A Memoir of Love,
Loss, Hope and
(Pocket Books)Famous names pop up in Singing Lessons like pimples on the face of a juvenile delinquent. Leonard Cohen is an old buddy, so is Mimi Fariña. Pete Seeger lies over there asleep on the couch, tired out after so many benefits, and Joan Baez comes up on the same program at a smoky 50's folk club. Faye Dunaway is around and about, 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." She 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 we go 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 Sills, Tennessee Williams, poet Kenneth Koch, "Yale President Kingman Brewster, and author Francine du Plessix Gray," merrily, all in the same cell together.
All these folks we meet 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 Bill Clinton, for god's sakes, who pops up more than once --- your regular toad in the garden --- has a "open, accessible personality," a "handsome face" and "amazing gifts." "You either have that touch of class and humanity or you don't," muses Ms. Collins, "and Clinton has. It is charming and unusual."
The ostensible purpose of Singing Lessons 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, and all the big shots disappear for a bit. 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 Saint Augustine who first described it as sin. Those who attempted suicide and failed would be executed. Thus, if you blew it, the state would finish you off for you.
In this day and age, survivors of a loved one's suicide are most likely to kill themselves. Every year in the U. S., thirty thousand 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 family member, "but the person who kills themself leaves a skeleton in yours." Shortly after the death of her son, Collins' sister says, "Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." And we get this extraordinary exchange, from 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 so 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 malestrom of life with its wonder and hate and love and despair: the big pie of life which, when you dig into it, has as many poisonous mushrooms as it does truffles.
"I do not give up control," says Ms. Collins at one point. 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. He invites her 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 (on stage), and Tennessee Williams (in jail), and Duke Ellington (on his deathbed), she's saying; 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, you can put "Amazing Grace" on your player, and get down on your knees, in the Oval Office, with The Prez. Hillary's out of town.
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.--- L. W. Milam
[This review originally appeared in salon.com in slightly different form]