In My Life was one of the albums playing in the background of my childhood.
My parents were pseudo-hippies in the 1960’s, and fortunately for me, they held on to the 60’s tenet that fucking was a religious rite to be performed with great frequency, a belief they cherished well into their forties and beyond. Like his future daughter, my dad always hated rubbers, and the combination of my mom going off the pill and my dad’s irrepressible horniness eventually led to the blessed accident that was me.
Later than they wanted, but I was worth the wait!
Music was always playing at my house, mostly vinyl LP’s from their days of radical youth. My parents had always been musical explorers, so I was turned onto all kinds of sounds during my formative years. On Sundays, my mother insisted on classical, so I fell in love with Schubert and Segovia. Monday nights were blues revival nights, where I developed passions for Robert Johnson and Mike Bloomfield. What is now called “world music” filled up a couple of evenings a week, interspersed with Beatles, Stones and Kinks. Friday nights were kick-ass rock-and-roll and Saturday nights jazz, or vice versa (one or the other would get them in the mood).
Every now and then, my dad convinced my mother to let up on the classics and turned Sundays into a folk festival. The house was filled with Bert Jansch, Phil Ochs, Malvina Reynolds . . . and this one album by Judy Collins that featured what I thought was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard: Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
Judy Collins became kind of blah after she ruined Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” but on this album she was hitting on all cylinders as an interpretiste. In My Life contains songs from Dylan, Richard Fariña, Brecht and Weill, Cohen, Brel, Randy Newman, Donovan and, of course, Lennon & McCartney. The cover must have seemed terribly avant-garde back then; a woman and a cigar were clashing images in the days of dawning liberation. When I was barely old enough to be somewhat aware, I looked at the cover and immediately wanted to be that woman, drink that wine and smoke that cigar.
I would have dumped that horrid outfit for a leather skirt and heels, of course, but in looking back I’m surprised at how much this record influenced my personal view of what a woman should aspire to be.
We open the album filled with gratitude that there are other voices willing to sing Bob Dylan’s songs. Far superior to the original, her rendition of “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” opens to the sound of flute, setting a wistful tone to a vocal that comes across as both worldly and tired of the world as is. As the vocal proceeds, the arrangement adds other winds and pizzicato strings, providing ironic contrast to Dylan’s observations of the weaknesses inherent in human nature.
Richard Fariña’s “Hard Lovin’ Loser” comes next, one of the few songs on the album that falls flat due to the ridiculous use of a harpsichord for a song with such hardness at the core. The vocal is fine; it’s the choice of instrument that ruins the mood. Fortunately, Judy knocks it out of the park on the next cut, “Pirate Jenny” from Weill and Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera. If you don’t know the story, Jenny is a maid at a fleabag hotel in a seedy portside neighborhood who fantasizes revenge on the citizenry who humiliate her daily. She conjures up a pirate ship that enters the harbor and blows the town to smithereens except for the hotel. The pirates invade, capture the survivors and bring them all to Jenny, who immediately orders a mass execution. Judy Collins immerses herself in the role, bringing out the essence of Pirate Jenny: more than anything, she revels in her power.
Part of me admired Pirate Jenny, fighter of the evil oppressors, and I found her passion for power titillating. But why did she have to kill them all? That troubled me. Her story spawned in me a dawning appreciation of the explosive tensions of social and economic inequality.
That such a performance is followed by the perfection of her delivery in “Suzanne” may help explain the enduring love I have for this precious remnant of the 1960’s. Like Dylan, Leonard Cohen was better at writing lyrics than singing them, so the essential version of this song belongs to Judy Collins. While I’ve always found the line about Christ to be most intriguing (“Forsaken, almost human, he sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.”), I responded most fervently to the final passage describing the heroine of the tale:
And she shows you where to look
Amid the garbage and the flowers
There are heroes in the seaweed
There are children in the morning
They are leaning out for love
And they will lean that way forever
While Suzanne holds the mirror
I so wanted to be Suzanne!
“La Colombe” from Jacques Brel comes next, delivered with slightly less drama than Brel’s version, making the anti-war message less morally elitist and more accessible. Next she takes on “Marat/Sade” from Peter Weiss’ The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. This song echoed the revolutionary fervor (and the excessively long titles) of the 1960’s, though the 60’s revolution was directed more towards a faceless establishment than the pudgy-faced royals and generals who wound up under the guillotine. Exquisitely delivered, I always find it easy to immerse myself in the drama of her performance.
For a long time I had no idea Randy Newman wrote “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” having associated him in my mind with silly shit like “Short People” and a song or two up for the Oscars. I don’t think he has done anything better than this melancholy masterpiece, which Judy sings with a sense of wistful detachment combined with a hint of bitterness at the state of the human condition:
Scarecrows dressed in the latest styles
With frozen smiles to chase love away
Human kindness is overflowing
And I think it’s going to rain today
Tin can at my feet
Think I’ll kick it down the street
That’s the way to treat a friend
“Sunny Goodge Street” comes from Donovan’s early years before he went way over the top with the flower power stuff. Honestly, I prefer Donovan’s quiet, jazz-tinged version to the carnival arrangement on this record. “Liverpool Lullaby” presents a powerful story of what today we call child abuse, but was then simply the norm of cruelty that characterized the life of the poor seeking relief in ample quantities of cheap liquor.
We then come to a second Cohen song, “Dress Rehearsal Rag,” with a theme of “Isn’t it a long way down?” that is much more vivid, real and powerful than Dylan’s attempt at hard luck on “Like a Rolling Stone.” This is another outstanding dramatic portrayal and I can’t help but feeling that Judy would have been better served sticking with interpretations with drama instead of slipping into soft pop and ersatz folk later in her career. The album ends reflectively with her version of “In My Life,” and while she gives us a competent performance, I remain firm in my belief that no one has ever done a Beatles song as well as The Beatles.
Still, in the end, In My Life remains fresh and unique; the dramatic pieces give it a flavor that is unlike any other record I’ve heard. Judy Collins delivers one exceptional performance after another, and excluding a couple of unfortunate exceptions, the arrangements support those performances.
I now return to my glass of Grenache and a fresh Montecristo, to revel in my power.