Jeffrey Ugler of The Sault Star had read and heard that interviewing a legendary Canadian singer/songwriter would be no easy walk in the early morning rain. Part of the legend of Lightfoot was the fact that he could be cantankerous with interviewers, often giving short answers – if any at all. Ougler had been a fan of Lightfoot since childhood and knew quite a bit about the man, but he made sure he was well after getting an interview to continue Lightfoot’s spring 2009 show in Sault Ste. Marie. Lightfoot certainly lived up to his reputation, but he was quotable, well-informed, and more talkative toward the end of the interview, when the questions were more off-the-cuff questions about nothing. But what an experience. Here’s Ogler’s article about Lightfoot, who died Monday night at age 84. The story appeared in the April 17, 2009 edition of the Sault Star. The piece also received prominent play in The Toronto Sun and other publications.
Google Gordon Lightfoot and the hits number almost a million.
A YouTube search will produce everything from a late 1960s performance of Lightfoot with Johnny Cash to what appears to be a recent cellphone-generated home video showing the Canadian music icon’s hockey side.
It’s curious that someone who secures so much space for himself in cyberspace doesn’t seem to care about the technology itself.
“I don’t think much about it in general,” was all Lightfoot would say on the subject during a recent telephone interview from his home in Toronto.
Although the legend lives on, Lightfoot is in many respects from another era – vinyl records, Yorkville as the mecca of folk music and AM radio as a means of showcasing the latest single.
Now 70, he seems content to tour on the strength of his extensive catalog of hits and classics, including Early Morning Rain, If You Could Read My Mind and The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. The last two tracks he’s confirmed are on the set lists for every show on his current tour that stops in Sault Ste. Marie Saturday night.
He says he’s not writing new material, doesn’t plan to return to the studio anytime soon, and has given up on major music labels. He chose to record his most recent studio album, 2004’s Harmony, independently—perhaps as much a means of survival as an intense business decision.
“It caused a lot of emotional trauma. . . . It’s led to a lot of ups and downs in my life, in my personal life,” Lightfoot said of his more than three decades at major music labels. “I mean, in a way, it was very damaging to be tied down and committed the way I was, because it affected my personal life.
“My marriages have failed and I have a whole bunch of kids. . .”
Six children to be exact.
Twice-married and now-separated Lightfoot’s battle with the bottle in the 1970s is well known, as is some of the dubious company he kept then, perhaps most famously Cathy Smith, the groupie and drug dealer who she would later be known for her role in the 1982 death of comedian John Belushi. Smith is also believed to have inspired the lyrics to Lightfoot’s 1974 hit, Sundown.
“It was an exciting time,” he says of Los Angeles’ heady music and celebrity scene of the 1970s. “And it’s a time I sometimes wish I could forget about.”
Not everything was rosy in La La Land.
Lightfoot cut several albums, including Don Quixote, south of the border and can still rhyme some of the studio musicians he worked with and came in contact with. There was guitarist Dean Parks, best known for his work with Steely Dan, and Steve Lukather, a member of Toto, who played guitar on countless Top 40 singles by everyone from Lionel Richie to Michael Jackson.
“Gosh, we even had John Sebastian play tracks.”
For Lightfoot, that was a lifetime ago.
In recent years, he has adopted a much healthier lifestyle, not so much as a fashion statement, but out of sheer necessity. Lightfoot was on the brink of death in 2002 after suffering a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm that left him in critical condition in hospital for some time.
“The whole thing took two years to get right,” said Lightfoot, who was no stranger to rebuilding; he ended his long, tumultuous relationship with alcohol in the 1980s.
“Yes, there were times when I got pain in that area. . . . It was right in the middle of me,” he recalls. “But I never thought it was serious enough to go see a doctor.”
Serious doesn’t even begin to describe how Lightfoot’s longtime musical collaborator Rick Haynes appeared ashen-faced and exhausted as he addressed the media at the hospital where Lightfoot was being treated at the time.
“Yeah, I call him the straw boss,” Lightfoot said of his loyal bassist. “He’s actually been with me longer than any of the other guys (in the band).”
It’s not surprising.
Lightfoot’s loyalty to his bandmates – many of whom have been around for decades – is beyond question. And veterans of the Canadian music scene hold a special place, including Ronnie Hawkins, who has had his own health problems in recent years.
“I don’t get into (discussing the disease with Hawkins),” Lightfoot said. “We talk about other things because I go back with him to the happier times and the early days in Toronto. . . . The Yonge Street strip, you know. The places were always full of people and Ronnie was always welcoming. Gosh, even our kids played together.
But being old friends doesn’t mean being together.
When asked if he and Neil Young, who plays Sault Ste. Marie, Friday night, may gather, weather permitting, Lightfoot seemed surprised.
“Probably not. . . . No,” he said. “I know him. We are friends.
This is a man I know all the way to Yorkville. But no, he won’t (stay for my show). They’ll be on their way and on to their next show.”
Likewise, Lightfoot has no plans to stick around Sault Ste. Marie after his performance, nor did he visit the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, located in Paradise, Michigan, near the site off Whitefish Point where the Edmund Fitzgerald sank in late 1975. Lightfoot appeared there, attending a ceremony in 1995. marking the 20th anniversary of the shipwreck.
“No, I will not visit you. . . . They understand,” he said. “I’m a connection. I’m in spiritual contact with everybody.”
Lightfoot spent much of 2009 on the road. Saturday’s concert at the Essar Center will be the last show of the April leg of the tour, which has included several shows in Canada. The rest of the spring and summer sees him mostly in the US. He wraps up the tour in November with four dates at Toronto’s Massey Hall.
How does an artist whose career spans more than 40 years and boasts “over 220 songs on original albums” put together a set list that both challenges him and keeps his audience happy?
Wouldn’t a Gordon Lightfoot concert be a bit dry without Rainy Day People or ordinary without Beautiful?
“There’s probably about 35 (songs) that people really like the best, and those are the ones that we like to do,” Lightfoot said. “So what I have to do is shrink that down to two hours. I can’t do 35 songs in a show. . . . Let’s clear this up.” What about audience requests?
“I’ll try to do it,” Lightfoot said. “I’ll try to fit it in, but I have to work under a deadline. I don’t want anyone to be bored. I do a certain type of show. I don’t do a long show because I don’t want anyone to be bored.”
Rather self-deprecating from a songwriter whose material has been covered by such notables as Elvis Presley and Barbra Streisand.
But if the audience nods, don’t expect the jazzy Talking in Your Sleep to keep people awake.
Unlike Bob Dylan, whom Lightfoot calls “the top dog of singer-songwriters,” the Canadian folk legend has no immediate plans to borrow heady guitar or pounding drums for acoustic standards — especially one particular classic.
“No . . . I wouldn’t change Early Morning Rain,” he said. “There are only two stipulations. We choose one or the other.”
Although he seemed quite content with the familiar, Lightfoot stepped a little outside his natural habitat in 2004. Back then, the Companion of the Order of Canada and multiple Juno winner watched the Canadian Idol hopefuls each perform a song, then joined the voices for Canadian Railroad Trilogy.
Lightfoot’s appearance prompted some courting from Idol producers.
“Honestly, I had to think about it for a few days,” Lightfoot said. “Once I allowed myself to do it, I really enjoyed it. The workshop they have at the beginning was really the most interesting part of all.”
How fair to submit such green contractors to the fire of what can be such a cruel business without
street smarts of a more experienced performer – such as Gordon Lightfoot?
“Two of those guys are doing well. I mean Jacob (Hoggard) – I can’t think of his middle name – and Callan Porter,” Lightfoot said. “Right now they’re trying to get them accepted into the industry south of the border.” I don’t know if they were a little late or had some success or what. But Jacob released videos and everything. So he’s done well.”
As for success in these days of declining music sales, “The best thing I would say for a young artist is to get about 18 really good songs. . . . And get ready to write more,” Lightfoot said.
“When they get signed to record companies, they just don’t want one album. They want to be able to see down the road.