August 16, 2020

FTV: Gordon Lightfoot

  When my wife and I were still in dating mode, we used to commute on alternate weekends  (she was working in Marquette and I was in Ontonagon).  My habit of borrowing albums to transfer on to cassette tapes provided me with my road music.  My vehicle’s radio was strictly AM, so my stash of cassettes was a way to get away from Top 40 AM (and the ads that went with them).  Our Junior High librarian at that time hailed from the deep south of Michigan and was a devoted Gordon Lightfoot fan.  I owned none of Lightfoot’s albums.  When John discovered that I had seen him at NMU in my college days, he all but demanded that I borrow his Lightfoot albums to make my own collection.  One of my favorite Lightfoot albums was Don Quixote which I recorded on the B-side of a 90 minute cassette.  If I started the first side of this tape as I left  Marquette, it timed out that Lightfoot’s song Alberta Bound would be playing as I drove down the hill and past Henry Ford’s old model town/sawmill location twelve miles south of L’Anse.  The little burg is named Alberta after the young daughter of the site’s superintendent.  The first time it happened, I made a mental note to try it again on future trips and the same tune played at the same location each time.  Of course, the Canadian Lightfoot was singing about the province of Alberta, but being a man of many travels, the door was left open a crack:  “What if Gordon Lightfoot had travelled US 41 and noticed this little Michigan town . . .?”

     CBC produced an excellent Gordon Lightgoot documentary in 2019 called If You Could Read My Mind.  Author Nicholas Jennings was interviewed a lot in this docufilm and as of this writing, his book Lightfoot is on my ‘books to find’ list.  At the time it was produced, Lightfoot was 81 and a much frailer version of the singer that appeared in the many career spanning clips used.  Unlike some aging singers, he is still in fine voice, though his singing sounds a bit thinner these days.  Gordon is still quite nimble on guitar, but admits that he does not play with the same dexterity he did back in the day.  Lightfoot faced a serious health crisis in 2002 when he suffered an aneurysm and was in a coma for six weeks.  In that he had a stroke on stage four years later, it is remarkable to see him still performing at such a high level.  This no doubt is the root of the announcement he made at the beginning of one of his more recent concerts:  “Reports of my death have been greatly exagerated.”  I remember an earlier interview when Lightfoot told the story of “driving through a cemetery on the way to my office in Toronto.  I often took this route because it is a beautiful place and I heard the DJ on the radio read a report about the death of Gordon Lightfoot.  As soon as I got to the office, I called the radio station to report that I was driving my car when they reported  my demise.  I told them I was very much alive and would have called sooner but traffic was heavy.  It was funny, but strange to hear that you have passed on when you are still here, driving through a cemetery no less.”

     After his real brush with death, it was somewhat surprising to see that Lightfoot still smokes.  He was known as a robust guitar strummer who didn’t perform with a drummer in his early years because he produced his own rhythm track on guitar.  His forearms now appear very thin and the softness of his speaking voice reminds me how age affected my father as he moved from his 80s into his 90s.  There are many clips of Gordon himself talking about his past in the documentary. His friends, record label executives, and other musicians weigh in.  By drawing on so many people’s memories, If You Could Read My Mind offers a pretty balanced look at Lightfoot’s career.  In other words, it isn’t just a puff piece and as a long time fan, it was interesting how much I didn’t know about one of Canada’s best known exports.

     The ‘In Memorial’ section in the credit scroll at the end listed people in Lightfoot’s circle who are no longer around.  Among these I noted his first wife Bev and his recording/touring guitarists Terry Clements and Red Shea.  The first time I saw Lightfoot live at Northern, he was performing with Shea on guitar and his longtime bassist Rick Haynes (who is still with his band).  The second time was soon after the Summertime Dream album came out and he was touring with a full band including Clements, drummer Barry Keane and steel guitarist Pee Wee Charles.  Lightfoot’s web page showed concert listings throughout the spring and summer of 2020.   As of this writing, it had not been corrected to account for the COVID-19 cancellations that affected all performing artists in March, April, and beyond.

     Clips of a very young, clean cut Gordon Lightfoot playing guitar, singing in duos and small groups, and dancing (yes, dancing) offer a glimpse of how he broke into show business.  He claims he got his musical genes from his mother and often sang with the church choir, including some solo spots.  Gordon recounts being asked to join a barber shop quartet when he was fourteen and later being the drummer with a local dance band (perhaps the source of his rhythic guitar playing).  It is hard to picture Lightfoot singing Stardust but he was out front singing standards in both college and big bands he performed with before pursuing folk music.

     LIghtfoot points out that he is glad that he learned to read and write music.  He is part of a small club of songwriters who write out actual scores for their songs, not just a basic chord chart with lyrics.  Other songwriters interviewed noted that they would have loved to write songs with him, but he tends to write by himself.  Lightfoot is also legendary for spending a lot of time refining his songs.  Songwriters and musical artists alike are impressed with the quality of his songs, illustrated by several collages featuring a number of groups who have covered some of his material.  The documentary’s title track alone has been recorded by dozens of artists (except Frank Sinatra who deemed it ‘too long’ and tossed the music aside).  

     I had not noticed that Lightfoot wrote a lot of songs that were particular to his various love affairs.  He apologized at one point for all of the people in his life he had hurt, particularly wives, children, and girlfriends.  One of the most bizarre broken relationship songs became one of his many hit songs, Sundown.  Lightfoot wrote Sundown with Catherine Smith in mind when their relationship had a less than happy ending.  Smith later earned some notoriety as the woman who admitted to injecting comedian John Belushi with the ‘speedball’ that caused his untimely death.

Lightfoot says he tends to put down a chord pattern, find a melody, and then the lyrics.  Some times his mind takes over the writing process and even he is amazed at what comes out.  To hear the likes of fellow Canadians Randy Bachman and Burton Cummings (of The Guess Who) tell it, Lightfoot was the catalyst who introduced a lot of Canada’s musicians to America.  When Bachman and Cummings first heard Lightfoot at a club in Winnipeg, they suddenly knew that they were meant to start writing their own songs.

     Viewed as a national treasure, Lightfoot was asked to write a song to commemorate the Canadian Centennial in 1967.  He wasn’t sure he was up to the task, but as Gordon himself states in the documentary, “Some of my best work was produced under pressure.”  The musical history he created The Canadian Railroad Trilogy.  As the title implies, the central theme he built the tale around was the railroad’s expansion across Canada.  It was a musical national history that fit the Centennial’s request to a ‘T’.  It is also another example how Lightfoot influenced other singers and songwriters by raising the bar in terms of what types of songs could be commercially successful.    

     Steve Earle credits Gordon for breaking the ‘three minute song’ cycle.  Earle said, “When The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald came out, everybody said, ‘That can’t be a hit.  It is seven minutes long’ yet it became a big hit.  I had been trying to write these long, narrative songs and nobody would put them out because they were too long.  When Lightfoot turned Fitzgerald into a hit, he opened the door for a lot of us to do the same.  I was drunk for a week after it came out.”

     Ronnie Hawkins was originally from Arkansas and moderately successful playing the same joint circuit with the likes of Harold Jenkins.  When Hawkins followed Jenkins’ advice, he took his rockabilly act to Canada.  Like Jenkins (now known as Conway Twitte), Ronnie became a star.  One version of his band, The Hawks, included fellow Arkansas traveler, drummer Levon Helm, and a quartet of Canadian musicians.  The Hawks would later spin off without Hawkins to become The Band.  In If You Could Read My Mind, Ronnie supplied commentary about the rough and tumble Toronto club circuit he and Lightfoot worked back in the day.  

     Drummer Barry Keane explained how The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was recorded.  It  proved to be a unique experience.  Keane says, “We were near the end of recording an album.  Gordon came in and said, ‘I have been working on a song about something that just happened, but it isn’t quite done.’  We sat around and tinkered with it and finally said, ‘Let’s get it on tape to see how it works.’  Gordon said he would let me know when to come in with the drums.  Sure enough, at the start of the third verse, he gave me a nod, I did a little drum fill and came in.  We went through the entire song start to finish the first time we played it.  That is the version that was put on the record.”  Bassist Rick Haynes added, “We re-recorded it in the studio a couple of times to see if we could make it better, but we never could.  We used the first version we recorded and that was the first time we played the entire song.”  The arrangement is perfect with Pee Wee Charles haunting steel guitar licks, Haynes innovative bass lines, and Keane’s understated drumming adding just the right feel to the haunting tale.

     The documentary showed many clips of Lightfoot performing at Toronto’s Massey Hall.  Indeed, one of his most recent albums is a collection of songs from across his career, all of which were taken from various shows at Massey (entitled Live at Massey Hall of course, it was released in 2012).  If a traveling musician can have a home port, this would be Lightfoot’s.  I knew that he was an avid sailor and had spent a lot of time sailing Lake Huron’s Georgian Bay.  I didn’t know that he also had a period where he took extended canoe trips through the wilds of Canada.  These wilderness ventures apparently served as his own form of therapy when he quit drinking, another little problem that I was unaware of until now.

     Drummer Keane described Lightfoot’s problem with strong drink by simply saying, “There were some real low spots.  The lowest was a show in Europe where he cursed the audience and left the stage after only six or seven songs.”  His manager mentioned that Gordon would use drink to loosen up before interviews and that in some social settings, “He would get well into his cups.”  That he held some epic parties at his Toronto home was also news to me.  He had befriended Bob Dylan (or vice versa) on the folk circuit.  When Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review (an extended train tour across Canada taken by Dylan and a host of artists – think ‘Traveling three ring circus’ only with musicians and you get the picture), Lightfoot was invited to join them.  He did for their Toronto stop and invited the whole troup back to his house for one of those epic after parties.

     Gordon’s friendship with Dylan extended beyond the normal folk singer haunts.  Lightfoot had declined accepting any JUNO awards (the Canadian version of a GRAMMY) in the past, insisting that he would only come if Bob Dylan presented it to him.  He lived up to his word when the organizers convinced Dylan to attend the awards in 1986 when Lightfoot was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame.  

     Seeing Dylan in his black leather gloves and sparkly jacket standing next to the tuxedoed Lightfoot was indeed a contrast of styles.  Bob looked a little lost as he ambled across the stage.  The audience gave him a standing ovation, but Bob seemed mesmerized by the multiple images of himself on the bank of TV monitors at stage side.  Dylan said, “It pleases me to be here to give this award to Gordon.  I’ve known him for a long time and…I know he’s been offered this award before but he has never accepted it because he wanted me to come and give it to him.  So ah…Alright, here he is now.  Gordon Lightfoot.”  Master lyricist Dylan didn’t spend many words before handing over the JUNO.  Lightfoot thanked Dylan for taking the time to be there and his comments were a bit longer than Bob’s.  He mentioned that he and Bob had been ‘stable mates’ working for Albert Grossman in New York where Lightfoot had been signed many years ago with some help from Ian and Sylvia Tyson:  “[Bob] was actually at the label two years before I got there.  It was nice to get [the award] from an idol younger than myself, also.”

     I especially enjoyed trying to identify which phase of Gordon’s career I had witnessed by matching his various wardrobe and hair style choices in the documentary.  Seeing him perform with Glen Campbell , both playing Campbell’s signature Ovation guitar, brought me back to playing with Gene Betts in The Twig in high school.  Gene had purchased the same model when they first came out.  The ‘Gordon sporting a leather vest and beard’ matched up with my first live encounter back in college.  The full band recording The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was a perfect match for the concert we took in at the Lakeview Arena in Marquette soon after the song  became a big hit.

     One doesn’t need to be a Gordon Lightfoot fan to enjoy CBC’s If You Could Read My Mind.  I learned a lot about the 1950s and early 1960s folk music scene.  The music of this era set the table for my own musical education that began in earnest in the last half of the 60s.  If Gordon Lightfoot resumes touring after the COVID-19 crisis eases, it would be great to see him live again.  With his age and recent health troubles, it is actually just great to just see him alive and performing.

Top Piece Video:  This is the Gordon Lighitfoot ‘band’ as I saw him the first time at NMU in the early 1970s – this clip came from 1974 (The Midnight Special) so I know I saw  him earlier than this – Sundown came after my first exposure.