ZOOMER Magazine

Just Like a Pa­per­back Novel

Gor­don Light­foot has dodged death, had myr­iad ro­man­tic en­tan­gle­ments and out­lasted most of his con­tem­po­raries. At 81, the Cana­dian trou­ba­dour takes stock of life and love on his new al­bum, Solo.

- By Ni­cholas Jen­nings Pho­tog­ra­phy by Bryan Adams

At 81, Gor­don Light­foot, Canada’s trou­ba­dour, takes stock of life and love

I’m driv­ing up Toronto’s Bayview Av­enue on a win­ter’s night in early Jan­uary. I turn into the Bri­dle Path neigh­bour­hood, an ul­tra-posh en­clave known as Mil­lion­aire’s Row. I slow down op­po­site rap­per Drake’s mon­ster palace, com­plete with in­door bas­ket­ball court, and turn to­ward the stately home of Gor­don Light­foot. It’s a route I know well. As Light­foot’s bi­og­ra­pher, I’ve trav­elled there many times, off and on, over a 12-year pe­riod.

Much has tran­spired since my book, Light­foot, was pub­lished in 2017. For one thing, Light­foot has reached the age of 81. For an­other, he was the sub­ject of a ma­jor doc­u­men­tary, Gor­don Light­foot: If You Could Read My Mind, in which he dis­cussed his sto­ried ca­reer and time­less songs along­side fans like Geddy Lee, Anne Mur­ray and Alec Baldwin. Plus, he’d be­come a great-grand­fa­ther. He’s al­ready the fa­ther of six chil­dren (by four moth­ers) and grand­fa­ther to an­other five. Think of him as Papa Light­foot, the last of the troubadour­s, the grand old man of Cana­dian song.

As I head up the wind­ing drive­way, I won­der what awaits. It’s a new year and new decade. What will be the lat­est chap­ter in the singer-song­writer’s tale, and will the no­to­ri­ously ret­i­cent artist be more forth­com­ing? I park out front. There’s plenty of room be­cause Light­foot keeps his 2001 Chevy Monte Carlo in the garage around back. I walk across lightly fallen snow and ring his door­bell. Al­ready some­thing’s dif­fer­ent. A weath­ered lawn chair is folded up and set to one side. On pre­vi­ous vis­its, Light­foot would often be sit­ting in that chair, smok­ing a cig­a­rette, even in the dead of win­ter.

The door opens, and Light­foot’s wife, Kim, greets me en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. She leads me to the mu­sic room off the large, mar­bled-tiled foyer. This is Light­foot’s lair, a dark, wood-pan­elled room full of Martin and Gib­son gui­tars, Fender and Traynor amps, vin­tage cas­sette recorders and shelves full of tapes and note­books con­tain­ing the set lists of con­certs go­ing back decades. “Have a seat,” Light­foot tells me. “Let’s get down to busi­ness.”

I’m there, in part, to learn more about Solo, Light­foot’s 21st stu­dio al­bum and his first since the 2004’s Har­mony. Solo is a col­lec­tion made up en­tirely of songs that date back to the early 2000s. Light­foot found the record­ings last year while mov­ing out of his Early Morn­ing Pro­duc­tions of­fice on Yonge Street. What’s re­mark­able about the al­bum’s 10 tracks is their stark in­ti­macy, both lyri­cally and mu­si­cally.

I’m also here to gather fresh in­sights into the com­poser of clas­sics such as “Sun­down,” “The Wreck of the Ed­mund Fitzger­ald” and “If You Could Read My Mind” and the man Bob Dy­lan once called a men­tor. “Tell me some­thing sur­pris­ing, Gord,” I say right off the bat. He stands up, still spry at 81, lean as a whip­pet, and be­gins thumb­ing through a Web­ster’s dictionary. Find­ing the word he’s look­ing for, he spells it out and reads the def­i­ni­tion: “H-E-M-A-T-O-M-A – a local tu­mour or swelling filled with an ef­fu­sion of blood be­tween the

mus­cle and the epi­der­mis.” I knew all about it. Last July, Light­foot in­jured his left leg on a piece of ex­er­cise equip­ment at the Toronto fit­ness cen­tre he’s been go­ing to re­li­giously since he quit drink­ing in 1982. The swelling was so bad he needed surgery. Light­foot was forced to can­cel tour dates, some­thing he hated do­ing.

But I didn’t know that Light­foot is ane­mic and, per­haps as a re­sult, the hematoma still hasn’t fully healed. Light­foot is wear­ing shorts that re­veal his ban­daged leg, and he wants to tell me all about the wound in graphic de­tail. “It was a weeper, a real weeper,” he ex­claims al­most glee­fully, in­sist­ing I look at two pho­tos, be­fore and af­ter surgery, some­thing I can­not un-see. Light­foot may be a leg­endary artist, with songs cov­ered by ev­ery­one from Elvis Pres­ley to Bar­bra Streisand, but he’s just like the rest of us when it comes to shar­ing health dra­mas.

Light­foot rhymes off his other ail­ments, in­clud­ing “dry va­so­mo­tor rhini­tis,” a chronic in­flam­ma­tion of the si­nuses. It af­fects his singing voice, and he needs nasal spray to per­form. He has had two brushes with death – one real, the other a hoax. In Septem­ber 2002, he had se­vere stom­ach pains right be­fore a con­cert in his home­town of Oril­lia, Ont. His sis­ter, Bev­er­ley, found him ly­ing on the floor of his dress­ing room in agony. He had to be air­lifted to Hamil­ton, where he had a tra­cheotomy and emer­gency surgery for a rup­tured aor­tic artery. He spent six weeks in a coma and had four op­er­a­tions over sev­eral months. But Light­foot, mirac­u­lously, bounced back. Just two years later, he re­leased Har­mony and slowly re­turned to per­form­ing. Then in 2006, he suf­fered a tran­sient stroke that af­fected his ability to fin­ger­pick, but he “pressed on” and fully re­cov­ered. The hoax came four years later, when a false re­port of his death went vi­ral. Light­foot heard the news on the ra­dio on the way to his den­tist and called in to quash it. Ever since, he’s joked in con­cert that, like Mark Twain, re­ports of his death have been greatly ex­ag­ger­ated.

On top of all this, Light­foot has em­phy­sema. He has al­ways been a heavy smoker – he started when he was 15 and singing in bar­ber­shop quar­tets – but had his last cig­a­rette in late 2018. What mo­ti­vated him was sur­pris­ing. It wasn’t his em­phy­sema (which his mother, Jes­sica, also a heavy smoker, died from in 1998) but a pact he made with his youngest son, Miles. Miles bailed, but Light­foot stuck it out – proof of his iron­clad will and his steely re­solve to sur­vive. It also ex­plains the folded lawn chair on the porch. “I haven’t quit smok­ing ev­ery­thing,” he ex­plains with a grin, not­ing his taste for le­gal cannabis, “although I may switch to ed­i­bles.”

All the talk of health brings us to Kim, his 59-year

old third wife, whom he met in 2008 at a con­cert in Or­lando, Fla. He mar­ried the back­ground ac­tor from Ma­son City, Iowa, on Dec. 19, 2014, at Toronto’s Rosedale United Church, where Light­foot sings at the Christ­mas Eve ser­vice. “Kim’s a very help­ful and good per­son in so many ways,” he says. “She trav­els with me on tour. She looks af­ter me, and that means my fam­ily doesn’t have to do it – they should con­sider them­selves lucky! She goes to the phar­macy, looks af­ter my med­i­ca­tions, goes with me to all ap­point­ments and would rather sleep on the hospi­tal floor than leave me there – and you can print that!”

Jour­nal­ists have al­ways found Light­foot tight-lipped about his per­sonal life. In­ter­views are a mine­field, and he nav­i­gates them as­sid­u­ously, care­ful not to step on any po­ten­tially ex­plo­sive topic. With me, he even used the words “pow­der keg,” to ex­plain why he sud­denly closed the door on fur­ther talk about the women in his life, in­clud­ing his pre­vi­ous wife, El­iz­a­beth. And he wor­ries that if he says too much about any of them – his first wife, Brita, his tu­mul­tuous af­fair with Cathy Smith or his com­mon-law mar­riage to Cathy Coon­ley – the words will “come back to haunt me.”

Speak­ing of haunt­ing, one of Light­foot’s most fa­mous songs, the 1970 hit “If You Could Read My Mind,” cov­ered by ev­ery­one from Liza Min­nelli to Neil Young, was writ­ten amid his dis­solv­ing six-year mar­riage to Brita, who died in 2005. “It was a kind of un­re­quited love song, partly due to love’s roller-coaster,” Light­foot has ex­plained. “Mar­riages that don’t suc­ceed – I guess it re­lates to that.” When pressed, he rec­og­nizes his af­fairs are the rea­son the mar­riage failed. It’s why he no longer per­forms his ear­li­est hit, 1965’s “For Lovin’ Me,” with its boast: “I’ve got a hun­dred more (women) like you, I’ll have a thou­sand ’fore I’m through.” “That,” Light­foot pre­vi­ously told me, “was chau­vin­is­tic.”

Light­foot had no short­age of af­fairs dur­ing his hey­day, and his wild ways were fu­elled by drugs and booze, some­times a bot­tle of Cana­dian Club a day. His 1974 chart top­per “Sun­down” was a taut tale of jeal­ousy, writ­ten dur­ing his time with Smith, a beau­ti­ful and no­to­ri­ous flirt and some­time backup singer who later served prison time for in­ject­ing John Belushi with a fa­tal dose of heroin and co­caine. But Light­foot dra­mat­i­cally changed his ways and now often speaks of be­ing in a state of “re­pen­tance.” Along with no longer singing “For Lovin’ Me,” he rewrote the words to “If You Could Read My Mind” at the in­sis­tence of his daugh­ter In­grid. Now when he per­forms the clas­sic song, he sings “the feel­ings that we lack” rather than “the feel­ings that you lack,” ac­knowl­edg­ing that mar­riage is a two-way street.

Part of Light­foot’s re­pen­tance in­volves mak­ing time for his kids, whom he says he ne­glected when his ca­reer was a con­stant cy­cle of writ­ing, record­ing, tour­ing, par­ty­ing, sail­ing and then ca­noe­ing, dry­ing out and get­ting fit for the next round of writ­ing, record­ing and tour­ing. To­day, his com­plex sched­ule would ben­e­fit from a flow chart, map­ping out where and when he sees his large, ex­tended fam­ily. His two el­dest chil­dren, Fred, 56, and In­grid, 54, from his first mar­riage to Brita, are in the Toronto area, and each have two kids of their own. Light­foot’s nine-month-old great-grand­son, Adam, comes from In­grid’s daugh­ter Am­ber. His sons, Eric, 38, from his com­mon-law mar­riage to Coon­ley, and Galen, 44, are out on the West Coast, but Light­foot stays in close touch. Galen’s mother was a wait­ress at the Trou­ba­dour club in Los An­ge­les, with whom Light­foot had an af­fair in the ’70s.

Mean­while, Miles, 30, lives in Thorn­hill, while his sis­ter, 25-year-old Mered­ith, who goes by their mother El­iz­a­beth’s maiden name of Moon, has moved about while pur­su­ing her mu­si­cal am­bi­tions as a singer­ban­joist. Light­foot and El­iz­a­beth sep­a­rated in 2003, shortly af­ter his near-fa­tal aneurysm, and di­vorced eight years later. About his chil­dren, Light­foot says: “We visit back and forth. They come to me or I go to them. If we’re not do­ing that, then we speak on the tele­phone. A bit of email­ing goes on be­tween Kim and a cou­ple of the kids be­cause I don’t use com­put­ers.” (Light­foot doesn’t have a cell­phone ei­ther.)

Has Light­foot been able to main­tain good re­la­tions with his ex-wife? “Well, I han­dle that as best I can but I’m re­ally not go­ing to touch on that sub­ject,” he replies, not want­ing to up­set Kim. It’s clear from ev­ery­thing I’ve wit­nessed that Kim and Light­foot have a good mar­riage. None­the­less, Light­foot doesn’t say too much else about her in our in­ter­view to dodge a pos­si­ble “com­mo­tion” with El­iz­a­beth. There’s that mine­field again.

OOur at­ten­tion shifts to Solo. For the first time in Light­foot’s nearly 60year record­ing ca­reer, there’s no ac­com­pa­ni­ment on the al­bum – just his un­var­nished voice and ringing acous­tic gui­tar. Never has he sounded so raw and vul­ner­a­ble. By turns wist­ful and whim­si­cal, the songs are soul-bar­ing, full of can­did re­flec­tions on life and love, tak­ing stock of his past. At one point, Light­foot con­sid­ered call­ing the al­bum Bare Tracks, while his fouryear-old grand­daugh­ter, Len­nox, sug­gested Bare Ass Naked. Naked, in­deed.

The al­bum opens with the nos­tal­gic “Oh So Sweet,” a steady, fin­ger­picked num­ber that looks back on good times amid re­grets about “things said and done.” The gen­tly strummed “E-Mo­tion” finds Light­foot con­fess­ing to be­ing a “king-sized fool,” while on the bluesy

“Dream­drift,” he’s “still as crazy as I al­ways have been.” There are philo­soph­i­cal ru­mi­na­tions on “Re­turn Into Dust” and “The Laugh­ter We Seek,” and “Just a Lit­tle Bit” is a hu­mor­ous litany of rou­tine chores and sur­round­ings, in­clud­ing the CN Tower. There are sev­eral up­tempo num­bers Light­foot quaintly calls “toe-tap­pers” and ro­man­tic ones he de­scribes as “lovey-dovey.”

I ask what hap­pened to “It Doesn’t Re­ally Mat­ter” and “24 Hour Blues,” two newer songs he played me sev­eral years ago that don’t ap­pear on Solo. Light­foot, ever the perfection­ist, says the for­mer “sim­ply wasn’t good enough” to in­clude, while the lat­ter “bit the dust” be­cause it had a line that he wor­ried might of­fend one of his doc­tors – I kid you not. I change gears and ask if Light­foot can give an ex­am­ple of the good times with a past lover that he hints at on “Oh So Sweet.” “Oh jeez,” he groans, “I don’t want to do that! Peo­ple get mad at you when they read about your past, and you don’t want to cause some kind of con­fronta­tion. I try and tell them it’s po­etic li­cence, but that doesn’t work with Kim. She be­lieves I’m re­lat­ing back to a for­mer re­la­tion­ship and gets of­fended.” Kim later texts me, ad­mit­ting that while she finds it hard lis­ten­ing to her hus­band’s songs about other women, she has come to re­al­ize she must share him. “No one can have all of Gor­don – we each have our unique love story with him.”

It’s the song­writer’s curse, I tell Light­foot. Couldn’t a lover in one of your songs be a com­pos­ite of dif­fer­ent women, I ask, and the nar­ra­tive be set in a mix of times and places? “Yes, in­deed!” Light­foot replies, ex­cit­edly. “That’s po­etic li­cence!” The man with the long, lanky hair sit­ting across from me sud­denly goes quiet. He is star­ing down at his hands. I no­tice the long, slen­der fin­gers and finely man­i­cured nails, es­sen­tial for fin­ger­pick­ing, the liver spots that dot the back of his hands and a

rub­ber wrist­band from Stage­coach, the Cal­i­for­nia coun­try mu­sic fes­ti­val he played in 2018. Read­ing his mood, I de­cide to lighten the con­ver­sa­tion.

Know­ing that Light­foot has been friends with Dy­lan go­ing back to 1965 when they shared a man­ager in Al­bert Gross­man, I ask if he’s seen Martin Scors­ese’s 2019 film about the Rolling Thun­der Re­vue, Dy­lan’s cel­e­brated trav­el­ling cir­cus tour with mu­si­cal friends that fea­tured Light­foot when it stopped in Toronto. He hasn’t watched it yet. I tell him there’s a scene with Dy­lan, Joni Mitchell and ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn jam­ming on the sec­ond floor of Light­foot’s Rosedale man­sion, where the Rolling Thun­der en­tourage had a wild party af­ter one of the shows. You can spot Light­foot in the back­ground, try­ing to stay out of the eye of the cam­era. “Yeah, they were all there at the house,” Light­foot re­calls. “Bob’s road man­ager, Bob Neuwirth, came over in ad­vance to ask if they could come by for drinks. I said sure and called my sis­ter, Bev­er­ley, and other fam­ily mem­bers to see if they’d help out. I got In­grid and Cathy Coon­ley in­volved. They were all there, all the cast, Ron­nie Hawkins and even Allen Gins­berg. It was quite a gath­er­ing.” Typ­i­cal Light­foot un­der­state­ment. The party was pure rock ’n’ roll bac­cha­nal. “Yeah, I should see the film,” says Light­foot, “I’m told I’d like it.”

Light­foot’s a movie buff (his favourite film is 1984’s Amadeus, about the ri­valry be­tween com­posers Mozart and Salieri), so I ask if he’s seen Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time ... in Hol­ly­wood, which is set in 1969 at the time of the Man­son mur­ders. I thought Light­foot would be in­ter­ested. “I’ve watched half of it,” he says. “I don’t even like to think about how I was in the Hol­ly­wood Hills that night.” Light­foot was stay­ing at his friend Jack Ni­chol­son’s guest­house on Mul­hol­land Drive, in bed with He­lena Kal­lian­iotes, the strik­ing belly dancer and ac­tress who’d ap­peared in the Mon­kees’ ex­per­i­men­tal movie Head, which Ni­chol­son wrote and pro­duced. They awoke the next morn­ing to learn the grisly mur­ders had taken place just a cou­ple of blocks away.

De­spite his ex­tra­or­di­nary jour­ney and suc­cess, Light­foot re­mains re­fresh­ingly un­af­fected. While am­bi­tious and com­pet­i­tive about his ca­reer, he’s down to earth and hum­ble and laser-fo­cused on tour­ing with his band mem­bers, some of whom he’s been with longer than any of his wives. He’s a crea­ture of habit and doesn’t like change or sur­prises. Loy­alty and hard work are just two of the small-town val­ues he in­her­ited from his dad, who ran Oril­lia’s laun­dry ser­vice. Light­foot has had the same book­ing agent (Bernie Fiedler), bar­ber (Sandy Bozzo) and bass play

er (Rick Haynes) since the 1960s. He’s a de­tails-ori­ented guy, con­stantly mak­ing lists of tasks and tour plans. Af­ter per­form­ing an as­ton­ish­ing 78 shows in 2018 and 43 last year, he and his band (Haynes, drum­mer Barry Keane, key­boardist Michael Heffernan and gui­tarist Carter Lan­caster) have some 50 dates booked to the end of 2020.

Hav­ing dodged death and over­come med­i­cal crises, not to men­tion out­last­ing most of his mu­si­cal con­tem­po­raries by stick­ing to his tried-and-true folk sound, Light­foot may be pop’s ul­ti­mate sur­vivor. How long will he keep go­ing? “To quote my friend Bob Dy­lan,” he replies, “‘Work while the day lasts be­cause the night will come when you can no longer work.’ I’ve sim­ply never wanted to re­tire.”

It’s get­ting late, and I know that Light­foot, a fit­ness freak, turns in early to be at the gym ev­ery day be­fore 10, so I fin­ish by ask­ing whether he’s learn­ing to like him­self more. “I guess I’m do­ing okay,” he says, “but I al­ways think I could do bet­ter. I don’t think I try hard enough with my kids. I’m still try­ing to make up for the way I treated their moth­ers.

“Have I learned any­thing?” Light­foot con­tin­ues. “Yeah, I’ve learned to con­trol my emo­tional self bet­ter when ar­gu­ments oc­cur. Anger can kill you – kill you right where you’re stand­ing – with a stroke. I try to lis­ten when I talk with peo­ple, try to get them talk­ing about them­selves. But with wives and mates … I some­times find it hard to get my point across.”

Fi­nally, I ask about per­sonal demons and whether he’s been able to make peace with his life. Light­foot takes a deep breath and sighs. “God, I don’t know.” Then he adds, in a voice that’s barely above a whis­per: “I don’t ac­tu­ally know if I’ve made peace with any­thing.”

 ??  ?? POR­TRAIT OF THE ARTIST Light­foot was pho­tographed at his Toronto home, De­cem­ber 2019.
POR­TRAIT OF THE ARTIST Light­foot was pho­tographed at his Toronto home, De­cem­ber 2019.
 ??  ?? PO­ETIC LI­CENCE “I’ve sim­ply never wanted to re­tire,” says Light­foot as he re­leases his 21st stu­dio al­bum.
PO­ETIC LI­CENCE “I’ve sim­ply never wanted to re­tire,” says Light­foot as he re­leases his 21st stu­dio al­bum.
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? PER­FOR­MANCE ART Light­foot in his mu­sic room sur­rounded by in­stru­ments, equip­ment and shelves full of tapes and note­books con­tain­ing set lists of con­certs go­ing back decades
PER­FOR­MANCE ART Light­foot in his mu­sic room sur­rounded by in­stru­ments, equip­ment and shelves full of tapes and note­books con­tain­ing set lists of con­certs go­ing back decades
 ??  ??
 ??  ?? DOU­BLE EX­PO­SURE Light­foot keeps a watch­ful eye on his present-day in­car­na­tion from a poster pro­mot­ing his Nov. 4, 1987 con­cert at the leg­endary Carnegie Hall.
DOU­BLE EX­PO­SURE Light­foot keeps a watch­ful eye on his present-day in­car­na­tion from a poster pro­mot­ing his Nov. 4, 1987 con­cert at the leg­endary Carnegie Hall.
 ??  ?? FOLK HERO
Scarf through­out, Her­més. All other cloth­ing from Mr. Light­foot’s wardrobe. Groom­ing by Tana D’Amico for Mor­ro­canoil and M.A.C. Cos­met­ics. Fash­ion Di­rec­tor, Derick Chetty
FOLK HERO Scarf through­out, Her­més. All other cloth­ing from Mr. Light­foot’s wardrobe. Groom­ing by Tana D’Amico for Mor­ro­canoil and M.A.C. Cos­met­ics. Fash­ion Di­rec­tor, Derick Chetty
 ??  ??

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