THE TRIP NORTH FROM Toronto with Gordon Lightfoot was an Arcadian dream: there was Lightfoot, a beautiful man, driving the car through the special luminous twilight that comes to Ontario in May, over roads that undulated with the land, just as the steam rose off the black earth like smoke. The funny Victorian-Gothic farmhouses and villages perched intact on the horizon, temporarily immune from the urban sprawl. This was, in fact, Gordon Lightfoot country. He came from Orillia, 40 miles northeast of the little town of Alliston where we were heading that night for a concert in the high-school gymnasium.
Alliston's houses belong to the 19th century but the Frederick Banting Memorial high school is aggressively 20th century — a sterile saltbox. It was imbued with a different spirit that night, however. Gordon Lightfoot was the first genuine star to play the town in years and every one of the 2,000 folding chairs in the cavernous gym had been sold. The crowd that started lining up at eight o'clock was mostly under 25, uniformly clean-cut, scrubbed and innocent - looking. No hippies here — no sideburns or turtlenecks, no weird clothes or wild makeup. There were knots of newly wed teenagers, pregnant young girls, talking about finishing grade 13, about babies, about drinking Southern Comfort and Coke and getting very sick, and about Lightfoot: “He's pretty big, you know.”
Gordon Lightfoot is pretty big indeed. He's 29 and he’s had more songs recorded by other artists in the past five years than any songwriter in North America except Bob Dylan. For Lovin' Me, one of his earliest songs, has been recorded by more than 100 artists. His albums sell phenomenally well in Canada. His second album. The Way l Feel, has sold more than 125,000 copies and won him a gold record. He went from singing in a bar to filling Vancouver’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre in a matter of months, strictly on the hits other people had made by recording his songs. Fie composed honest tunes with an astonishing variety of textures. His lyrics are straightforward and touching, without obscurantism or flatulent philosophy.
At precisely nine o'clock, John Stockfish, electric bass, sporting a pre-Elvis pompadour. and Red Shea, acoustic guitar, looking like a shambling Paul Newman, took their places on the vast naked stage. Then, in a blizzard of buckskins, Lightfoot was front and centre singing For Lovin’ Me.
The buckskin jacket, with its rows of fringes, was a surprise, a holdover from his early Country-and-Lightfoot days. The rest was hip: bell-bottom jeans, brightly colored shirt with a California-style scarf loosely knotted at the throat. The soft curling blond hair gave him the appearance of a minor Greek god. He’s paler and heavier than your average Greek god, but sexy in a vulnerable kind of way. The crowd loved him. They whistled and stamped their feet at every song, building up an empathetic rhythm as he sang.
The star quality was all there: the presence. the pacing, the confident patter, even corny jokes. The kids dug whatever he said. "A few weeks ago I was in the Princess Hotel in Edinburgh. Scotland. I met a girl named Marie Christine Dupuis. She couldn't speak English, and being a Canadian I couldn't speak a word of French. We spent five lovely hours together. This song is about a woman compared to a ship. It is definitely ahead of its time." Then he gave his Dick Martin-type laugh.
Lightfoot moved into Black Day In July. He wrote it just after the Detroit riots last year, it's solid musical journalism, documenting America without putting it down. His sense of that violence is graphic:
Black Day in July: Motor City madness has touched the countryside.
And thru the smoke and cinders you can hear it jar and wide.
The doors are quickly bolted and the children locked inside.
Black Day in July.
Black Day in July: and the soul of Motor City is bared across the land.
And the book of law and order is taken in the hands
Of the sons of the fathers who were carried to this land.
Black Day in July.
The audience shouted their approval. "I wish I had some answers,” he replied.
Between sets, he relaxed by reminiscing about his early career. He sat with his leg slung over the arm of a chair, his long elegant fingers fiddling with his ring. “Alliston's a lot like Orillia physically — a small, pretty town. I’m not sure what I feel about Orillia — that was 11 years ago and I got out. When I first went to Toronto I was a real hick. I was a clerk in a bank for $40 a week — some financier. I lived with another guy from Orillia in a boarding house in the east end.”
Unlike many folk singers and young composers who can think up tunes and lyrics but have to get someone else to transpose them. Lightfoot is the compleat composer. He's come the whole disciplined route: singing and drumming in the high-school band, operettas, studying piano, forming his own singing groups and bands; a barbershop quartet that almost won a national championship until the bass quit and the group collapsed. When he graduated from high school in 1957. he studied at the Westlake School of Modern Music in Los Angeles to polish all his techniques. Now he can identify any note played and can sight-sing.
He jogged back onto the stage and started laying his very newest song on the Young Ones, as he calls his fans. "Now this is really deep,” he said. “It took me six years to put it into words. It's about a first trip to New York — it's called Cold Hand From New York.”
Alter the show was over, the crowd dispersed reluctantly. About 30 girls waited for autographs. Through the middle of them strode a tall, heavily built girl in an orange dress. It was the ultimate groupie, or group follower, Lynn Ackerman. She is the most devoted and obsessive of all Lightfoot's fans. “It doesn't matter where we play,” Lightfoot explained, “if it's in Sudbury or New York, she’ll show up." It's hard to understand why. She has almost no contact with him, although occasionally he shouts from the stage, “Is Lynn out there?” Nothing is quite as sad as watching Lynn watching Lightfoot zap off out of a parking lot. I wondered how she'd get back. “By bus, or hooking a ride with someone,” Lightfoot said. “I don't know. I can’t get myself involved in her bag.”
We roared along the highway drawn by the prospect of greasy chips — the first food anybody had had since noon. “Man. I worked bars for two years after I learned how to play guitar. I mean, when the Village Corner Folk Club thing was happening for Ian and Sylvia, all I could pick was four-string axe — the simplest there is. I was writing all the time and had started singing some of my own songs. The first time I really broke out with something was at the Toronto Teachers College in 1964. Steele's Tavern, where I was playing, let me off for an hour. The thing at the Teachers College was all me. I went over well and I knew it. It did something to me.” It did enough to give him confidence in his own songs, and he incorporated them into his repertoire. One night a few months later, Ian Tyson came into Steele’s with John Court, Albert Grossman’s partner and record producer. Tyson liked Lightfoot’s songs and later recorded several; Grossman, the New York agent for folk and pop singers, signed Lightfoot. That did it. Calls for concerts started coming in. “Peter, Paul and Mary did For Lovin’ Me and they were on my bandwagon for months. They'd shout my name out at concerts.”
THE NEXT DAY, Lightfoot was faced with two shows in Cobourg, Ont. In spite of fatigue and indigestion from last-night’s hamburgers, he headed out to visit some old friends between shows. Three girls were waiting 50 yards from his 1967 Ford station wagon as he was leaving the school. ‘Don't be shy, girls. It's okay, i’ll sign." They were all carrying his latest album. Did She Mention My Name? They giggled. One girl held out her hand to be signed. “No way.” he said, and signed the album: “Best wishes from Gordon Lightfoot.”
In drizzling rain we pulled up in front of a ranch-style bungalow huddled uncomfortably between some elegant old, brick Victorian houses. The vast living room of the house was covered in about a quarter of an acre of beige carpet. Lightfoot politely removed his pointy cowboy boots. Everyone followed his example, to the host's astonishment. We sat down to tiny sandwiches and a drink. "We've followed Gord's career closely for 10 years." the host said. “When we realized that Gord was in the chorus singing and dancing on Country Hoedown, 18 of us got together and sent a petition to the CBC demanding that they give Lightfoot a chance to sing by himself. All they did was send back a picture of King Gannam, the star of the show.”
"When I started out on Country Hoedown,” Lightfoot recounted, “the producer said, 'You're a clumsy son of a bitch, but you've got potential.’ I did every one of those 250 shows terrified that I’d forget my lines or the dance steps.”
We left the house at 6:30. Lightfoot, Shea and Stockfish needed time to tune up for the evening performance — a holy, private ritual for musicians. The dressing area for the band was in the school’s music room. The principal of the school came in to meet Lightfoot. He was a tall, quiet man whose eyes popped when he saw the hand’s equipment strewn all over his tidy music room. Introductions were started hut Red Shea, who acts as Lightfoot’s buffer against the outside world, broke in and pushed Gordon into a small anteroom where they were tuning up. Twenty minutes later he emerged apologetically, did his polite thing and signed autographs.
The hall was filled to capacity: 1,024 tickets at $2.50 and $3.50 each had been sold. One man in the hack row couldn’t believe what had happened to him: seven dollars for two people to sit 1,000 seats from the stage!
Lightfoot got thunderous applause when he ran on stage and swung into For Lovin’ Me. The pacing of this show was faster than the afternoon and (he night before. An electric quality was building up all during the show. The crowd swayed in time with his music, they responded to every movement of his body and every song he sang. Lightfoot was digging it — he kept nodding affirmatively and smiling at Shea and Stockfish. At one point he said, “We’re really together tonight. Lord, let it stay like this.”
Peter Bryson, the student organizer of the concert, had seen the Gordon Lightfoot TV special last September. Undeterred by skeptical friends, he approached Albert Grossman and got a signed contract back by the end of February. When Lightfoot’s third album was released in April, more than 100 copies were sold in each Cobourg record store the first day.
“I don’t know if he realizes this, but he has a different rhythm,” Bryson said. “I play guitar and try to copy him, but I can’t. I listen to the song first, then the words. He puts something up against me, and I’d like to get around it and see what the real thing is for myself.” To Peter Bryson and most very young people, Lightfool’s songs about love are just a story. But the songs about Canada, and the documents, are different. “Take something like the Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” Bryson explained. “It makes you want to go across Canada and have this song in your mind as you travel. I’m proud he’s a Canadian. I’m proud a famous folk singer sings about Canada.”
The evolution of Lightfoot’s lyrics has been from very simple, charming songs like The Way l Feel:
The way I feel is like a robin,
Whose babes have flown to come no more.
to more complex historical songs like the Canadian Railroad Trilogy:
There was a time in this fair land, When the railroad did not run,
When the wild majestic mountains Stood alone against the sun.
Long before the white man and long before the wheel,
When the green dark forest was too silent to he real.
This remarkable song has the quality of Francis Parkman’s histories of Canada. You can fee! how empty and lonely it was — no wisp of smoke rose over those incredible forests. His recent songs are trickier, psychologically and symbolically. The Gypsy, written earlier this year, is closer to the drug-oriented metaphors of Bob Dylan:
Step inside my tent, said she,
I’d like to read your palm,
Leave a dollar in the jar
This won’t take very long.
Leave the circus noise behind.
Close your eyes relax your mind.
Tell you if you should quit now or if you should go on.
BARNSTORMING is an exhausting way to pay the bills. “You have to travel with your own PA system and expect the worst about lights. Small - town promoters don’t realize you can get up there with the wrong lights, bad sound and make an ass of yourself in front of 1,000 people.”
In Hamilton the following day, the seating arrangement was bad, the lights were terrible and the promoter wanted Lightfoot to cut the afternoon show short. “I can’t do that, man,” Lightfoot shot back. “They've paid good money for a Lightfoot show and that's what they'll get — a complete show, and a good one.” He was right. It was a good one.
When the pressures of perfectionism and performing dry him up aesthetically, Lightfoot takes off for England. It started in 1963, when he took his Swedish bride Brida and spent the summer in London. He’d suffered a fearful, arid period in his writing for almost two years. Before that songs had been pouring out of him. Some were good, and some, like Two Kids from Cabbagetown, were awful. Through a fast-talking agent he got on British television with a show called Rancho Vegas, featuring live horses and Rodgers-and-Hart early Americana. Even though the show was a seedy affair and he felt numbed by it, Lightfoot wrote 30 songs. During a more recent fallow period, he went to England and rode around in train compartments by himself. Sixteen new songs came to him swiftly and he started writing poetry as well. Perhaps England frees him from his small-town background and the dominating Canadian landscape. Now he’s articulating urban fear and violence and the enormous burden of Canadian history.
THE FOLLOWING day the group flew to Washington, DC, to open for a week at the Cellar Door Club. It was a relief after barnstorming. A gig in a club means that the performer isn’t being eaten alive by all the fiddly details of being on the road. They stayed at a dull-looking motel painted nursery-school colors, it had one great virtue for Lightfoot: it was near the airport. He’s obsessed by planes. He kept flashing out of his room into the rain, taking movies of them with his Contax camera complete with telephoto lens. “They have real magic. I’ve gotten past the point of thinking about the people on board. All I think of is the pure magic of that bird and the sound it makes.” He picked out the different notes a jet makes. “There’s a D,” he said, as a big jet disappeared into the sky.
The Washington week turned out to be an enormous success. The club was tilled every night in spite of racial tension, the Poor People's March, a transit strike and bad business all over town. “The first night, I went through five songs without saying anything and I told the crowd, 'You know it’s good, don’t you?’ and they've been coming back ever since."
At 7.30 there was a tour show: students from out of town get a dinner and a show for the price of a ticket. These kids were from Detroit and to their mutual astonishment they’d never heard of Lightfoot. He played it cool until he came to Black Day In July. “This is a song about your city. I’m sorry it has to be this way.” There was an awkward pause when he finished and then they let loose with their most enthusiastic applause of the evening.
One kid yelled. “Who wrote that?"
"I did,” said Lightfoot.
“These are all my songs."
"Did you record that one?”
“Yes. I did,” he replied, warming up to one of his hobbyhorses. “But CKLW in Windsor won’t play it. It’s being played on FM markets, but the top-40 stations in the States won't play it. I don't blame them. They’re not ready for that sort of thing. They've got their ratings to think about.”
His distress at this situation is kept hidden most of the time. But CKLW is another matter. Later, as he stabbed at a steak sandwich, he said, “It’s number one in Detroit and it’s the Canadian station. It's the only place in Canada to break a record in the U.S. I'm not asking for a hype. I’ve accommodated myself, played their clubs, their hops — and nothing. I’m Canadian, man. and they won’t even listen to me.” Almost everyone has had a hit out of Lightfoot but Lightfoot himself.
But his bitterness disappeared when he got on to his own songwriting and Canadian history. Don Harron, writer of this year’s Canadian National Exhibition grandstand show in Toronto, wanted Lightfoot to perform in it. “It's not the right thing for me to do,” Lightfoot said. “Mine's very simple, man — all I do is go and sing my songs. I don't want to be part of a production.” So Harron asked him to write a song for Catherine McKinnon and lent him books on Louis Riel. The books have completely captured Lightfoot’s imagination. He’s not trying to write a document of the period, but get a feeling for it. “A song has to have a point of view, a philosophy to hold it together. I get about 100 songs a year sent to me by amateurs. But they don't have a point of view. For instance, I don't write anything on the road. I make a few notes may he. I've got to feel it first, then I know what to write.”
The nine o'clock show, as did all their shows, started precisely on time. I sat with a couple of girls, typical of that audience, who said, “We know more about his songs than we do about him or his singing.”
John Stockfish and Red Shea walked on in their super-straight clothes, and took their positions. Lightfoot sat on the stairs, holding his axe, waiting for his introduction. In a burst of energy, he leaped from the stairs, bounded onto the stage and was into the second bar of I'm Not Sayin’ before the applause caught up with him. He smiled winningly into the smoky blackness and introduced the next two songs with, “Here's a couple of old chestnuts for you" — Ribbon of Darkness and Spin, Spin, Spin. He sings these old songs well, but there’s an irony in his performance of them. They lack the passion, his own performing passion, that he projects into his newest songs. The old ones seem merely to evoke pleasant memories.
He sang Marie Christine and talked about his trip to England. Then into Early Morning Rain. The crowd mellowed. He invested the song with all the love he has for planes. The girls were adoring him. John Stockfish and Red Shea got fixed attention, too, almost as though it was too much for some girls to lust after the king, so they’d settle for a prince. Don’t Beat Me Down. He broke out into a sweat. The curls hung in damp tendrils around his face giving him the sweetly innocent look of an art nouveau drawing. The blue spotlight bounced oil John's bass and, as he moved it, the bass became magical, completely disconnected from the hot smoky club atmosphere. Big Steel Rail and his patter became more a stream of associations rather than one of his set pieces. He felt close to his audience. “Now I’ll get off here so we can get back for an encore.”
When he finished the set, we went upstairs to the manager’s office to cool off. We talked about the poetry he'd been writing in England. “In some cases he spends less time writing a poem than he does his tunes,” Shea said. “Well, songs take infinitely more time,” Lightfoot chipped in. “After writing 135 songs, then it seems pretty easy to sit down and crank out 40 poems. If you can put poetry into the songs, that’s where it's really at. Bob Dylan has it. I’m aware I do it.”
We went back downstairs to mingle. We sat down at a table and one of the very cool, self-possessed girls sitting there looked him straight in the eye in her American way and asked, “Are you an Indian?”
"Well, with a name like yours and coming from Canada. I assumed you would be.”
At this, he started asking them questions and drew them out without saying much about himself at all. Eventually he went back upstairs to tune. Lightfoot and Shea sat on chairs facing each other. Lightfoot banged a small tuning fork against the desk and put it to his guitar. “This baby sounds sick,” he said. They found sympathetic chords in the guitars and picked away at them, occasionally coming up with an old song. They talked, never finishing a sentence. Single words sent them off into paroxysms of laughter. They were very effectively closing themselves off. People came and left, shuffling with embarrassment, interlopers in this private world. Stockfish sat in a corner, dreamily leaning on his axe until they were ready for him. The outsider who stayed sat with a fixed smile and tried not to feel lonely.
In a storm of energy they ran back to the stage at 11.30. Right into I’m Not Sayin’: Lightfoot dipped his head and guitar in acknowledgement of the applause. He poured charm past the pale-blue spotlight into the blackness. He moved into Walls (“I’m not ashamed to say I've loved you well"). His eyes closed, he started enjoying the warmth of the crowd and the pleasures of performing. He’d slide to one side during a solo lick by Shea or Stockfish and smile affectionately at Shea as they talked to each other through their axes. Stockfish had said earlier, “We watch Gord all the time. He could change his mind any second. We know' what he’s thinking when he's singing. We know when he’s going to goof, like if his mind wanders we go with him and then it doesn't seem like a mistake. We are very professional."
The light switched to a soft red, and Lightfoot’s features seemed more sculptural than ever. Go Go Round: “People have to get used to me," he's said. “They don’t get my songs the first time they hear them. They may have to hear them three or four times and they know it's good. 1 may not be recognized until after I'm gone — in a mass sense. I mean.”
The crowd at the Cellar Door was recognizing him right now. Black Day In July drew the longest applause. The show' took a dramatic rise in intensity at this point. He came on very strong, milking every scene in the song for its terrible consequence.
Does Your Mother Know: He started to sweat slightly. The sensuality of his performing held the audience completely still. Nobody bothered to touch their drinks. He leaned back, straining, pushing the words out. working his jaw slightly. It was impossible for any female not to love him a little bit.
Cold Hand From New York: Sweat was running like tears down his lace. “It's the listening quality that gets through to me up there. I can almost touch it.”
Then Bitter Green: “Bitter Green they called her / Walking in the sun / Loving everyone that she met." He stared into the blackness, waiting for the intense loneliness of this new song to settle on the audience, to make the Young Ones moodily introspective. It all came together meltingly: the mikes, his voice, the instruments. The audience could feel every emotion he sang about, see it in his face. The emotional level just reached the drowning point when he started into one of his novelty songs. The audience twitched and laughed nervously in reaction. He'd brought them down too fast. They applauded for a long time and he started an encore to the show without moving from the stage. He turned to Shea: “I think you know what I want to do." They started Rosanna together, played 10 bars. Then Lightfoot lifted his guitar over his head. "Cut it, cut it. It's not working." Then he switched into The Mountains and Maryann. He put them right back up there — traveling.
Dawn was trying to break through the rain when I finally left the club. I hung around because it was too hard to leave the source of that much excitement. But there was a plane to catch and all the Scotch of the long evening was catching up with my head. I went out to the airport alone and never felt closer to a Lightfoot tune in my life. He knows what it's about.
In the early morning rain
With a dollar in my hand.
With an achin' in my heart
And my pockets full of sand,
I'm a long way from home.
And I miss my loved ones so.