Gordon Lightfoot and the Canadian Dream

ROBERT MARKLE December 1 1971


Gordon Lightfoot and the Canadian Dream

ROBERT MARKLE December 1 1971



Gordon Lightfoot and the Canadian Dream

Gordon Lightfoot is the well-known international songwriter. Robert Markle is the well-known Canadian painter. The author is a city boy who has decided to live in the country. The subject is a country boy who has decided to live in the city. The author has a reputation for being famous inside himself. The subject has a reputation for being famous outside himself. They’re good buddies and spend their time within a circle of friends. The friends see each other only occasionally now but, as Markle says, “Getting together is better than being together.” What happens when such sensibilities get together is very much a story about this country and one of the most evocative profiles Maclean’s has published.

So I shook off some city and moved north from Toronto. Into a past century of fieldstone, green and greenfields, rape and winter wheat, skies with the energy and space of El Greco; names like Elderslie, Euphrasia, Normanby, Bentinck, Glenelg and Egremont, and the Beaver Valley skirting the Niagara Escarpment up to the Blue Mountains, pausing for the 20th century, then dipping into the southern shore of Georgian Bay. Egremont Township catches the western edge of this disturbance by the shore, and that’s my farm there.

It’s marked clear on a township survey map from earlier times, a small square dot against blurred ink. Built in 1856 by a Canadian nobody knows and lived in first by James Geddes; farmer, small livestock. It is on 100 acres cut out of a 40-mile swamp, out of the Queen’s bush, near the town of Holstein, wooden shacks on the clay streets of Upper Canada. This house was made of stone and mortar and sand by fine hands; feet-thick walls, each window an event — the inner wall pushing through the workmanship to the outer ledge. The window panes are city thin. This house grows out of all our fields and hills and country dreams. It’s a farmhouse.

I live in it now. It has eight rooms and two barns that have a way of showing a cultural distance from the Volvo station wagon, Bombardier Ski-doo and BSA Firebird inside them. I don’t know much about James Geddes except he made extra money tax collecting for the township and was a big star at square dances. There is a Fender Rhodes electric piano and an STR-6065 stereo sound system in the front room he once counted tax returns in. If only walls couldn’t talk. But they do and I can’t escape him.

The Volvo turns right, west to the next concession,

south through Holstein, past the blacksmith’s and Plume’s General Store (he’ll open on Sunday for you), past the creeks of the River Saugeen to the town of Mount Forest, on to the Mount Royal Hotel and the good boys on the men’s side.

Here we are doing just that, city-friend Tom Hedley and me off to the pub, the summer sun slanting through beverage-room windows, the walls decorated with foldouts from Ring magazine and old rules from the Liquor Control Board. And there is Billy MacPhee sitting under a hand-tinted photograph of Jersey Joe Walcott, his glass empty. We sit and talk: weather, land, the sky, and all the overalls and work boots are right this afternoon. On comes the cold beer. We’ll get this one, Billy. The faces around us are red with the history of Canadian suns and summers.

Billy MacPhee was born on a kitchen table in a log house that has since been abandoned. The MacPhees were original homesteaders from Glasgow, Scotland, and 20 years ago Billy moved into a 10-room Ontario brick house to live alone. He has never married and says most of the MacPhees are “gone . . . under the ground.” And with a glance to the table, wet with sweat and beer, he grins, “I drink and chase wimmin now.” Yes, Mr. MacPhee, hardnosed, having packed 30 75-pound bags of potatoes that morning, and Ontario Red, through booze and the squintyeyed look of a lifetime of keeping it all to yourself. “You should come over sometime,” I say, and that’s the beer talking. “I’m at the old Geddes place. On the sixteenth.” He nods his head in recognition. It makes me feel that he’s visited my house before.

Later that night, my wife is shaking me. Robert, Robert, there’s somebody here (it’s pitch black out) and Tom and I are summoned from our kitchen table, the Chivas Regal, the Goldens, the music, the talk. It’s Billy MacPhee at the door with Dash barking, redder now and drunker, and the dog is edgy, the women damn scared. So scared that they leave for the upstairs bedrooms whispering nervously. We are left alone, Tom and Billy and me wondering what to say to each other.

“Look, I promised you a drink of good Scotch ... get yourself outside of that.” And he sips the Chivas Regal.

“There’s Scotch in that,” he says from the oak Windsor chair, and stares at the summer kitchen back toward the cold pantry as if he’s been here before.

Tom and I continue the heavy talk about Canada and art while Billy sweetens his Scotch with the cream sherry he had brought with him. (Brings his own booze.) A record changes and Gordon Lightfoot sings Talking In Your Sleep; the Sony sings loud and Billy grunts, says, “Hold it, don’t talk, listen to this, listen to this, you know, that’s good music, that’s nice . . . yes . . . ah, yes ...”

Autumn puts Gord Lightfoot and me into an executive jet, banking, gently correcting the bank, we fly into a late afternoon sky from the Toronto airport, and soon I can see my concession, rolling and becoming flat below. Gord is sitting in a fancy seat en route to a western Canadian tour. He’s wearing a leather coat that was given to him by singer Jerry Jeff Walker, and a Czechoslovakian-made cowboy hat he bought in Hollywood from Nudie, the famous western tailor who once had a machinegun turret on his custom Cadillac. Gord was once from Orillia and a grainy, faded photo shows him as a hoofer for Country Hoedown. But Lightfoot has become the living distance between Country Hoedown and Carnegie Hall. Between me and Billy MacPhee. We’re sitting having a talk.

“Ah yes, well I liked it ... I was honored when

Dylan sang Early Morning Rain. That was good . . . we’ve had words you know ...”

The motors shift for some higher purpose and they shift beautifully (“You get what you pay for”). White froth clouds pass by without a ride.

“I do this country. I go to the Maritimes. The money isn’t that good, man. And it’s hard to get there. The concerts are packed. The local paper sends no one, no one to cover the concert. That turns me off. The sounds are going down. There’s good times, good. It should be covered. Don’t take me for granted.”

One wing dips and for a moment an engine bursts into flame. Gord says that’s okay.

“ . . . well, the CRTC did absolutely nothing for me, I didn’t need it, ab-so-lute-ly nothing . . . and I don’t like it. They can ruin you, man. Canadian content is fine if you’re not doin’ well. But I’m in the music business and I have a huge American audience. I’m going to do Carnegie Hall for the second time. I like to record down there, but I like to live up here. I really dig this country, but I’m not going to bring out any flags. I’m an entertainer. I’m in the music business.”

It is another auditorium, in Regina this time, and Lightfoot has been in town only two hours. He’s preparing for the evening and now is in the midst of a frantic righting of things. The phones are ringing, messages left, radio interviews, everybody wanting in on his act. As usual, nothing is right (“halls are all the same”) and he goes through the familiar motions of making this hall his own.

The concert is over, the lights go up and that part of the dream is over.

The applause rushes warmly to the stage, and magenta spotlights soften to black, then the hall is dream-over bright, and Lightfoot sits amid the grateful din of backstage release, the tension disappearing into the party and good time just passed, and the good time to come, before he has to do it all over again in Calgary. We drink a few beers, feel fine; back out front that orderly audience slowly shrinks to a small intense few, waiting, a small semicircle of true fans, friends, tape recorders, high-school editors, small girls with the barest of sensual smiles, and women with those different questions that they seem to have now behind their eyes — and new guitar players, and those who just like to listen and then have a chance to say so.

Gord finishes his beer and returns to the stage, sits at its edge, smiles a smile that answers all questions, signs the record albums and wisps of paper, talks and lets the evening end. This is a good moment. They look up, he looks down. The concert was a shared thing, they are together, this is sharing, this polite quiet chat after the event. Wonderful.

Early morning finds us in another place. A photographer is taking some pictures for the cover of Canada’s national magazine and we find an Antonioni backdrop in a peeling green barn door. Later, in an antique shop, the owner closes up to accommodate the picture session. She quietly calls her son and he arrives with a friend. The boys spend their time, seemingly detached, giving attention to the old pine and maple furniture. It’s a fine moment for them here. In Gordon Lightfoot’s space. They’re here with love and genuine awe, not wanting to disturb, just appreciating being here. Just having this afternoon happen for them, the camera clicking, the light leaving, Gordie sitting and strumming. The little

Lightfoot across the table sipping beer and lots of time to enjoy .. .

audience is showing total restraint, showing respect by hanging back, afraid to invade a hero’s privacy. Gord leaves the shop and nobody says good-bye. He leaves thinking he wasn’t recognized. He was.

A long time ago, Gord and I used to walk along Bloor Street in Toronto, the short skirts and flashes of flesh shooting joyful pains of desire through us. He’d talk about some new verses he had in his head and we’d shoot some pool, sip some beer.

The talk would take us to the Pilot Tavern and would be filled with the ambitions you have for yourself and your work when you become part of the big city. There was real energy in the back room of the Pilot then. On the right day the friends would be together: Graham Coughtry, Gord Rayner, Denny Burton, Mike Snow, Michael Sarrazin, John O’Keefe, Harvey Cowan, Don Sutherland . . . Harold Town would stop in sometimes and want to take one of us outside. He had a habit of calling us “the world’s oldest, floating avant garde in the history of art.”

Lightfoot across the table sipping beer and lots of time to enjoy. In the Pilot’s darkness the most beautiful women in the world sitting around, part of the energy in the air. Ah, the stories they could tell you.

Fine moments. Fred Varley shows up one day and takes a table alone by the door. The Group of Seven used to show across the street years ago and you remember that this has been an artists’ bar long before any of us were the main squeeze. The heavyweights in the back room don’t seem so heavy with Varley up front. Rayner and I remember that it is his eightieth birthday, we’d read it somewhere, and maybe that had to do with why he was in, sitting alone by the door.

We get it together, leave the Goldens, and walk up to his table. “Happy birthday, Mr. Varley.” He looks up and an astonishing grin passes over his red pale face. “Why, thank you,” he says taken completely by surprise. We felt really good for days.

Fine moments. Locked in the pub overnight to put up Christmas decorations, I pause a moment at the bar, the moment stretches upstairs to the finger-lickin’ chicken. Morning comes, nothing is done. All the beautiful women in the world arrive and it starts over again. The stories they could tell.

But all that’s passed, all those times when we had time; the Pilot is gone now, moved to newer premises, sure, but gone really. And now, Grossman’s, another bar, swings with the intensity of time leaving us too quickly. There’s just a touch of grey in my friend’s hair, and the girls seem somehow less lovely . . . and Gord’s new verses can’t be heard over the din of Toronto traffic . . . and all that is painful.

The last time Lightfoot and I went for a beer together, a girl approached our table, and we all settled into talk. The girl wanted to know what we thought of “the FrenchCanadian problem” while we were staring into her hair and Gord was gulping his beer down, no time to sip. Everything seemed so self-conscious and it wasn’t the same anymore. The friends were elsewhere. Our times weren’t synchronized anymore. Gord had these external demands that success brings, and by moving to the country and visiting the city only occasionally I had time on my hands. In the Pilot, Gord gulping, me sipping, the girl bringing no joy. “Let’s get out of here and go up to my apartment,” Gord says.

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LIGHTFOOT from page 28

Inside the apartment, high up, overlooking the city, velvet couches, patterned material on walls holding up pictures in gold frames, the beer comes out and the tape system begins to play the music perfectly. Gord still gulping, me sipping. I look up at one wall and see a portrait I had done of him for an album cover. The record company art director decided to use a photograph instead and it looks fine up there. “You have to use that, Gord.” I can’t help getting enthusiastic. “But, man, I do use it,” he says, and you can see he really means it. He starts to relax.

Two hours pass and Gord and I share the same space again and suddenly it’s like it used to be. Gord has been talking about how he would like to do an album of Stephen Foster songs.

“But next year I’m cooling this down . . . this is all Hollywood, and it’s fine,” he says pointing to the apartment he paid an interior decorator to dress. “But, I’m going to take it easier next year. Go on a long canoe trip up North, maybe buy some land up there.” It’s like it used to be. I’ve moved from city to country and Gord has moved from country to city. It’s in the middle of that distance where we meet.

When all is said and done, the best of friends spend more time with the man’s music than they do with the man. There is a time when the friend leaves and the fan takes over.

A young painter, a student of mine, on Lightfoot: “Lightfoot is to me what a real Canadian is . . . I’ve seen parts of Canada through his eyes . . . sometimes I feel really lonely and I know Gord has felt that way too . . . the way / feel / is like a robin whose babes have flown / to come no more . . . it’s because I’ve seen Canada that way . . . like hearing the train at two in the morning . . . he’s far enough away, at times, to give you something to reach for. But just as easily he could be sitting across the table drinking beer at the Brunswick, just as easily with all of us . . .”

Lightfoot on himself: “Intangible . . . no real reason (real) why one day is fine, then the next day fails . . . nothing to . . . grab onto ... the plumber works his ass off all day, at the end of that day he turns on the tap, and the water comes out. He knows he’s done something right. Some days, some times, there’s just no taps . . .”

It’s hard to know what to do with a Canadian hero. Few people in this

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LIGHTFOOT continued country are Canada-wide like the annual Eaton’s sale. Canada isn’t too comfortable with symbols of itself. There’s something impersonal about having a conversation with the Canadian flag. And if you decided to talk to a beaver, chances are you’d be interested in him personally rather than the position he holds. You’d never consider asking Gordie Howe for his autograph if you met him fishing. There’s a time and place for everything.

Fame is such an abstract idea in the town of Mount Forest. Or it’s understood there, in the dark of the Roxy Theatre. Airport was on at the Roxy and someone in it, Jacqueline Bisset, was up visiting the farm. Jackie and Marlene, my wife, were buying groceries at Freiburger’s about the time the movie was showing. Two weeks later a young butcher stopped Marlene and asked her who the pretty girl was. When she said who it was the butcher nodded that he thought so, and said, “She doesn’t have to worry, Mrs. Markle, she won’t get bothered up here.”

It isn’t hard to know what to do with an American hero. There is an established history and conditioned response to such people. It’s the Hollywood movie goddess having her skin ripped off in a crowd of fans, who worship not who she is but what she stands for. It’s having to live up to an image that’s not entirely your own. Janis Joplin: hard drinking,

rough loving, white girl with black pain. The audience that loved her forced her to continue down that road. Those myths are never bulletproof.

We all live vicariously through our heroes. The restraint of the audience digging Gord Lightfoot is an audience having its yearnings reconfirmed. The hysteria of an audience digging Jim Morrison was an audience having its

ambitions realized. The thing about the Americans is that they have made their dreams come true. Their heroes are acting out their dreams and everybody is a star in their own picture show. In one way this translates as a power trip, yet in another as an event of great style. That’s the big difference between people I know down there and people up here. It’s this remarkable personal style that emerges when a man begins to live the life of his dreams. That life becomes habit forming and creates an energy of its own, sometimes violent, sometimes neurotic, oftentimes wonderful. A beautiful young Italian aristocrat gently removes her underpants in Max’s Kansas City to mop up the wine my friend has spilled. Norman Mailer arrives with Germaine Greer and lifts her to a table top and leaves her there. Later they are whispering: “Norman was here and I said, ‘Norman, now Norman,’ I said . . .” The friends you have in the city are different from the friends you have in life. Imagine Norman in Canada. If he wasn’t a bank president, he’d be Irving Layton still pinching teen-age chicks. Imagine that.

If you’re a Canadian, your dreams don’t come true. And what if you don’t want them to come true? What about that? What if you don’t find God, He finds you? What if there are prevailing plans, like prevailing winds? What if you don’t want to make your dreams your life, but would rather keep them secret for special times? It isn’t a coincidence that this country has more poets and folk singers per capita than any other country in the Western world. A lot of local dreamers running around with local poems in private hearts. All those other standards disappear into the bigger reputations of the bigger cities. I can read Pearl McKelvie, a

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LIGHTFOOT continued local 67 - year - old lady poet who publishes her own work and sells it village to village, and enjoy her for the optimism of her years. I can do that right after reading something wonderful by Muriel Spark. Who is more authentic to Canada doesn’t matter. Investigation of country is lost in the experience of place and the standards are, when all is said and done, only as good as how the moment feels.

Great moments are better than great expectations. That’s why so much art in this country comes out of the energy of a circle of friends. You have to crowd together against the cold and the space. The Maritime singers, the Isaacs Gallery painters, the French-Canadian film makers, the crazy poets who hang out together in BC. These poets publish in obscure journals that are something personal between good friends. The Tamarack Review threatens to be a symbol of something big and central. The important thing is to keep the friends together.

The Canadian dream is not for over-achievers. It’s not heroic nearly as much as it’s sentimental; it isn’t external nearly as much as it’s inside. It’s not so big. But it sure is little.

It’s rare that a man becomes a Canadian hero and an American star at the same time. When it happens, as it has with Gord Lightfoot, the problem of who he is becomes very much his own. He’ll have to work it out. Meanwhile back home in the regions he’s still part of the secret lives. How the heroes become part of the secret lives is hidden within the privacy of four walls. (In dreams begin realities.) Only the walls can talk, and anyway that’s life without manifest destiny.

Read all that, Christ, just read it all. Sometimes all this seems so long ago. My time right now is here. My walls are thicker, my reach caresses the rolling lands around me. The trees are turning, and I’m greasing my Ski-doo. And in one room I paint striding figures and those big-breasted high-yellow strippers with flesh caught in purple lights and green eyes, and asses that recall all that delicious Bloor Street pain. And in another room, bread is baking, my dog sleeps, and in another I look across an old harvest table scarred from generations of working people sitting down to meals, through paper and books, to Andrew Wyeth’s blueberry pail, the veils of Morris Louis, and bathe in the sounds of Coltrane, Bach, Gene Amons and Lightfoot.

Ah, and you know, you look out

these windows into the wide and long of my country, and you know, you sense that Gordon Lightfoot, my friend, is just fine, just fine. And we’ll use his music at all the right moments. And we’ll scqre. His songs, somehow, have something very real to do with all our futures.

Meanwhile, I hope it doesn’t drive old James Geddes away. Because everything’s all right, James ... I can’t have my future without your past. As the illustrated Atlas Of The County Of Grey (published in 1880) says: “The national spirit of this

Canada of ours has not yet sufficiently developed to render local histories an article of great demand . . . But time is not yet so remote since the very first settlement as to leave that suggestive event in any very darkened mists.”

My skies grow empty of light, blue to black night, and eight miles up the road the Mount Royal closes, and Billy MacPhee will drive into my yard, another tired bottle of wine in his hand, and an even redder face, and I’ll have to say “. . . no, Billy, no . . . maybe some other time.” ■