June 30, 1998
looney tunes, taken from www.mylaunch.com
Exclusive mylaunch feature By Billy Altmann
Chances are that neither you nor I have ever spent much time thinking about loons--any of several fish-eating, diving birds of the genus Gavia of Northern regions distinguished by their short tails, webbed feet and laugh-like cries. Birds whose laugh-like cries are, in point of fact, the very source of the "loon" in "looney tunes."
Then again, you and I are not Gordon Lightfoot, the erstwhile folk-pop troubadour who himself hails from a Northern region--Ontario, Canada, to be exact--and who, in a lakeside vacation home in that region, recently had the opportunity to commune (so to speak) with the loon. Serenading him each afternoon with their aforementioned laugh-like cries, these particular loons piqued the curiosity of the veteran tunesmith who, over the years, has serenaded millions with such non-looney tunes as "Early Morning Rain," "Sundown," "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" and "If You Can Read My Mind." And so, satisfying both the naturalist and the artist within him, Lightfoot--after hunkering down at a local library and finding out that of these several fish-eating, diving birds of the genus Gavia, the ones who had befriended him were of the ringnecked variety--was so inspired that he soon found himself bent on composing a song honoring said winged creatures.
"I'm not really a bird person or an Audubon guy who studies them, but as I was around them, they interested me," says Lightfoot, speaking by phone from his beloved Great White North. "I've seen loons mainly in the wild when I've taken canoe trips in the Northwest territories around Quebec. I always wondered how they survived through the Winter, and I realized that in cottage country--Northern Minnesota, central Ontario--you hear this weird cry all the time."
At this point, a lesser artist might have simply painted a simple picture and gone on his or her way. Not when this artist passes through, however. "It occurred to me that there was a comparison to be drawn between a ringneck loon in the wild and a person who works at a job in the city," Lightfoot says. "The ringneck loon and the common man--they're friends." And so, appearing on Lightfoot's new album (appropriately titled A Painter Passing Through) is a song entitled "Ringneck Loon," which goes like this:
"Ringneck loon, my old friend/ Been a loon since he don't know when/ Ringneck loon, you can't rest/ You're a looney and you don't care less/ City life is what I see/ City life is the life for me/ Hear the cry of the ringneck loon."
While he may not classify himself as necessarily a "bird person," Lightfoot does acknowledge that virtually every album he's released over the course of his now four-decade-plus career has managed to include what he calls "nature songs." "I always know there's one of them lurking around in
the back of my brain because there's always something to be drawn from seeing the wilderness here, always something soothing and comforting. You just get the vibes of your surroundings and it rubs off on you. Especially these days. I try to keep it light and positive most of the time, whereas earlier on I didn't always do that."
Not that he hasn't had a history of trying. "Just like me and you, he's trying to get into things more happy than blue." Gordon Lightfoot penned those autobiographical words for a tune called "Minstrel Of The Dawn" back in 1970, the start of a decade in which he emerged as one of the most popular folk performers in the world. Known before that (especially in the U.S.) primarily as a writer whose tunes were covered by artists ranging from Peter, Paul & Mary ("Early Morning Rain") to country legend Marty Robbins ("Ribbon Of Darkness"), Lightfoot took advantage of the folk-friendly atmosphere generated in the early '70s by the likes of James Taylor and Jackson Browne and, humbly recalling that he was "just hoping to keep up, to stay in the game," gained international stardom with such hits as the aforementioned "If You Could Read My Mind," "Sundown" and "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald" (the only top 10 song, by the way, ever written about any of the Great Lakes).
While it appeared to many that Lightfoot had all but disappeared from the music scene during the 1980s and early '90s--he didn't release any albums of new material from '86 to '93--he nonetheless was busy. "Oh, I was occupied, but with other things," he notes of that period, one in which he says he "stopped looking for the party at the end of the rainbow" by ending a dangerous drinking habit, married for a second time, and got "heavily involved" in the environmental movement. "I worked on rainforest projects with Sting, and was working for the Indians too," he says proudly. "Some time went by the boards in terms of music, I suppose, but it turned out to be very personally productive." Returning in 1993 with the Waiting For You album, Lightfoot has followed that work with regular touring and now, in '98, the equally satisfying A Painter Passing Through. And whether writing about teeming cities ("On Yonge Street") or pastoral countrysides ("Breakneck Loon" and its companion, "Boathouse"), he remains as intrigued by the artistic process as he was when he first started in the early 1960s. As he sings on the title track: "If you want to know my secret, don't come running after me/ For I am just a painter passing through in history."
Maybe that loon has the answer.