The many layers of Gordon 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 selfdetermination 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.