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A Conversation with Gordon Lightfoot

Canada is a nation that has always given birth to a talented crop of music stars. The country’s entertainment industry is mature and growing, but true success has always been defined by an entertainer’s ability to make it south of the border, to have their music top the larger, more competitive, success-making charts found in America. In the 1960s and ‘70s, along with Joni Mitchell and Neil Young, no one was more successful in this regard than Ontario native, Gordon Lightfoot. The singer-songwriter’s sound was clearly embraced by a wide audience who appreciated his folky pop sound that could be relied on to tell a story. Lightfoot’s sweet simple sound waxed poetic about lost love and broken relationships or the lure of the open highway and took listeners on an emotional journey. Bob Dylan once said that Lightfoot sang songs that an audience wished would never end. And now, even at the age of 83, Gordon Lightfoot is continuing on his quest to bring his much-loved music to the world.

You come from a small town in Ontario, Canada, and have gone on to become one of the world’s most celebrated singer/songwriters, with timeless hits and an enviable career that spans decades. Did you always know that you wanted to become a musician?

It began when I was three years old. When I would go to sleep at night, I would dream. Scores of classical music would go through my head. Music that I had never heard before. My mother and father would be sleeping in the next room, and my mother would hear me singing along with this stuff, and she, as soon as I was old enough, I think about five, started me on piano lessons. Then two or three years later she got me singing and entered me in the junior choir at the church. Soon after, I started to perform solos [there].

In grade seven my teachers began training me to sing. So, by the time I was twelve or thirteen, I competed two years in a row, in the Kiwanis Festival in Toronto. The first time I ever sang in Massey Hall was at age thirteen. I did a solo performance where I had my own keyboard accompanist.

Did you play both the piano and the guitar at that time?

I never became a piano player. I know all the keys and all the scales, how to transpose... I know all that stuff. The keyboard was a tool that I used to figure out my musical problems. Somewhere along the line I picked up on the guitar. When Elvis Presley came on the scene, I was fourteen years old, and when I heard You Ain’t Nothin’ but a Hound Dog and Heartbreak Hotel, I immediately went and got myself a guitar. That’s how it all got started.

When did you make the big move to California?

When I was in High School, I used to read Downbeat Magazine. It was a jazz magazine. There was an advertisement for a school called Westlake College in Los Angeles. And being an adventurous kind of a kid, I thought that it might be good to go there. By eighteen, nineteen years of age I was attending Westlake College. I had to talk my parents into letting me go. When I was there, I took the keyboard. I took five different subjects, but I only stayed for two semesters. I came home to [Ontario] for the summer and took a job as a driver for a linen supply company.

I also joined a dance band. I was a vocalist, and I played the drums. When the fall came, I had to decide if I was going to go back and start my third semester, but I decided to stay in Toronto. I played with the band for a period of two-three years. I was beginning to write songs by then, so I needed to move on.

You got your first record deal in 1966, but it was with a Canadian label.

Yeah, I recorded for Chateau Records. I got involved with the recording company early. Eventually, I had to buy myself out of contracts that I made earlier.

When I was twenty-one, I got my first contract for a management deal, with someone named Arch Snyder. [That] got me signed up with a guy named Edward Cassner whose office was located in Britain. On Denmark Street, in London! The next thing I know, I’m in London, I’m playing in a summer replacement series. I had a good voice. I was a good performer. I did seven shows in Britain during that summer. It was 1963. Then I got married, that was my honeymoon. I put together a little band from this studio orchestra who played in the TV show that I was doing, and we went around and played all the American bases. I’d been over there for about five months when I came back to Toronto.

What led you back to the U.S. and to Warner Bros?

We had a folk revival going on that was pretty big time. There were great performers, too. Canadian folk singers Ian and Sylvia [Tyson] were there during that time, and I got to meet their manager. He took two of my songs that I had written — Early Morning Rain, and For Loving Me — to Peter, Paul, and Mary, to record. For Loving Me went up to number five on the billboard chart. As a result, I received an offer to sign with him, which I did. That was my entry, song writing.

In the late ‘60s, early ‘70s, there was that whole southern California rock, Laurel Canyon thing happening, and there were a number of Canadians, like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, heading to America to pursue their careers. Did you get to know many of them?

I knew Neil Young very well. I met Neil when he was in Buffalo Springfield. We used to have breakfast together at one of the restaurants here in [Toronto]. I met Joni in Detroit, right at the start of our careers. I was with her when Tom Rush picked up three [of her] songs for his eighth album, The Circle Game. I was there when she sang through that repertoire in her house with Chuck, her husband. We were sitting at the kitchen table; Tom Rush, myself, Joni, and Chuck, listening to her play those songs. She asked me, “Can you get me in touch with Albert Grossman?” I had just signed with Albert at that point, and I said, “Well gee,” I was feeling kind of insecure... this professional insecurity. I said that I would, but that he might not follow up.

Three weeks later, she signed a deal with David Geffen in LA!

If You Could Read My Mind came out in 1970, got repackaged eight or nine months later, and went on to sell over a million copies. What’s the story behind the song?

It’s a song about the failure of marriage. It gets into the emotional trauma that went along with all this stuff, because I was writing about relationships. I was always unhappy, distressed, and it all came up in my songwriting. Many, many times that has happened. There’s always been something, some kind of emotional trauma going on that finds its way into my song writing. It happens by osmosis.

When I did If You Could Read My Mind, I was right in the middle of [leaving] my first wife. We had two kids. I wasn’t thinking about the divorce, I wasn’t thinking about the lawyers. I was thinking about the content of what was in there. I was drawing from the emotional experience that I was going through. It found its way into the song. No matter how much it stung, you had to keep on writing tunes. You had a band and a recording contract, so you pressed on.

Nobody dreamed that it would become a hit; the album [originally entitled Sit Down Young Stranger before this became the title track] was out seven or eight months before the song emerged, and I was glad it did. It’s about peace through acceptance. It’s stood the test of time, about 30 years, and I never get tired of doing it. There are about nine tunes I play every concert, and this is one of them.

One of my favorite songs of yours is Carefree Highway. I’m sure that it has a great story.

Well, that was a road sign. We were driving from Flagstaff to Phoenix one night, after a show. It was about 1:00 AM, and we drove by a road sign that said, “carefree highway.” And I said to the bass player, who was driving, “Doesn’t that look like a song title?” So, the following week when I got back to Toronto, I sat down with it and got the job done.

But there was a real Ann. [The song] reaches way back to a time when I was about 20 or so. It’s one of those situations where you meet that one woman who knocks you out and then leaves you standing there and says she’s on her way. I heard from her after a Massey Hall concert many years later; she stopped by to say hello. I don’t think she knew that she is the one the song was about, and I wasn’t about to tell her.

Carefree Highway somehow reflects the feeling of the quintessential American road trip. Have you done any road trips across America yourself or with your family?

Yes, but for work. I could’ve gone on motor trips, some of us did. Our lead guitar player, Terry Clements, used to take road trips. And a couple of them did Route 66 a couple of times.

I had a chance to do one by bus one time, but I didn’t have time to do it. The bus driver asked me if I wanted to, if he could take me on a trip across the country with my wife and a couple of my kids. I didn’t have time to do it.

You wrote The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald after reading about the disaster in Newsweek. The song has a lot of verses in it. Were you concerned that it may be too long for airplay on the radio?

I wasn’t thinking about that at all. I mean, it was a folk song for an album. The whole thing is chronologically correct. The whole thing, start to finish. I called the record company to find out if there was some way that they could shorten the song to get it on the top twenty stations in LA.

I said, “Shorten the instrumentals.” So, I got them to shorten all the instrumentals by eight bars, right in the middle, and it brought it down to four minutes and fifteen seconds. And it didn’t affect the recording at all. It worked itself out well. And then I tried it on stage. My guitar player came up with that guitar part, which reminds us so much of water and wind and rain and hail, and everything that you want to think of. Rain and hail on a tattered sail. The old sea chanty thing crept into it.

I heard it on the radio one night; I was sitting at the bar of a place in San Francisco, and it worked out fine! I hadn’t heard it until it was on the radio. The song made it into the top twenty.

Were you surprised that a story about a shipwreck on the Great Lakes received such widespread, mainstream acclaim?

It was played all over, everywhere, and it made it up to number one on the charts. Knowing that I had the song in proper chronological order was important to me. I could talk about it with people — all kinds of relatives [connected to the disaster], younger people and older people, and I got to know some of them really well. It boiled down to a ladies’ committee in Madison, Wisconsin, that I stayed in touch with. One of them, Ruth Hudson, had a 23-year-old son, Bruce Hudson, on the boat. I remember she told me that he had a brand-new Dodge Challenger, and it sat in the parking lot out there in Superior, for five months, through the whole winter, before anyone came and took it away.

That is very sad.

Sundown is probably your biggest hit in America. It has a very interesting premise. What inspired the song?

It’s a song about infidelity. I was in a relationship where I didn’t trust the other person. I suspected infidelity. I didn’t trust her. When I wrote it, she was in town with all her girlfriends hitting the bars. She got me to move out to the country. She said that living in my apartment was like living in a bird cage. So, we moved out there. I rented a farmhouse. I started writing out there, and it was working, the sun would set, every night we would have this gorgeous sunset. We moved back into town a year and a half later, and that’s when the breakup with that one occurred. Then I moved into Rosedale. Shortly after I did that, I went to Australia and did a tour.

I was writing a whole bank of tunes for the Sundown album. Lenny Waronker, a producer and former Warner Bros. Records president, and all of us at the studio realized when we laid it down that it would be the single. There’s nothing like unrequited love with a touch of infidelity to capture people’s imaginations. In the whole time I’ve been recording, I’ve never had the sense that a song was going to click the way it did with this one.

What about Early Morning Rain?

I was babysitting my oldest boy — who’s now 56 years old — Fred, great kid, he’s got two kids, and a nice wife. I was babysitting him, and he was just old enough to be sleeping in his cradle. About one and a half years old. We were living in a basement apartment, the first wife and the two kids. After I came back from Britain, Brita, that was her name, she was a Swede, was out getting groceries, so I was babysitting. I said, “Well, if he’s gonna sleep, I guess I’m gonna write.” I was always writing.

Did Peter, Paul, and Mary sing it in the way that you envisioned?

Not at all, but it was a wonderful arrangement. They were really great, that was a great trio. Albert also managed them, of course. They had a different arrangement. They changed the chord progression. I loved it. I loved what they did with it. I have never found a miniscule amount of fault with anything that anybody has ever done on any of my songs.

Do you have any favorite renditions of your songs?

Barbra Streisand, If You Could Read My Mind. Beautiful recording.

Bob Dylan once said that your music greatly impacted him. He said listening to a Gordon Lightfoot song, you kind of wish it would never end.

He was being kind. I was always inspired by him, because he was so damn prolific, and everything was different, and he liked to do stuff that had a beat. He liked to sing with soul. Bob Dylan had soul. I could recognize that in him from the very first time I ever met him, in Woodstock in about 1962, 1964. He was a hell of a good guitar player, and a good piano player. He became my mentor. I got to know him. We got to hang out together.

What was he like back then?

He was very, very prolific, and he was always working. Working at it. He had an old Underwood typewriter that he used to have in his room up at Woodstock, at his place. He used to type out poetry on his typewriter, and he said, “Didn’t you take this in high school?” I said, “I guess, I could have, but instead, you know what I took? Latin. I took Latin.” He laughed.

You spent a lot of time on the road. You must have some interesting stories!

I remember when I was playing in Detroit; the club owners, they had me staying in a condemned house, with a whole bunch of ex-criminals. These guys would test their .45 automatics down in the basement. You could hear the shots coming right up through the whole house.

One night, one of them came in with a bullwhip. I had just gotten back from playing a [gig] and was lying down to go to sleep. I wasn’t going anywhere and I sure as hell wasn’t going to a party. But the door opened, and he snaked the bullwhip out, and said, “You’re gonna come down and play us a couple of tunes, Lightfoot.” So, I immediately got up, put on my jeans, while he stood over me with the whip, and went down and I played them a couple of tunes. I can remember both the tunes I played for them. That’s how badly they had me scared! I played Steel Rail Blues and For Loving Me. (Laughs.)

You’re 83 now, but you’re still kicking it on stage. How do you manage it all?

I eat well, I get well fed. Fortunately, my third wife makes sure I get fed. And good rest, and I walk. I had to give up the gym. I started going to the gym just before I quit alcohol, around 1980. I was an alcoholic. I was able to stop drinking in 1982. Now I walk. I seriously walk. I’m an all-weather walker. I do it every day. The first thing I do as soon as I get out of bed is get a cup of coffee, and then go and take a walk.

I gave up smoking two and a half years ago. It’s why I have emphysema. The voice always looks after itself. I never practice the vocals. I just practice the guitar. I walk out onto the stage, and I open up. I’m just lucky, I guess.

You’ve had a prolific career; you’ve played with so many talented people, and your music has impacted so many lives. What do you want to be remembered for?

I would like to be remembered as a guy who looked after his kids and his ex-wives. That’s how I’d like to be remembered. As far as the music goes, it can look after itself.

This conversation was featured in the August/September 2022 issue of ROUTE Magazine. Gordon Lightfoot sadly passed away peacefully on Monday, May 1, 2023. He was 84 years old.


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