A troubadour’s tracks into the heartland

Brian D. Johnson March 16 1987

A troubadour’s tracks into the heartland

Brian D. Johnson March 16 1987

A troubadour’s tracks into the heartland


Sixteen years: that is how long it had been since Gordon Lightfoot visited the Lakehead. But when he stepped onto the stage of the Thunder Bay community auditorium two weeks ago the audience of 1,550 people greeted him like a long-lost brother. “Here’s a special song for all those people living around the Great Lakes,” said Lightfoot, looking gaunt and inscrutable under the spotlight. Then, with a sound as ghostly as a bagpipe’s drone, the five-man backup band eased into The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Lightfoot’s haunting ballad about the ship that sent 29 sailors to the depths of Lake Superior 12 years ago. Later that night a small executive jet soared off the runway at Thunder Bay and banked eastward over Superior’s blackness. At the back of the aircraft’s narrow cabin, the singer lit a cigarette and allowed himself a cautious smile of satisfaction.

The master craftsman of the Canadian song is on the road again. Singing about the beauty of the land—and the wilderness of the heart—Lightfoot is breathing new life into a legend that now spans a quarter-century. The 48year-old troubadour has just embarked on a tour that will touch down in 40 cities across North America, winding up in Europe next year. This week he plays six sold-out concerts at Toronto’s Massey Hall, a home-town engagement that has become an annual ritual.

But his recent decision to retire from both songwriting and recording lends an elegiac aspect to the current tour. “When your albums aren’t selling,” he told Maclean's, “it’s not practical for a man to spend his life chained to a desk and to a recording studio. You have to grow up and realize that there is a new generation of recording artists out there.”

Lightfoot’s distinctive voice cuts like a hardwood keel through several generations of pop music, from the 1960s folk era that spawned Bob Dylan, to the synthesized 1980s stylings of Canadian record producer David Foster. In fact, the Foster-produced song Anything for Love is one of two singles from Lightfoot’s 17th album, East of Midnight, which recently topped radio’s adult-contemporary charts. Still, although he has sold some 10 million albums over his career, Lightfoot has not scored a major Top 40 hit since his 1974 song Sundown. Clearly, he is growing weary of trying.

Meanwhile, he remains the most suc-

cessful songwriter living in Canada. With his steady influx of royalties, he could have retired years ago as a multimillionaire. His albums of original songs still generate considerable airplay. And the diverse list of artists who have recorded his work includes Dylan, Elvis Presley, Anne Murray, Barbra Streisand, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash and Olivia Newton-John. During his career Lightfoot has received the Order of Canada, four Grammy nominations, 16 Juno awards—and was inducted into the Juno Hall of Fame. “Gordie is completely original,” said singer-songwriter Murray McLauchlan. “He can spin a great yarn—in the gothic sense—and write bittersweet ballads that are very poignant.”

Despite the accolades, Lightfoot still seems uncomfortable with his celebrity status. He rarely consents to interviews,

dislikes being photographed and accepts few offers to make TV appearances. Bell’s palsy temporarily paralysed the left side of his face in 1972 and, although he has recovered, he still dreads the close scrutiny of a camera lens. He also resents public intrusions into his private life, which has been a source of controversy. His 1974 divorce from his wife, Brita, made headlines as the costliest settlement in Canadian history.

His past resurfaced in the media when a former girlfriend, Cathy Smith, was convicted last September

of involuntary manslaughter for administering a fatal heroin and cocaine overdose to comedian John Belushi five years ago. “People keep asking me about her,” Lightfoot complained. “But she wasn’t into that stuff when we were together. I lived with her for three years.

And that was 12 years ago. It’s nobody’s business.”

Lightfoot is now single, having recently separated from his girlfriend, Cathy Coonley.

After abandoning marriage plans last year, they share custody of their five-year-old son,

Eric. “I’ve always had a terrible time deciding whether to get married,” said Lightfoot. “I would like to, if someone would have me.” Once notorious as a heavy drinker, Lightfoot has abstained from alcohol for more than four years and jogs five kilometres every other day.

He lives alone in a turreted mansion in Toronto’s old-money enclave of Rosedale. Outside, with dirty-cream paint peeling from the front pillars, the house looks untended and slightly forbidding. Inside, it resembles a wellworn men’s club: dark and rambling, with a vast living room of plush leather chairs and an adjoining billiard room. Upstairs in an unfurnished room is a simple wicker desk, which has served as Lightfoot’s songwriting altar for much of his career. He also writes in an uncarpeted solarium in the corner of the house. “The way it reverberates,” he says, “it gives me messages. It tells me things.”

In an interview, Lightfoot tends to look to the side, staring into a middle distance. Often defensive in his answers, he comes across as a man who

has a reputation to protect and consolidate. In fact, last month he launched a lawsuit against Michael Masser, who wrote Whitney Houston’s hit The Greatest Love of All. Lightfoot charged that Masser stole 24 bars from the melody of his 1969 hit If You Could

Read My Mind. “I heard his song when I was down at the gym one day,” said Lightfoot, “and it really rubbed me the wrong way. I don’t want the presentday generation to think that I stole my song from him.”

Most Lightfoot listeners are old

enough to know better. With East of Midnight, his first album in three years, he had hoped to appeal to the younger Top 40 audience. But even the slick pop ballad Anything for Love failed to break out of the easy-listening market. Still, Lightfoot says: “I’m

happy to be getting the airplay I’m getting. The boomers —that’s my crowd, people from 30 to 40.”

In Thunder Bay the boomers are out in force. Their applause washes over the opening notes of one familiar song after another. The reedy Lightfoot

voice resonates back through the years with fidelity, rendering the images of Spanish Moss with a delicate quaver, then hardening to a steel twang for the rhythms of The Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Lightfoot covers a lot of ground. One moment he is folk music’s answer to Pierre Berton, singing an epic history about navvies and muskeg. The next, his voice paints watercolor pictures of “pussy willows, cattails, soft winds and roses.”

The new Lightfoot show puts a stronger accent on folk music. Never picking up an electric guitar, he switches back and forth between a pair of acoustic instruments. His band remains obediently in the background, and he performs some of his new songs solo. But there is a bizarre shift when he puts down his guitar and sings Anything for Love. With a hand-held microphone, Lightfoot ambles across the stage Sinatra-style and croons, accompanied by lush synthesizers and featherbed harmonies—a tape of Foster’s prerecorded instrumental tracks.

Lightfoot’s loyal band can afford the indignity: he has made them one of the best-paid groups of sidemen in Canada, most earning regular salaries exceeding $50,000 a year whether they play or not. In fact, before the current tour, they were paid for an 18-month layoff. On the road, they travel in a rented Learjet, and Lightfoot pays all restaurant and bar bills. “He’s exceptionally generous,” said bass player Rick Haynes, an 18-year veteran of the band. But Lightfoot is a stern taskmaster, obsessed with small details. “He can be intimidating,” said drummer Barry Keane, “although he doesn’t ask anything of us that he doesn’t demand of himself. He has a lot of old-fashioned values—hard work and honesty.”

The singer’s outlook reflects his small-town upbringing in Orillia, Ont. His father, now dead, worked as a manager at a dry-cleaning plant. His mother recognized her son’s talent early and had him singing on local radio shows by the age of 6. As a fourthgrader, he cut his first record, Irish Lullaby, for broadcast over his school’s public-address system. Lightfoot taught himself guitar, then left home at 18 to take a music course in Los Angeles. On his return to Canada, he diligently pursued a performing career which took him from drumming in a dance band to square dancing on CBC TV’s Country Hoedown.

Meanwhile, in the coffeehouse bohemia of Toronto’s Yorkville, Lightfoot hitched his talent to the flying coattails of the folk movement. In the early 1960s he performed at the Riverboat in Yorkville, meeting Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Ian and Sylvia, Leonard

Cohen and other future stars. With Ian and Sylvia’s 1965 recording of Early Morning Rain, Lightfoot scored his first hit as a songwriter, followed by Peter, Paul and Mary’s popular rendition of For Lovin' Me. Then, in 1965, after signing with Dylan’s U.S. manager, Albert Grossman, Lightfoot launched his own recording career.

He still cites Dylan as his major influence and favorite songwriter. But Lightfoot’s enduring admiration for his friend reveals a tendency to minimize his own stature. “I’m not as gifted as he is,” he said. But Lightfoot has occasionally flirted with Dylan’s hideand-seek style of lyric writing. In a daring flash of poetry, the new album’s A Lesson in Love refers to “those two one-armed jugglers, the Ego and the Id.” More often, his lyrics are descriptive, confessional and accessible.

Managing his own career for the past 17 years, he has avoided the American star-maker machine. Toronto promoter Bernie Fiedler, who first hired him to play the Riverboat in 1965 and remains a close friend, said: “I don’t think Gordon realizes that he has a tremendous talent. When intelligentsia of the music business courted him, he felt threatened. He’s a cautious man who won’t take chances.”

Lightfoot takes pride in his self-sufficiency. “I’m very fastidious,” he said. “And there’s a lot of details to take care of. But I don’t need people looking after me or driving me around.” Aside from the Rosedale mansion and the rented jet—which he says are mainly for convenience—his pleasures are relatively spartan. In fact, he is a veteran of 10 marathon canoe trips through the wilderness, five of them ending in the Arctic Ocean. “I’ve seen all aspects of Canada,” he said. “Christ, I drove a load of canoes all the way to the Yukon once.... ”

It is an hour east of midnight— and Thunder Bay—when the Learjet touches down in Toronto. Soon, Lightfoot gently places a pair of guitars in the trunk of his Oldsmobile. He will head back to the empty mansion and then pick up his five-year-old from school the next day. In the months ahead lie more concerts and probably another canoe trip. He might even reconsider his decision not to record again. “With the renewed interest in folk,” says Lightfoot, “it’s not out of the question that I could have a comeback. It’s iffy.” As the lyrics in his own A Lesson in Love say, “Nothing is for certain, that’s what the showman said.” But whatever he decides, the Lightfoot legend will continue to ride a steel rail all its own.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON in Thunder Bay