Judy Collins, Stephen Stills still sweet on ‘Suite’

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If You Go

Who: Stephen Stills and Judy Collins

When: 8 p.m. May 10

Where: Uptown Theatre, 1350 Third St., Napa

Tickets: $70-$80

Information: 707-259-0123, uptowntheatrenapa.com

_____

When: 7 p.m. June 1

Where: Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa

Tickets: $59-$79

Information: 707-546-3600, lutherburbankcenter.org

In 1969, after a passionate two-year romance, Judy Collins and Stephen Stills broke up.

Heartbroken, Stills wrote “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (Collins was known for her luminescent blue eyes), recorded by Crosby, Stills & Nash and now widely regarded as one of rock’s great love songs.

The first time Collins heard the song was live –– Stills played it just for her and it made her cry, she said in a 1990 interview with Graham Nash.

Collins, 79, who gained fame for her angelic voice on songs such as the 1960s chestnut, “Both Sides Now,” has maintained her friendship with Stills through the decades.

About four years ago, both Collins and Crosby, Stills & Nash were performing at an AARP convention.

“Stephen and I looked at each other and said, ‘Why aren’t we doing this (on our own)?’ We’re not chopped liver,” Collins said.

Last year, Stills and Collins played about 50 shows together and released an album, “Everybody Knows” (the title track is Leonard Cohen’s song), a mix of covers and original compositions.

The album includes Stills’ ballad, “So Begins the Task,” about coming to terms with the end of his and Collins’ romance.

“And I will learn to live without you now,” he sings, “as I cannot learn to give only part somehow.”

Last year’s set lists included a diverse mix of songs, including the protest anthem, “For What It’s Worth,” from Stills’ 1960s band Buffalo Springfield.

They also played Collins’ new songs, “Houses” and “River of Gold,” and covered “Handle With Care” from The Traveling Wilburys.

Collins’ life hasn’t been all gold and platinum. She has survived substance abuse and her greatest personal tragedy, the suicide of her only son, Clark, who took his life in 1992 at age 33.

Asked in a 2004 interview with Bill Moyers how she got through that period, Collins responded, “Inch by inch, minute by minute, hour by hour.”

And with some help from her friends. “Joan Rivers (whose husband committed suicide) reached out to me and said, you cannot stop working,” Collins told Moyers.

“I’d planned to quit working –– I was going to put it all aside,” she said, but Rivers told her: “You can’t do that – you won’t heal. You have to go on with your life.”

In advance of shows at Napa’s Uptown Theatre on May 10 and at Santa Rosa’s Luther Burbank Center for the Arts on June 1, Collins spoke to The Press Democrat by phone from Los Angeles.

Following are highlights from the conversation.

What led you and Stephen to go out on the road together?

We have shared all kinds of experiences. We talked about songs and tried to figure out what might be the ones we’d do. We came up with a pretty good set list and decided to give it a shot.

How did you select what songs to cover and which original songs to include?

We decided to give each other freedom to do whatever appealed, so I will be doing a new song of mine in my little set, and he will probably do a new one in his set. At the end of the show we sing “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” together which is so much fun. Here I am, a girl singer and 12-string guitar player in a rock ’n roll band with Stephen Stills, which is pretty odd.

If You Go

Who: Stephen Stills and Judy Collins

When: 8 p.m. May 10

Where: Uptown Theatre, 1350 Third St., Napa

Tickets: $70-$80

Information: 707-259-0123, uptowntheatrenapa.com

_____

When: 7 p.m. June 1

Where: Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa

Tickets: $59-$79

Information: 707-546-3600, lutherburbankcenter.org

What’s it like for you to hear “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” a song about Stephen’s longing and sadness after your breakup with him almost 50 years ago?

It’s hysterical. We don’t do the whole song –– we just sing the end of it, which gets everyone dancing in the aisles. It’s tremendous fun.

You and Stephen have said your collaboration is “a triumph of art and friendship over time.” Can you explain?

When we started doing this (collaborating musically), he said we should have done this from the beginning and skipped the romance.

And I said, “Yeah, but then you wouldn’t have written ‘Suite: Judy Blue Eyes’ and there may not have been any careers.”

After breaking up, you and Stephen remained close, right?

Stephen got absolutely locked into my family right away in 1966; he came out to Denver where we all lived and took pictures of my family home, and we went skiing in the mountains. He was practically a family member and still is.

What are the shows like?

We have a band in which my musical director takes the lead on keyboards and piano –– he and Stephen get along beautifully.

His bass player is on bass, and we have a drummer that both of us have worked with over the years. So we are very simpatico, all of us.

Do you feel the audience is there to see both of you or do some come for Stephen and some for you?

I think they have the capacity to appreciate both of us separately and also together. I think it’s a big deal for them to see us together.

They have heard us apart for so many years and it’s refreshing –– it’s different, it’s fun. Not that it wasn’t fun before, but this is a new experience which is exciting for everybody.

No matter how close you are to somebody, you can’t guarantee that your voices will work well together, but your voice and Stephen’s voice seemed to be made for each other.

Yes, they do. We think along the same lines musically, and I think we have a lot of resonance together as singers and musicians.

I get to be on the stage and listen to this brilliant guitarist. He’s one of the greatest guitar players in the world. When he starts playing, you just go nuts.

Do you have to do anything special now to take care of your voice?

I just watch it. I’m careful. I eat right. I sleep a lot. I don’t scream and yell. I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I live like an athlete: I exercise. You have to.

Do you and Stephen take your spouses or families along when you tour?

No, it’s too expensive, and they would never want to do it anyway.

The Stills song, “So Begins the Task,” is that Stephen writing to you?

I think it’s Stephen writing to me. He has confessed to me that he wrote all kinds of songs for me, not just “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” but things like “Helplessly Hoping” and the song “Judy” which nobody heard before this tour.

I know that emotions are what drive our songwriting, and it’s very flattering to be the subject. He has said, “I’d do everything in my power to get you back,” and I said, “Well, you finally did.”

Michael Shapiro is the author of “A Sense of Place” and interviewed Graham Nash last year for The Press Democrat.

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