Lightfoot – In an interview with The Globe and Mail about 20 years ago, the late best-selling author – and Canadian cultural icon – Pierre Berton made this rather curious comment about fellow Canadian cultural icon, singer Gordon Lightfoot: “Gordie is a taciturn kind of guy. I think he cares about his music, but I don’t think he cares about his image.”
But somehow that best sums up the behind the music character of Gordon Lightfoot. For over 50 years, he was one of the most recognized figures in the contemporary Canadian music scene, whose songs about love, heartache, travelling along the highways and byways in a freewheeling manner, the beauty of the Canadian landscape, and historic ballads like “If You Could Read My Mind”, “Sundown”, “Carefree Highway”, “For Lovin’ Me”, “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – all delivered with his trademark rough-hewn, lilting singing voice, has made him an international sensation and has earned him the respect and admiration of millions of fans, as well as some of the biggest names in the folk-rock, singers/songwriters music scene.
However, there is more to Gordon Lightfoot than those much loved remembered songs. Veteran Canadian music journalist Nicholas Jennings, author of an excellent history of Canadian rock music called Before the Gold Rush, has captured both sides of Gordon Lightfoot in a very captivating manner with his recently released biography called, simply enough, Lightfoot.
Born 80 years ago in the town of Orillia, Ontario (which coincidentally, was the original site of the Mariposa folk music festival), Lightfoot knew from an early age that he wanted to pursue a career in music. First it was as a soprano choir singer at St. Paul’s church in Orillia, which led him to sing at local amateur talent competitions, in which his impressive singing voice won him a major competition in 1951 called the Kiwanis Music Festival at Toronto’s Massey Hall (a venue that would later be like a second home to him). After a spell as a member of the square dancing troupe on the CBC Television music series “Country Hoedown” (where his less than spectacular dancing skills prompted his colleagues to call him “Leadfoot”), Lightfoot haunted the coffeehouses and clubs of Yorkville, New York and L.A. to establish himself as a folk music performer. However, it wasn’t until 1965, when his song “For Lovin’ Me” was being covered by the likes of such major folk music performers as Peter, Paul and Mary, that Lightfoot began to establish a solid reputation as a singer/songwriter.
Jennings’ book covers both sides of Gordon Lightfoot with plenty of detail and behind-the-scenes information, in which the end result is quite a complete, well-rounded portrait of the man and his music. However, what gives this book an extra dose of credibility is that Lightfoot himself gave Jennings unprecedented access to himself through a series of rare, revealing interviews, which deftly closes a lot of gaps to the story of his talents and mystique.
On the musical side of the story, you find out that Gordon Lightfoot is a musical perfectionist and a steadfast creature of habit. He tours on a regular basis (with his annual sold-out gigs at Massey Hall are seen almost like a homecoming), he spent countless weeks every year holed up in a special room in his suburban Toronto mansion, where he composed and wrote the songs of his upcoming albums, fueled with an endless supply of coffee, cigarettes (and up until the 1980s) alcohol. And at every tour stop, even if he has played the songs on the play list thousands of times, he was always insistent that his guitar and the instruments of his back-up band were always perfectly fine tuned.
As well, Jennings gives a thorough, album-by-album approach to how Lightfoot crafted his songs and how and what inspired them. My favourite story deals with his 1976 chart topper “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, which Lightfoot first learned about when he heard an item on CBC Radio about the tragic shipwreck that claimed the lives of its 29 crewmen, while he took a break from one of his album song writing sessions. During the recording session for the “Summertime Dream” album, Lightfoot kept on playing bits and pieces of the song, which no one in the studio had a clue about; in fact, the band didn’t even know its lyrics. One day, the recording engineer insisted that Lightfoot commit the song to tape, even though he believed he wasn’t ready to record it yet. However, Lightfoot and the band recorded the entire six-minute ballad in one take. By November of 1976, the single topped both the Canadian and U.S. record charts.
And the personal side of Gordon Lightfoot is just as interesting to read about as the musical side. He was an intensely private person who shied away from receiving any award or honour; he rarely gave interviews (and when he did, he didn’t say very much that was revealing at best); and he closely guarded his image and musical credibility (case in point: when his first record label decided to issue an album compilation of his early hit songs without his permission, Lightfoot bought all the copies of that album, then proceeded to personally destroy them with an ax).
There were plenty of personal demons that were a part of Lightfoot’s life, especially alcohol. Throughout the 60s and 70s, alcohol was part of his life blood, whether it be personal or professional. He drank it steadily during his song writing sessions, and basically fuelled him up before performances (during one tour in the UK, Lightfoot drank several Irish Coffees before he went onstage). Although he claimed his annual summertime canoe trips to remote parts of Canada acted as a sort-of “detox” before he started touring every fall, he finally gave up drinking on Labour Day of 1981. After he witnessed his then-girlfriend Cathy Coonley forever leaving him with his son Eric, Lightfoot then proceeded to empty his liquor cabinet and poured the contents of every bottle down the kitchen sink. He never touched a drop of alcohol again.
Although he has married twice more, survived a near-fatal health issue (he suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm in 2002), and warded off false reports about his death, Gordon Lightfoot still records new songs and continues to tour as he performs around the world to packed houses, firmly solidifying his legendary reputation (albeit reluctantly) as Canada’s troubadour. And Nicholas Jennings’ fascinating biography solidifies that legend even further, as readers discover the two sides of the man who has told Canada’s story to the world in song.