In which it’s a matter of mind over music—or is it?
Yesterday a favorite podcaster of mine who often engages in discussions of mental health issues—and who is herself studying to be a therapist—read out a message from a female listener who described her boyfriend’s unwillingness or inability to help her through an emotionally turbulent period. And I thought, sounds like a classic Stephen Stills situation.
I refer to the pop epic “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” which Stills wrote and which his supergroup Crosby, Stills, & Nash released in the autumn of 1969 as a single off their debut album. The work was inspired by Stills’ rapidly deteriorating romance with fellow singer Judy Collins. Now, I’m not exactly a fan of Collins, but if either of them is going to get my sympathy in this case, it ain’t Stills.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve loved the song from the first listen. I don’t even remember the circumstances, but the impact of those opening lines on me was immediate and lasting. I was very young, for sure, and considered psychological turmoil just something you learned to carry on your own: I didn’t know really good relationships were about sharing burdens and offering mutual support. It was hard for me to imagine trusting a friend in that way, so the idea of a romance with that kind of dynamic was as yet totally beyond me. But the harmonies quieted those questions and lulled me away.
That said, age and experience have put me more and more at odds with the perspective the song expresses. Not many songs, especially at the time, contained mention of mental illness at all, let alone as a clinical condition that required treatment or ‘work’—outside of the work everyone did, which was simply not talking about it. (In an extreme example of the distractions and outlets we invented for ourselves, our involvement in Vietnam was at its height.) Stills felt that his relationship with Collins was suffering for numerous reasons, one being a routine of therapy sessions that placed constraints on her time. The days and times of the week listed in the second movement (Friday evening / Sunday in the afternoon) correspond with those sessions. I doubt Stills consulted Collins before adding this personal detail; it seems not to have kept her from admiring the final product, but it reads to me nonetheless like an invasion of privacy.
Mostly because I get the impression that narrator-Stills resents addressee-Collins’ commitment to getting help and doesn’t give credence to the idea that she could be in need of medical attention. He blames it for taking her away from him and responds reactively, never mind her opinions on her own health. He is essentially passive.
And then—rather audaciously, if you ask me—in a song with a lot of lines, the one repeated most often is “You make it hard.” She makes it hard? Fact is, buddy, if she felt comfortable opening up to you she might be leaning on you instead of a licensed professional. Ideally both would be available to her. But you’ve demonstrated that you are not receptive, so what choice does she have?
The lyric has a lot of love in it, in fairness, even if with an air of ‘let’s try to stay together for the sake of the history.’ I just think narrator-Stills is taking the easy way out and complaining when he hasn’t exhausted all avenues that could lead him to understand his partner’s point of view. If he really cares for her, that is, as he claims to. The last thing she needs when she is struggling is to be with someone who not only doesn’t understand her but is losing interest in investing the effort. Heck, maybe going to a session of his own would bring him to the light.
It’s an early and important blueprint for songwriting that includes mental and emotional wellbeing in analyses of relationships. At the same time, it emphasizes how far we have to go—after all, we first have to normalize the idea of therapy if we hope to make those services universally accessible. To filter it through the recent Twitter trend “men will literally [insert verb here] instead of going to therapy,” we’re looking at “men will literally write a seven-minute pop song instead of going to therapy.” And how beneficial is that in the end?
Not that I’m about to stop listening to it. It’s so dang pretty. I was singing it one day around the house when I was probably thirteen, and my mom joined in for a few bars before pausing to compliment my taste in music. Once it gets Mom’s approval, it stays in rotation FOREVER.
Image: the single, September 1969