. We knew we were the children of a new sun and a new moon. We were blessed with our music and our determination; we knew we would bring an end to the war.
I had been making records for seven years by now, finding my own musical place in anger and innocence, singing for love and against war. We had awakened to the horror of war; at the same time we reveled in this luminous era as folk music became popular and coalesced into a quest for a better world.
My first top-ten single, “Both Sides Now,” was playing on the radio, with the sound of the silvery harpsichord on the ride-out and the guitars and sweet rhythm filling in behind the resonant beauty of Joni Mitchell’s lyric. The song was climbing up the Billboard charts, and I was being hailed as an “overnight success,” although by then I had been making records and doing concerts for nearly ten years. My creative side was blooming like the purple and pink crocuses poking through the last snows in the parks in New York City, where I had lived for five years. And now, for the first time, I had begun to write my own songs.
On June 1 I headed from New York to Los Angeles to make my eighth album for Elektra Records. John Haeny, my engineer, and David Anderle, my producer on this new recording, gave me a welcoming party so that I could meet all the new players. This was a band that would include many world-famous strangers, among them Stephen Stills, whom I had admired from afar when he played “Bluebird” with Buffalo Springfield. I had no idea what to expect, but I was already a little in awe of his great guitar playing and his lean, blond good looks.
It was a clear night in Laurel Canyon. Stars floated in a black sky as I drove west over the twisting roads from my rental on Mulholland Drive. I could feel a shimmer of promise in the air.
In the warmth of John’s house the music flowed, as did the wine and the conversation. Candles sparkled in the darkened living room and a small fire crackled on the grate despite the early June weather. John got me a drink, and David Anderle introduced me to the players who would be on the sessions. I was dressed in a soft silk top and velvet pants. I was feeling thinthin was always good! I was smoking a cigarette and looking through the wreath of smoke out the window when I saw a handsome man arrive, slam the door of a sleek Bentley, and stride up the walk to the house.
“Judy Collins,” David said when he walked in, “meet Stephen Stills.”
Stephen was wearing Levi’s, cowboy boots, and a brilliant white shirt with the cuffs turned up and the top mother-of-pearl button undone at the neck. I could see the sinews of his throat as he took me in and bowed as if to royalty. His wrists were tanned, as though he had spent most of his days on a horse in the sun. He was possibly the most attractive man I had ever seen.
Then his eyes found mine, and we gazed at each other, transfixed. I knew then that he would change my life.
It was a good party. There was more than one moment of sudden silence as my eyes met Stephen’s again and again. We talked and sang until late that night, and when the party was over, we found each other walking up the pathway to our cars. We didn’t say much in parting, but the light of the fire that had been sparked glowed in our goodbye. We both knew we would see each other the next day, when the music began.
As we said goodnight, I felt that I already knew all that was important to know about Stephen. There was a sensation of bliss in my heart.
I knew I was falling in love.
I settled down in Los Angeles to record the new album, making music all day and making love all night with Stephen. Everything about L.A. in those days was romantic. It was the rocking place to be. The Elektra Records studio was right in the middle of a fascinating neighborhood of thriving clubs and hotels that hosted many of the artists of the era as they came and went, recording the songs that were changing the musical landscape of the country.
Among the crowds pushing through the doors of the cafes and bars on La Cienega, you could usually find a star or two: Tim Buckley, with his wild, beautiful hair around his angelic face, drinking an afternoon Pernod; John Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas, lanky and smooth-moving as a cheetah, wandering into the luxurious and notorious Chateau Marmont. You might see his bandmate Denny Doherty there, or Michelle Phillips, a beautiful blonde, the most elegant woman in the folk crowd, looking as though she had just stepped out of Bergdorf Goodman’s (hippie) hair salon, her teeth white as snow, her smile bright, her figure slender, and her grace exquisite. We once took acid together, and even then she looked and spoke in a charming and loving manner. Her gifts included a voice that complemented the voices of John and Mama Cass and Denny, weaving its slightly dizzy way around the melody, a great part of the group’s success. Michelle might be folding herself around a cup of hot chocolate or a rum toddy in the Chateau’s big stone room with the fireplace.
There were days of music, lots of friends to hang out with, and the pleasure of my nights with Stephen.
Joni Mitchell often had David Crosby on her delicate arm. I had already recorded her beautiful song “Both Sides Now” and had gotten to know her a little. But she was elusive. With long blond hair and striking high cheekbones, she sang with a voice that seemed to be etched out of the Canadian landscape, sometimes haunting, sometimes soaring high as the Rockies. She smoked like a chimney, and there was always a cigarette between her thin fingers, but her skin was alabaster smooth. From time to time a certain look would pass over her face as she caught the eye of someone or noticed something she didn’t cotton to, but then, like the sun peeking out from the clouds, she would break into a smile or even a song.
Farther up the hill from the Chateau Marmont, the Magic Castle twinkled all night among the low-slung pines and flowering plants. Close by was the Tropicana, hotel host to rock-and-roll bands. My friend John Cooke, whom we all called Cookie, usually stayed there as well. Tall and slender with an aura that always reminded me of an elegant waterbird, Cookie had a bright eye and a clever way about him. He was the son of Alistair Cooke, the English television journalist. Cookie played banjo and sang with a group called the Charles River Valley Boys, and was road-managing Janis Joplin and her band, Big Brother and the Holding Company, who also stayed at the Tropicana.
Cookie and I had been occasional lovers during those years, sometimes finding each other at lonely hotels on the road or in hot tubs in Marin County, even once in his apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was someone I trusted and felt comfortable with. Cookie had introduced me to Janis at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967, where ninety thousand people in the audience lifted her to the sky like a new star in the firmament when they heard the raw despair in her voice and the raging determination to make it through; both would soon find their way to the album Cheap Thrills.
Cookie was present at a strange encounter I had with Janis in the spring of 1968. It was at the Troubadour, a Los Angeles club owned by Doug Weston. I was there to hear Paul Williams the night before I was due to play a two-week gig. Cookie took me to the club, where Janis joined our table and she and I were reintroduced. We whispered hello to each other as Paul was singing “Rainy Days and Mondays,” a song destined to become a huge hit for Karen Carpenter in 1971.
At the end of Paul’s set, Janis pulled her chair closer to mine. Her already famous face was a little puffy and her eyes gleamed from under tired-looking lids, but her energy attracted glances and attention to our table. She had to shout over the roar of the crowd’s attempt to get Paul back for an encore.
“I’m coming to hear you sing tomorrow!” she said in a loud voice. I responded, hoping she could hear me over the noise, that I was looking forward to my gig. As Paul left the stage and the room quieted down, Janis leaned across the table, speaking softly, intimately, into my ear.
“You know,” she said, “one of us is going to make it. And it’s not going to be me.”
Janis’ words have haunted me for more than four decades. I have never quite known what to make of them. We did not know each other well, and she could not have known how much I was drinking. But it has been my experience that a drunk can spot a drunk a mile away. Perhaps it was simply her reaching out into the world for company.
Janis and I laughed awkwardly then, strangely embarrassed, both of us, by the intimations of fate and the echoes of the early deaths of many artists. Janis’ drinking and drugging seemed all of a piece with her dramatic, in-your-face lifestyle and persona. Her audiences expected her to behave badly, to live out there on the edge. They took all she gave them and seemed to protect her with their screams, with their outsized enthusiasm, with their passionate, loud approval.
The truth was, of course, that I was as close to the edge as Janis, but in the eyes of the public, I was the girl with wildflowers in her hair and, some said, a voice like a mountain stream. Janis was expected to fly too high and eventually to crash. I was expected to be the flower-child folksinger who might soar but would come softly to my feet in golden fields.
Two years later, on October 4, 1970, Cookie, who was still her road manager, would discover Janis’ dead body in her room at the Landmark Hotel in L.A.
Sad times, sad girl, gone at twenty-seven. Janis defined the riotous rock-and-roll circus of the sixties, and she had been rightshe did not survive it.
In 1969 I was traveling back and forth from New York to L.A. as my affair with Stephen progressed. Crosby, Stills and Nash was beginning to record, and Stephen and I were still working on my new album.
I found myself back in California in April for a concert at the Santa Monica Civic Center. Stephen met me at my hotel that afternoon; it was a time when our romancethrilling but sometimes rockywas difficult to manage, between his recording and my touring. He walked into my room that day at the Holiday Inn carrying a guitar case and smiling. We embraced, he wished me an early happy birthday, and I realized all would be well. I relaxed.