The many lay­ers of Light­foot


Sim­ply ti­tled Light­foot, mu­sic jour­nal­ist Ni­cholas Jen­nings’ book takes its place among the cur­rent spate of bi­ogra­phies that are the set­ting sun’s fi­nal rays on boomer mu­sic. Light­foot ar­guably comes at a time when old mu­si­cians’ le­ga­cies are on our minds. In any given week over the last two years, a rocker’s death has fought for head­line space against books and films doc­u­ment­ing mu­sic by his or her (mostly his) con­tem­po­raries. No won­der: the ’60s and ’70s were some­thing of a golden era to be a mu­si­cian. You could ac­tu­ally make money, or de­velop your craft through a four-al­bum deal, as Light­foot did many times over.

Still, it’s dif­fi­cult to con­vince any­one un­der 40 that Light­foot and his con­tem­po­raries have some­thing to of­fer us now; their gen­tle ru­mi­na­tions on heart­break hardly re­flect the des­per­a­tion most of us feel just to sur­vive to­day’s ur­ban life.

Light­foot is Cana­dian through and through, de­spite his push to sub­vert in­dus­try at­tempts to el­e­vate Cana­dian mu­si­cians above Amer­i­can ex­ports through the CanCon reg­u­la­tions. Too bad, he said, my mu­sic will rise to the top de­spite, not be­cause, of its Cana­di­an­ness. Light­foot nev­er­the­less re­mained in the coun­try, set­tling for a some­what be­nign ex­is­tence in com­par­i­son to his rock col­leagues, fo­cus­ing more on song­writ­ing and an­nual ca­noe trips than par­ty­ing hard.

Or did he? In the tried-andtrue for­mula of the Great Man Rock Bi­og­ra­phy, Jen­nings un­cov­ers what we al­ready sort of knew about Light­foot: he was a drunk prone to fits of anger that some­times pissed off au­di­ences, de­mol­ished his re­la­tion­ships and alien­ated him from his chil­dren. This same ag­gres­sive self-de­ter­mi­na­tion forged the drive that makes up the other half of the Rock Bi­og­ra­phy: it’s OK to be a jerk if you’re pro­duc­ing great ma­te­rial. The book fol­lows the fa­mil­iar tra­jec­tory of naked am­bi­tion, un­ex­pected fame, de­scent into sub­stance abuse, and, fi­nally, re­demp­tion.

Jen­nings’ deft ma­nip­u­la­tion of nar­ra­tive, told in clear lan­guage, draws the reader in im­me­di­ately — and though he doesn’t hold back in his most neg­a­tive por­tray­als of the singer, his voice is present with­out de­tract­ing from the per­son at the cen­tre of the book.

Jen­nings’ true gift might be his abil­ity to slowly re­veal Light­foot to us — over the course of the book, the com­plex­ity of his char­ac­ter emerges, through a peel­ing away of the many lay­ers the no­to­ri­ously ret­i­cent singer has kept hid­den. Ul­ti­mately, we dis­cover that Light­foot’s abra­sive­ness is con­trasted by a deep sen­si­tiv­ity and gen­eros­ity.

I’ve never come close to dis­lik­ing any of Jen­nings’ of­fer­ings, and he is un­doubt­edly a chief Cana­dian mu­sic his­to­rian.

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