Light­foot by Ni­cholas Jen­nings

Montreal Times - - News - By Stu­art Nul­man mtl­times.ca

In an in­ter­view with The Globe and Mail about 20 years ago, the late best-sell­ing author – and Cana­dian cul­tural icon – Pierre Berton made this rather cu­ri­ous com­ment about fel­low Cana­dian cul­tural icon, singer Gor­don Light­foot:“Gordie is a tac­i­turn kind of guy. I think he cares about his mu­sic, but I don’t think he cares about his im­age.”

But some­how that best sums up the be­hind the mu­sic char­ac­ter of Gor­don Light­foot. For over 50 years, he was one of the most rec­og­nized fig­ures in the con­tem­po­rary Cana­dian mu­sic scene, whose songs about love, heartache, trav­el­ling along the high­ways and by­ways in a free­wheel­ing man­ner, the beauty of the Cana­dian land­scape, and his­toric bal­lads like “If You Could Read My Mind”, “Sun­down”, “Care­free High­way”, “For Lovin’ Me”,“Cana­dian Rail­road Tril­ogy” and “The Wreck of the Ed­mund Fitzger­ald” – all de­liv­ered with his trade­mark rough­hewn, lilt­ing singing voice, has made him an in­ter­na­tional sen­sa­tion and has earned him the re­spect and ad­mi­ra­tion of mil­lions of fans, as well as some of the big­gest names in the folkrock, singers/song­writ­ers mu­sic scene.

How­ever, there is more to Gor­don Light­foot than those much loved re­mem­bered songs.Vet­eran Cana­dian mu­sic jour­nal­ist Ni­cholas Jen­nings, author of an ex­cel­lent his­tory of Cana­dian rock mu­sic called Be­fore the Gold Rush, has cap­tured both sides of Gor­don Light­foot in a very cap­ti­vat­ing man­ner with his re­cently re­leased bi­og­ra­phy called, sim­ply enough, Light­foot.

Born 80 years ago in the town of Oril­lia, On­tario (which coin­ci­den­tally, was the orig­i­nal site of the Mari­posa folk mu­sic fes­ti­val), Light­foot knew from an early age that he wanted to pur­sue a ca­reer in mu­sic. First it was as a so­prano choir singer at St. Paul’s church in Oril­lia, which led him to sing at lo­cal am­a­teur tal­ent com­pe­ti­tions, in which his im­pres­sive singing voice won him a ma­jor com­pe­ti­tion in 1951 called the Kiwanis Mu­sic Fes­ti­val at Toronto’s Massey Hall (a venue that would later be like a second home to him).Af­ter a spell as a mem­ber of the square danc­ing troupe on the CBC Tele­vi­sion mu­sic se­ries “Coun­try Hoe­down” (where his less than spec­tac­u­lar danc­ing skills prompted his col­leagues to call him “Lead­foot”), Light­foot haunted the cof­fee­houses and clubs of Yorkville, New York and L.A. to es­tab­lish him­self as a folk mu­sic per­former. How­ever, it wasn’t un­til 1965, when his song “For Lovin’ Me” was be­ing cov­ered by the likes of such ma­jor folk mu­sic per­form­ers as Peter, Paul and Mary, that Light­foot be­gan to es­tab­lish a solid rep­u­ta­tion as a singer/song­writer.

Jen­nings’ book cov­ers both sides of Gor­don Light­foot with plenty of de­tail and be­hind-the-scenes in­for­ma­tion, in which the end re­sult is quite a com­plete, well-rounded por­trait of the man and his mu­sic. How­ever, what gives this book an ex­tra dose of cred­i­bil­ity is that Light­foot him­self gave Jen­nings un­prece­dented ac­cess to him­self through a se­ries of rare, re­veal­ing in­ter­views, which deftly closes a lot of gaps to the story of his tal­ents and mys­tique.

On the mu­si­cal side of the story, you find out that Gor­don Light­foot is a mu­si­cal per­fec­tion­ist and a stead­fast crea­ture of habit. He tours on a reg­u­lar ba­sis (with his an­nual sold-out gigs at Massey Hall are seen al­most like a home­com­ing), he spent count­less weeks ev­ery year holed up in a spe­cial room in his sub­ur­ban Toronto man­sion, where he com­posed and wrote the songs of his up­com­ing al­bums, fu­eled with an end­less sup­ply of cof­fee, cig­a­rettes (and up un­til the 1980s) al­co­hol. And at ev­ery tour stop, even if he has played the songs on the play list thou­sands of times, he was al­ways in­sis­tent that his gui­tar and the in­stru­ments of his back-up band were al­ways per­fectly fine tuned.

As well, Jen­nings gives a thor­ough, al­bum-by-al­bum ap­proach to how Light­foot crafted his songs and how and what in­spired them. My favourite story deals with his 1976 chart top­per “The Wreck of the Ed­mund Fitzger­ald”, which Light­foot first learned about when he heard an item on CBC Ra­dio about the tragic ship­wreck that claimed the lives of its 29 crew­men, while he took a break from one of his al­bum song writ­ing ses­sions. Dur­ing the record­ing ses­sion for the “Sum­mer­time Dream” al­bum, Light­foot kept on play­ing bits and pieces of the song, which no one in the stu­dio had a clue about; in fact, the band didn’t even know its lyrics. One day, the record­ing en­gi­neer in­sisted that Light­foot com­mit the song to tape, even though he be­lieved he wasn’t ready to record it yet. How­ever, Light­foot and the band recorded the en­tire sixminute bal­lad in one take. By Novem­ber of 1976, the sin­gle topped both the Cana­dian and U.S. record charts.

And the per­sonal side of Gor­don Light­foot is just as in­ter­est­ing to read about as the mu­si­cal side. He was an in­tensely pri­vate per­son who shied away from re­ceiv­ing any award or hon­our; he rarely gave in­ter­views (and when he did, he didn’t say very much that was re­veal­ing at best); and he closely guarded his im­age and mu­si­cal cred­i­bil­ity (case in point: when his first record la­bel de­cided to is­sue an al­bum com­pi­la­tion of his early hit songs with­out his per­mis­sion, Light­foot bought all the copies of that al­bum, then pro­ceeded to per­son­ally de­stroy them with an ax).

There were plenty of per­sonal demons that were a part of Light­foot’s life, espe­cially al­co­hol. Through­out the 60s and 70s, al­co­hol was part of his life blood, whether it be per­sonal or pro­fes­sional. He drank it steadily dur­ing his song writ­ing ses­sions, and ba­si­cally fu­elled him up be­fore per­for­mances (dur­ing one tour in the UK, Light­foot drank sev­eral Ir­ish Cof­fees be­fore he went on­stage). Although he claimed his an­nual sum­mer­time ca­noe trips to re­mote parts of Canada acted as a sort-of “detox” be­fore he started tour­ing ev­ery fall, he fi­nally gave up drink­ing on Labour Day of 1981. Af­ter he wit­nessed his then-girl­friend Cathy Coon­ley for­ever leav­ing him with his son Eric, Light­foot then pro­ceeded to empty his liquor cabi­net and poured the con­tents of ev­ery bot­tle down the kitchen sink. He never touched a drop of al­co­hol again.

Although he has mar­ried twice more, sur­vived a near-fa­tal health is­sue (he suf­fered an ab­dom­i­nal aor­tic aneurysm in 2002), and warded off false re­ports about his death, Gor­don Light­foot still records new songs and con­tin­ues to tour as he per­forms around the world to packed houses, firmly so­lid­i­fy­ing his leg­endary rep­u­ta­tion (al­beit re­luc­tantly) as Canada’s troubadour. And Ni­cholas Jen­nings’ fas­ci­nat­ing bi­og­ra­phy so­lid­i­fies that le­gend even fur­ther, as read­ers dis­cover the two sides of the man who has told Canada’s story to the world in song.

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