Judy Collins: Singing for the Privileged Few

As I watched the transfixed faces of Judy's Carlyle fans, I had to wonder: What long and winding road took them here? Did they ever roll around in the mud at Woodstock? Take LSD?
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Judy Collins has been touching my heart since my teens, when I discovered two albums she made in the early 1970s, just before she bid the waning folk movement goodbye. Living and True Stories (and Other Dreams) are deliciously sad collections of folk-art ballads; they cover subjects ranging from Che Guevara's execution to the lingering ghosts of childhood. The classically-trained singer gave those songs an artful formality, but even at fourteen I sensed an emotionally fragile woman. Only later did she speak of her raging battle with alcoholism, which my father shared. But her only revelations then were in song; the Judy I first saw on TV remained hidden inside floor-length, folk-hippie dresses and hardly talked. Her famous blue eyes -- big, mournful, and distant -- suggested the true story.

Decades later, with demons tamed, Judy (now 70) has risen above her former self in many ways. She and her wondrously intact soprano have lately been ensconced at the Cafe Carlyle, one of the most elitist, exclusionary nightspots in New York. There she sells out nightly at a music charge of $125-$175.

At her opening-night show on Sept. 29, Judy's nearly waist-length mane of hair was platinum and swirled, and she wore a sequined pants suit. Beaming, she told the audience of her kinship with Elaine Stritch and Barbara Cook, theatrical doyennes who play the Carlyle. She bubbled over with stories about her liberal Denver upbringing; her blind father Chuck, a singing radio host; the classical piano studies she traded for the call of folk and the social revolutions of the 1960s. Risqué-for-their-time witticisms by Dorothy Parker and Mae West took their place in her show alongside Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs; she even revived yesterday's news by saluting Susan Boyle with "I Dreamed a Dream."

It was a precarious balancing act, and such is her magic that she managed to pull it off, rivetingly. But the uptown Judy has been in the works for a long time. In 1975 she recorded Stephen Sondheim's "Send in the Clowns," thus began her long struggle to shake off the folk label, which by the mid-1970s had become quaint. She ceased to play guitar onstage for years. Art songs by Ned Rorem and others by Sondheim appeared in her repertoire; so did "Junk Food Junkie," proof of how eager she was to show people she had a sense of humor.

Judy has since re-embraced her folk roots; now she performs mostly with her own guitar and with a talented pianist, Russell Walden. The enduring purity, agility, and silvery sheen of her voice elicit gasps. She sings the murderous tale of "Anathea," with its high-flying refrain, effortlessly in her original 1963 key. My favorite moments of hers happen when she sits at the piano and lets loose her billowing, Debussy-esque waves of chords. In autobiographical originals like "My Father" and "Secret Gardens," her picturesque imagery floods the mind.

But her current setting seems incongruous for a woman who started out as the most populist sort of entertainer: a Woody Guthrie-inspired troubadour who sang for and about the people. I looked around the Café and saw older women in Chanel suits, with pearls as big as marbles. They sat with gray-suited, Rolex-wearing men, bald, bespectacled, and looking like retired bankers, as some of them surely are. The couples stared at Judy with wistful eyes. With only the gentlest prompting from her, they eagerly sang along with songs of youthful idealism, from "Over the Rainbow" to "Where Have All the Flowers Gone."

For this crowd, the flowers haven't gone. They're purchased at the Carlyle florist in $200 bouquets, or planted by landscapers at those customers' Hamptons homes. But as I watched the transfixed faces of Judy's Carlyle fans, I had to wonder: What long and winding road took them here? Did any of them ever roll around in the mud at Woodstock? Burn their draft cards? Attend a Vietnam War peace rally, take LSD?

I phoned my friend Barry Dennen, a gifted actor-singer, to ask his opinion. Barry knows a thing or two about extraordinary women who change in unexpected ways. His 1997 book, My Life with Barbra, astutely recalls the time in which he lived with and mentored the pre-superstar Streisand. She, of course, is back in the news, having released a new "jazz" album of standards and done a launch show at the Village Vanguard, the kind of club for which Dennen groomed her. But clips of that event, posted on AOL, again confirm that Streisand has lost all touch with the brash, hungry, emotionally spontaneous girl she once was. Now careful and queenly, she seems afraid to revisit her past self, even if she might wish she could.

Happily, Judy Collins doesn't share that fear. But I asked Barry if he thought her Carlyle fans had ever indulged in any true 1960s hellraising.

Not much, he said, if any: "They were Democrats who made their first money and became Republicans." Through Judy, he believes, "they're trying to recapture their youth and their lost dreams." In this pampered setting the Carlyle swells can do so without dirtying their hands, swept back in time by a woman whose ageless voice makes them feel young again.

Finally Judy floats off stage, accepting one of those Carlyle bouquets from a staff member as her fans cheer. Waving, she vanishes quickly through the back door. Checks are left on tables, and out come the American Express platinum cards. I spotted the bill for a table of four: just over $2,000. The recipient didn't flinch. For what Judy had just given him, no price was too high.

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