October 17, 1999
By Walter Tunis
CONTRIBUTING MUSIC CRITIC (Lexington Herald-Leader)
Gordon Lightfoot has done enough time-tripping in the last 12 months to last
the rest of his career.
When plans were set in motion to design a boxed set that covered all facets of
his music spanning more than 36 years of recording the Canadian artist locked
himself away to appraise his life's work.
The decades all bled together as Lightfoot sought to pick out the brightest
jewels from his 19 studio albums along with some personal favorites and a few
unreleased tracks to flesh out the retrospective.
"I want to tell you, it was an experience,'' Lightfoot said by phone from his
home in Toronto. "It took me five days just to digest the 19 albums.''
The resulting collection is a sprawling 88-song, four-CD set called Songbook.
Assembling the highlights of such a celebrated folk/pop career in one package
is indeed impressive, but how does Lightfoot feel about examining moments of
his life that stretch as far back as 1962?
"It brought all of the memories back the good and the bad, the up and the
down,'' he said. "It brought a lot of that back into focus. But it also
brought stuff back to me that I might not necessarily share with an audience:
getting remarried, my family, my business. When I looked back at all of this
music, I had to consider all of those memories, too. And believe me, they all
came flooding back.
"There's a lot of stuff that has happened in my life that, frankly, I don't
like. But there's a lot more that I'm very proud of. Dealing with all those
memories as they came in, I definitely got a few pangs.''
To the casual pop fan, Lightfoot's career can be summed up in three '70s hits
that span six years: the 1970 romantic timepiece If You Could Read My Mind,
1974's bluesy meditation Sundown and 1976's sea chanty epic The Wreck of the
But Lightfoot's songwriting reputation reaches back into the '60s and has
produced albums well into the '90s. Both the hits and the ignored recordings
have the same common strengths: an eloquent, precise vocal style and a simple
but lush pop-folk framework.
Lightfoot broke down the four decades that Songbook and his career have covered
and offered these specific observations:
On the '60s: "It brought out the Beatles but it also brought out Bob Dylan.
When I started listening to Dylan, I immediately started to write better. I
didn't worry much about the Beatles, though. They were way far out in front of
everyone else. I just let all that fly.''
On the '70s: "That was when I actually managed to nudge (Paul) McCartney off
the charts (when Sundown replaced Band on the Run at No. 1 in 1974). But in the
middle of the '70s was The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. That song really
helped inspire belief in myself and kept my career rolling to a nice place.''
On the '80s: "I matured a lot as a songwriter then especially in the first
five years of the '80s. I was completely immersed in music at that time and I
think that inspired me to do my best album, East of Midnight (in 1986). I had
very high hopes for that record. I was writing some very meaningful stuff
On the '90s: "This was where I became self-produced. Two of my principal
backers at Warner Bros. (his record label since 1970) left. So I just thought,
`We'll keep working with the band and keep putting songs down.' I mean, you can
never be sure when something will really take off and get legs. Nobody can ever
be sure of that.''
Plans are in the formative stages for an album of new music Lightfoot's first
since 1998's A Painter Passing Through but Lightfoot intends to keep his music
alive over the next few years primarily through touring. Assisting with that is
a four-piece band of longtime pals, which includes bassist Rick Haynes (a
recording partner of Lightfoot since the late '60s), guitarist Terry Clements
(since the early '70s), drummer Barry Keane (since the mid-'70s) and
keyboardist Mike Heffernan (since the early '80s).
"The game has now become one of longevity,'' Lightfoot said. "You take a look
at people like B.B. King and realize if you've got the desire, the health and
the willpower, you can do this for as long as you want to. That's the kind of
attitude I'm trying to adopt. I'd like to keep on playing for a bit longer.''