Review: Singing Lessons by Judy Collins

Tonight, after dinner, Joel and I went to the public library, one of the things we’ve always enjoyed doing together. I brought home four books: Singing Lessons by Judy Collins, Chronicles, Vol. 1 by Bob Dylan, Tourjours Provence and Encore Provence by Peter Mayle.

After everyone went to bed, I poured a glass of wine, lit some candles, cozied myself into my wingback chair that sits by the fireplace, put the faux mink throw over my lap, and sank into the all-encompassing pleasure of reading, a pleasure I have denied myself of for too long...

I began with Singing Lessons. I’m already halfway through it. How many evenings have I spent sitting on living room floors, the room illuminated by candles, the air filled with sandalwood while listening to this great artist’s recordings? How many times did Deni, Dee and I sing Suzanne to, or with each other? I thought this book was going to be the usual trek down a psychedelic Memory Lane, but as soon as I read the first paragraph, I knew I was in for something much more moving and poignant. In Singing Lessons, Judy takes the reader along on her journey of healing after her son’s suicide in 1992.

“I felt it was my fault, that I could have stopped my son from killing himself…
A thick hole of despair descended, through the numbness of the
knowledge: the worst had happened, the worst was happening,
the worst would continue to happen each and every day of my life.”

The news of Clark’s death came as a shock to me tonight, because I’d always related to her song, Born to the Breed. I felt we shared a common bond, as singer-songwriters of the Sixties, as teen mothers trying to justify a career during a time when women didn’t have careers, as survivors overcomers of abuse, and as dreamers of peace.

Of course, the book’s not all about her dealing with grief—and yet it is. Judy relates her life story, braiding Clark around and through every aspect of her existence in a way that only a mother who has outlived her child has the right to do. In a very real way, it serves as a love letter to her son, the last words she never got to say. In a profoundly intimate way, Judy renders herself utterly vulnerable to her readers and suddenly her songs, those we have heard throughout the years, become the window through which she allows us to view her. I’ll be finishing this book within the next few hours; I found it very hard to put down.

“To read a writer is for me not merely to get an idea of what he says,
but to go off with him and travel in his company.”
(Andre Gide)

*Copyright © 1998 by Judy Collins