Suite for heartbreak and name dropping

In the midst of a deathly tome overflowing with her dratted ego, Judy Collins attempts to tell the unembellished tale of a sad death. And she pulls it off.

Published July 29, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Famous names pop up in Judy Collins' "Singing Lessons" like pimples on the face of a juvenile delinquent. Leonard Cohen is an old buddy; so is Mimi Fariqa. Pete Seeger lies over there asleep on the couch, tired out after so many benefits, and Joan Baez turns up at a smoky '50s folk club. Faye Dunaway is around somewhere, along with Joan Rivers and John Denver. Joni Mitchell knows Collins well enough to say, "I don't believe you're still such a romantic." And Judy Blue Eyes also runs into Bob Dylan from time to time, along with Barbara Dane and Tom Paxton -- that "blue-eyed handsome singer with a sweet twang in his voice."

Even when Collins goes to jail in protest over some crummy war, they don't stick her in with the smelly drunks and freaked-out stoners. No, it's Stephen Stills, Tennessee Williams, poet Kenneth Koch, "Yale President Kingman Brewster" and "author Francine du Plessix Gray," merrily, all in the same cell together.

All the folks she's met on the song circuit (or in the hoosegow) are the most wonderful bunch you'd ever want to hang out with. Not a creep in the pack. Josh White has "a hearty deep laughter." Dave van Ronk has a "whiskey voice full of character." Odetta has a "smooth-as-honey voice and a warm heart." (She is also satisfactory in an olfactory way: "She not only sang great, but looked great -- and smelled great!")

Everyone is extraordinary, good humored, sincere, earnest or deeply moving. Even President Clinton, for God's sake, who pops up more than once -- your regular toad in the garden -- has an "open, accessible personality," a "handsome face" and "amazing gifts." "You either have that touch of class and humanity or you don't," muses Collins, "and Clinton has. It is charming and unusual."

The ostensible purpose of "Singing Lessons," which came out in paperback this month, is to tell us the grief Collins felt at losing her only child, in 1992, to suicide. With this, at midpoint, we get into the meat of the book. All the big shots disappear for a while. We see a grief-stricken woman who has lost her grown son in a most terrible way. She tells us what suicide does to families and lovers, how people deal with it, what it does to her, what it has meant through the ages.

In ancient Greece, the idea was, "If your existence is hateful to you, die; if you're overwhelmed by fate, drink the hemlock. If you are bowed with grief, abandon life." Early Christians killed themselves because "heaven beckoned with salvation to the martyr." It was St. Augustine who first described it as sin. Those who attempted suicide and failed would be executed. If you blew it, the state would finish you off.

In this day and age, survivors of a loved one's suicide are most likely to kill themselves. Every year in the United States, 30,000 people do it, and it's the third leading cause of death among teenagers. Since 1950, 16 million people have suffered the loss of a family member or a loved one through suicide.

"Everyone has a skeleton in their closet," says one member of Collins' family, "but the person who [commits suicide] leaves a skeleton in yours." And we get this extraordinary exchange, about one of her friends:

When Pamela went to her therapist, he asked her whether, if she were serious about killing herself, she would like to write the suicide note, right there in his office. Pamela balked, said she felt like killing herself but didn't know what to say to her family, her friends, who she would leave behind. She told him she hadn't any idea what to say. The therapist wrote something on a scrap of paper and handed it to her.

"What about something like this?" he asked.

Pamela opened the note. "Fuck you," it said.

Judy Collins is not the only person in the world who has lost a child -- suddenly, out of the blue. One who sets out to describe such pain should be prepared to articulate, honestly, his or her own grief, and -- as well -- the pain of those who have come before, those who will come after. She pulls it off. In the midst of a deathly tome overflowing with her dratted ego -- all those names! -- she chooses to tell us, without embellishment, of a sad death. In these few pages come, too, tales of alcoholism ("the long suicide of drinking"), hideous depression, endless drugs. She, for a brief moment, lets us see the grieving mother who, no matter whose name she can conjure up, cannot be helped out of this most grievous of truths of the human condition, the maelstrom of life with its wonder and hate and love and despair -- the big pie of life that, when you dig into it, has as many poisonous mushrooms as it does truffles.

"I do not give up control," says Collins. But fortunately, at the mid-point, she decided to drop all the show-off stuff, let us in on the real grief of a real person. Alas, by Page 250, we are back at Turtle Bay, in the Caribbean, hobnobbing with Hillary and Chelsea and you-know-who. Later, he invites Collins to the White House for dinner (Hillary is away in Arkansas), and she stays over, and he takes her running the next morning, over to the Lincoln Memorial. It's the name-drop climax of "Singing Lessons," the very apex. You think I was high on the hog with Bob Dylan (onstage), she's saying, and Tennessee Williams (in jail) and Duke Ellington (on his deathbed). Well, I got one for you that'll blow your socks off.

This book comes packaged with a CD of five Collins songs. If you want to give yourself some Judy overload, put "Amazing Grace" on your player, and get down on your knees in the Oval Office with the Prez. Hillary's out of town.

Hey! You stop that, right now. It's not what you think. At least, we don't think it is. They're just examining the new "brilliantly colored circular rug with the bright eagle ..." Another time, another visit, a slightly different set of circumstances -- why, it could have been the biggest name-drop bomb of them all.

By Lorenzo W. Milam

Lorenzo W. Milam writes for RALPH: The Review of Arts, Literature, Philosophy, and the Humanities. He is the author of "CripZen," "Sex and Broadcasting," "The Radio Papers" and "A Cricket in the Telephone (at Sunset)" among others.

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