Judy Collins on Stephen Stills: I said, it’s such a beautiful song, but it’s not winning me back

The singer-songwriters romance and breakup with Stills inspired classic songs including Suite: Judy Blue Eyes. Almost 50 years on, they are releasing an album and touring together

Nearly five decades ago, Judy Collins and Stephen Stills sparked a romance that was passionate and volatile enough to enter rocknroll lore. Their private connection became public after Stills, rejected by Collins, put his pining into classic songs such as Suite: Judy Blue Eyes and Helplessly Hoping, both of which turned up on the first Crosby Stills and Nash album in 1969. Three years later, Stills recorded another piece about their relationship, So Begins the Task, which addressed the hard labour of accepting rejection. Collins recorded and released her own version of that song less than 12 months later. Then, in 1975, Collins wrote Houses, which finds her haunting the places Stills resides in without her.

That dense knot of history adds delicious context to a current joint tour for the two stars, which recently made a stop at the NYCB Theatre at Westbury on New Yorks Long Island. Throughout the night, Collins and Stills meet each others eyes with easy empathy, reflecting the sweet kinship they struck and maintained after their romance ended.

The reason we stayed friends all these years is because we married other people, Stills says from the Westbury stage. In fact, Stephen married several other people, Collins adds.

This rapport has not only resulted in this tour but in their first joint album, Everybody Knows, whose title cheekily refers to their famous liaison. Both the show and the album feature the same clear subtext: friendship trumps romance.

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figcaption class=”caption” caption–img caption caption–img” itemprop=”description”> Stephen Stills and Judy Collins. Photograph: Anna Webber

Thats a good message to send, Collins says, several days after the Long Island show. When we started rehearsing for the tour, Stephen said to me: My God, we should have done this instead of the romance. And I said: But then you wouldnt have written Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, so that wouldnt have worked.

The pair perform part of the song at the show while, on the album, they include compositions that, essentially, recast their entire story. New versions appear of So Begins the Task as well as Houses, along with Sandy Dennys Who Knows Where the Time Goes. The last number not only speaks to their shared history, it indicates the original scene of the crime.

The pair met in 1968 when Stillss band, Buffalo Springfield, had just collapsed and Collins was preparing to record a new solo album, to be titled Who Knows Where the Time Goes. One night at the Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles, Stills spied Collins in the audience and made his move. I was drinking beer because I couldnt afford whiskey, Stills says on stage in Westbury. I wanted to meet her. I used to listen to her albums before I went to sleep. I went up to her and kissed her hand.

Collins says she didnt know Stephen from Adam back then, even though he had just scored a top 10 hit for Buffalo Springfield with For What Its Worth. Collins had recently had her own hit, with Joni Mitchells Both Sides Now. I was so deeply involved in my own career, I had no idea of much of what was going on, she says.

Undeterred, Stills lobbied Collinss producer, David Anderle, to hire him to play on the Who Knows sessions. For years, I thought it was Anderle who begged him to play, says Collins. Only later did I find out it was the other way around. Once Stills showed up for the recording, things moved fast: I was smitten. He was awfully good-looking. The relationship began as soon as he came in the band.

Stills helped give Collins a more rocking sound, and brought in a song that became a staple for her, a cover of Ian Tysons country-rock ballad Someday Soon. As seamless as the recording process was, the relationship became fraught. It was fireworks, says Collins. It was much too frantic for my speed at the time.

There was also a long-distance issue to navigate. My centre was in New York and his in LA, explains Collins. He hated New York and he hated therapy. And I was in both.

Egos also got in the way. We both needed to find out where we were going next in our careers. Also, I had just gotten my son back after three or four years of losing custody of him. It was a very intense period.

Back in New York, Collins met the actor Stacy Keach and they wound up living together for the next five years. While Stills wrote about their breakup straight away, Collinss song about him, Houses, didnt come out until six years later. He only found out the lyric was about him when Collins chose to include it on the new album. I dont think he was listening to my albums as much as I was listening to his back then, Collins says. He was very touched by the song when I played it for him. He was [touched] that it was the counterpoint to Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.

Collins recalls the first time Stills came to her hotel room to play her his now-classic song: Afterwards, we both cried and then I said: Oh, Stephen, its such a beautiful song. But its not winning me back.

She says she didnt feel exposed by the songs title. Ive always understood that people have to write about their lives, Collins says. Most of all, I felt the song was flattering and heartbreaking for both of us. Neither one of us walked away from that relationship relieved. We were feeling like, Whoa, what happened?

It wasnt until years after the relationship evolved into a friendship that yet another song surfaced that addressed their romance. Unbeknown to Collins back in 1968, Stills was spending unused studio time during the Who Knows sessions to record demos of some new songs. During those sessions, he cut his earliest, solo versions of Suite: Judy Blue Eyes, Helplessly Hoping and a song called Judy. The demos were lost, however, and did not resurface until 2007, when a studio worker found the tape and returned it to Stills. Rhino issued the recordings as Just Roll Tape, in the process offering a trove for historians and fans. For the new Stills-Collins album, the pair recorded their own version of Judy.

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On stage at the Saban theatre, Beverley Hills, during the Stills and Collins tour. Photograph: Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

Despite the depth of their connection, the new album might never have happened had Crosby, Stills and Nash not come to a fractious impasse over the past two years. Each of the three has said they <a href=”https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/mar/08/graham-nash-csny-david-crosby-stills-young” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>will never perform together again. However, Collins swats away the notion that shes a surrogate for Crosby and Nash. Im the original girl, she says. I was there before any of them.

In the meantime, Collins believes her new music with Stills completes a circle both for themselves and for the fans. When people hear us together theyre reminded not only of our story but of their own. People return to their youthful love affairs. It spins out like a double helix with many purposes.

One of them is to provide an object lesson in how to turn passion into camaraderie. People always say to me, I wish I could find a way to stay friends with people I was intimate with, Collins says. My secret is to always say I love you and always say Im sorry.

Everybody Knows by Stephen Stills and Judy Collins is out 22 September

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2017/sep/21/judy-collins-on-stephen-stills-i-said-its-such-a-beautiful-song-but-its-not-winning-me-back

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