Gordon Lightfoot, nicest kind of songwriting legend
𝗚𝗼𝗿𝗱𝗼𝗻 𝗟𝗶𝗴𝗵𝘁𝗳𝗼𝗼𝘁 was one of the nicest legends I ever interviewed. Canada's greatest troubadour, who died May 1 at age 84, rhymed our national heartbeat in songs like "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," "Alberta Bound" and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Robbie Robertson called him our "national treasure." Indeed he was. I interviewed him several times over the years and was always impressed by his kindness and humility. Here's my favourite interview with him, at his home in the fall of 1991 when he performed songs for me from his in-progress "Waiting for You" album, released in 1993. 🇨🇦
Snowflakes swirl around Gordon Lightfoot, as he strums his guitar on the lawn of his Rosedale century home.
The gales of November have come early. But despite the gray and gloom of this prelude to winter, the bard of Canadian folk music is in a sunny mood. And he's got plenty to talk about.
He's in the midst of writing his 18th original album — his first in five years — after a long period in which he thought he might never again make a record.
He loves being a Canadian icon — The Band's Robbie Robertson calls him "Canada's national treasure" — but he fears now more than ever the country is in danger of splitting up. "Divorce proceedings are going on," he says.
Lightfoot no longer performs "Nous Vivons Ensemble/We've Got To Stay Together," his 20-year-old plea for national unity, because he fears angering Quebecers. And he doesn't like singing one of his biggest hits, "For Lovin' Me," because he now feels the lyrics are sexist.
He's not upset about last year's VIA Rail service cuts, even though he contributed greatly to Canada's railway mystique with his "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" song. He's also not bothered by a recent decision by federal broadcasting bureaucrats, who declared new tunes by Vancouver rocker Bryan Adams to be un-Canadian.
At the tender age of 54 — his birthday is today — Lightfoot is in the midst of a rebirth: physically, emotionally and musically. His years of hard drinking and hard living are far behind him. He's trim and fit, although his features have taken on the cragginess of the characters he sings about in his odes to rugged Canadiana.
"I'm working on a physical fitness program," he says, proudly. "I've worked up to running 12 miles a week."
He also has a beautiful young wife, Elizabeth, and a rascal of a two- year-old son, Miles, who toddles into his home studio and "plays with my picks and my guitars."
The reborn Lightfoot has even found a renewed interest in songwriting, with a zeal that belies the hundreds of songs he's penned in his three-decade-long musical career.
He's working on his first new album in five years, which signals a significant change of heart for Lightfoot. In November 1985, as he was putting the finishing touches on "East of Midnight," he was quoted as saying he was frustrated with the music business and "Midnight" might be his last album.
That prediction almost came true he says now, although he continued performing and touring.
"For quite a while, I didn't write. And then it came to be about two or three years ago, and I said, `Aw, heck, I can't be carrying on like this.' I was out on stage and I felt like I needed to have a new song or two, at least to do on stage.
So naturally, once I wrote the one and then wrote No. 2, it was, `Oh, hell, I might as well go for the bundle.'"
He's got seven new tunes written so far, and "you're not over the hump until you have all 10 — an album is nice with about 10 songs."
He's in no hurry to finish it. "You know, the world doesn't need another album. You can print that. The world doesn't necessarily need to see another album from me until I'm ready to give them one, and that could be anytime, I would say, within two years."
But Lightfoot is performing new songs with his band, the loyal crew of Terry Clements on guitar, Rick Haynes on bass, Mike Heffernan on keyboards and Barry Keane on drums. He's in the middle of two three-night stands at Toronto's Massey Hall that started last Thursday and resume Nov. 21 to 23.
He writes his music with pencil on yellow paper, sitting at a desk between two well-worn tape recorders. It takes him "10 times as long now" to write as it did in the early days — he knocked off his 1965 hit "Early Morning Rain" in an afternoon — because "I'm so damned particular."
One of his in-progress tunes is "Drink Yer Glasses Empty," a song inspired by the Persian Gulf war. The song shows Lightfoot's pragmatic side: It's neither pro-war nor anti-war. Lightfoot says it simply describes the feeling "when your country calls, and they say, `Get up, time to drink up and get moving.' All you need to do is watch a John Wayne movie and you can see the whole thing exactly as it was."
The singer-songwriter has been honored with both the Order of Canada and the Order of Ontario as well as many music awards. He knows the feeling of carrying the country's hopes and dreams on his shoulders.
And despite his legendary off-stage shyness, Lightfoot loves being one of the best known of all Canadians.
"I'm as Canadian as they come. I love it; I love Canada. I really do, sincerely. It makes me feel so fortunate, to live in a country like Canada."
But Lightfoot fears for the future of Confederation, as debate rages over Quebec's desire for official "distinct society" status.
"Divorce proceedings are going on, and it appears that Quebec has already made up its mind," he says, sighing deeply.
"And my question is, has the rest of Canada made up its mind? Do we really want to just let them go? It's just like a divorce."
Back in 1971, he wrote "Nous Vivons Ensemble/We've Got To Stay Together" prior to a Quebec City concert. The tune came after he witnessed the turmoil wrought by federal imposition of martial law through the War Measures Act, in response to the FLQ crisis.
But he doesn't want to get involved in the current unity debate, and he notes with regret he hasn't performed in Montreal for four years.
"I can't be a politician; I'm not qualified to be a politician," he says. "The first thing that happens when you get involved is they stick a camera in your face, and as soon as they do that, I'm finished."
He won't even play Nous Vivons Ensemble at shows any more. "It's probably because it's in a bad key, and because (Quebecers) don't need me to remind them . . . it mentions the Plains of Abraham, and I don't think they want to hear that."
Lightfoot is critical of other songs in his vast song catalogue. He's fed up with "For Lovin' Me" — which folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary turned into a hit — because of its macho, love-'em-and-leave- 'em attitude toward women.
"It's as chauvinist as hell, and I've tried not to be chauvinist," he says.
He's also gone off "Black Day in July," his 1967 song about race riots in Detroit. It was banned by some U.S. radio stations at the time for being too controversial, and they got no argument from Lightfoot on that point. He feels it's too "preachy" for a Canadian to be lecturing Americans about such things.
Lightfoot also stayed clear of the VIA Rail debate — although he did agree to perform Canadian Railroad Trilogy on the CBC's Front Page Challenge — because his initial concern about losing the trains was tempered by news it would cost $600 million just to repair VIA's rolling stock.
He's also truly mellow about the decision by the Canadian Radio- Television and Telecommunications Commission to deny Canadian content status - thus limiting FM radio airplay - to rocker Bryan Adams's new songs, because the tunes were co-written by Adams and his British producer, Robert (Mutt) Lange. Singers Anne Murray and Celine Dion have also run afoul of the strict criteria for determining Canadian status.
Lightfoot says he supports the CRTC's decision, because the content rules were created primarily to assist up-and-coming artists, not those who have already made their names in the music industry.
But he adds with a laugh that his new album will get the CanCon ruling because, "I'm going to write them all, except for one Bob Dylan song — "Ring Them Bells." (Fair's fair: Dylan recorded "Early Morning Rain.")
The closest the guarded Lightfoot gets to mounting a soapbox is his efforts to preserve the environment, by saving forests and native cultures both in Canada and South America.
He's assisting the campaign to spare B.C.'s Stein Valley from developers, and to preserve the way of life for the Nlaka'pamux and Lillooet peoples who have lived there for 7,000 years.
He got so involved in the causes, playing at benefit concerts and the like, his son Miles was named after one of his Indigenous friends in B.C.
"It occurred to me that I'm working for people and not working for the environment, but they're connected, so I'll keep on working for the Indians," Lightfoot says.
He'll keep on working, period, because the rejuvenated bard now believes he has many more songs to write before he lays down his pencil. 🌓
(Originally published in the Toronto Star.)