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Old 01-23-2020, 07:51 PM   #1
Join Date: May 2000
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Default Analysis of Lightfoot career - long read.

Robbie Fulks Dives Headfirst into the Strangely Messy World of Gordon Lightfoot
And 236 songs later, our writer nearly drowns.
By Robbie Fulks | January 22, 2020
For me, his name conjures a queasy kaleidoscope of personae: etcher of piquant phrases, tonal source of earliest memory, curiosity, anachronism, hack, nullity. For you, a comparatively normal person, Gordon Lightfoot is probably something more graspable. A pop-music legend. An octogenarian folkie. An inoffensive radio staple, the Jim Croce of Canada, hirsute soft-seller of anodyne MOR balladry with a vaguely macho edge, the hitmaker who once upon an ice storm gave us “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” and “Rainy Day People.”

The voice is one of the first things I recall. I was 3 when his first American record came out. My parents, connoisseurs of then-contemporary folk, revered his music and played his records without surcease or pity. By the time I started playing guitar, I knew many if not most of his songs by heart. We sang them as a family, harmonizing and strumming. Many was the summer afternoon I spent chopping wood in the yard, as portable speakers in tall rust-colored cabinets, jammed into open windowframes and run from our living room by lamp cord, blasted “Don Quixote” and “Song For A Winter’s Night” into the North Carolina heat. Nary a preteen moment was Lightfoot-free.

In April 1976, Lightfoot appeared as musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Later that year, “Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” the thousand-verse maritime disaster singalong, would mesmerize Western society. Meantime, my own allegiances were shifting, from hand-me-down music to up-yours revolt. SNL in its first iteration was pure catnip for an attitudinal teen and a chrysalid comedy junkie, and reader, I was that cat. I loved Chevy Chase and John Belushi in particular, and modeled myself on their sarcasm and cockiness.

Lightfoot chose for his appearance a snug pair of bell-bottoms with a giant embroidered rose, suspenders, and wide-collared polka-dot shirt. His earnest face was haloed by permed curls. (I don’t have a miraculous gift of memory; it’s on Hulu.) He looked, not to put too fine a point on it, like a public-television children’s show host. His first song, “Summertime Dream,” sounded somewhat like Norman Blake’s “Ginseng Sullivan.” The opening verse went: “Where the road runs down by the butternut grove, to Old Bill Skinner’s stream… It’s time for a summertime dream!” Flanking Lightfoot were a drummer, bassist, pedal steel player, and a man with a Shaun Cassidy hairdo, seated oddly downstage from the boss, mugging shamelessly and playing single-note lines through a flange effect on an early 1960s Gretsch Country Gentleman.

After his second song, a ballad addressed to moss (“Spanish moss, wish you knew what I was sayin’”) that sounded somewhat like Buddy Holly’s “Raining In My Heart,” a bit of business happened. Lightfoot started in on a third song but was brusquely interrupted by the host, Buck Henry. He told the singer his time was up, the show had to move on. When Lightfoot began to protest, John Belushi entered in Samurai dress. A close-up was tightly — pornographically, I daresay — framed on the Martin’s soundhole, as Belushi snapped all six guitar strings with a wire-cutter, Lightfoot standing like a game aristocrat getting spritzed in a Three Stooges short. Then the three men stood in a row facing the camera, Henry grimacing, Belushi bowing, and Lightfoot shrugging “Whaaa?”

You don’t have to watch this for yourself to know that it wasn’t funny. In this original era of SNL, when the writing staff was headed by a darkly charismatic man who declared that “making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy,” the aim was frequently something other than “funny.” Cutting a taut guitar string isn’t funny; cutting six of them takes as long to do as to watch, and also isn’t good for the instrument. Framing the violence in close-up added a nasty edge. Isn’t this all supposed to be playacting, and in good fun? The drummer, who smiled broadly from behind the kit during the bit, thought so, but I didn’t. The year before, ABBA had appeared on the show, and the writers had put their performance of “S.O.S” on a shipboard dining-room set, cutting away repeatedly from the singers to Robert Klein in captain’s uniform flailing at water spraying through a leak. The message: If our televised revolution is for whatever reason compelled to advertise these flavor-of-the-month mediocrities, revenge will be had.

The clunky anti-comedy meeting of Lightfoot and Belushi is a little chilling in light of what happened six years later. As the actor lay dying in his LA hotel room after multiple injections of a cocaine-heroin mixture, a woman fleeing the scene in Belushi’s rented Mercedes was stopped by police. Cathy Smith’s torrid early-1970s romance with Lightfoot had inspired songs and destroyed his first marriage. Her connection to Belushi came later and was more tangential. He had a taste for “speedballs” but was afraid of needles, while she had the illicit components on hand and was willing to inject them. The LAPD eventually filed charges against her and she turned herself in, admitting to involuntary manslaughter, serving 15 months in prison, and suffering deportation to Canada.

Although her obituary will doubtless lead with a particular wild night at the Chateau Marmont, Ms. Smith was more than one man’s cupcake and another’s Kevorkian. Rick Danko of The Band once called her “the most beautiful girl in Toronto.” A notorious groupie, she supplied sex and drugs to a stellar network of musical acquaintances — Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Levon Helm, Hoyt Axton, Lightfoot — in such a prodigious flow that one can hardly reconstruct which relationships were based on which goods. One time she became pregnant with a child dubbed “the Band baby,” since she had slept with too many members of the group to feel sure about the paternity. On another occasion she gave a blow job to a Toronto policeman to derail a developing criminal drug charge against Danko.

These salacious doings underscore a disconnect between Lightfoot’s wholesome, butternut-grove versifying and his biography. He was beset by addictions, and was a heavy partier. His relationships with his three wives and his mistresses were not always pretty: He broke Smith’s cheekbone with his hand in a drunken fit, and in 1973 wrote “Sundown” based on the roiling jealousies she generated in him. The alimony settlement in the singer’s divorce suit that year was, at the time, Canada’s largest ever. But are stark asymmetries between a performer’s public and private faces very notable? It’s a common enough pattern to have become a shopworn irony — Dean Martin with his cup of milk at day’s end, Alice Cooper’s golf game, Jimmy Swaggart’s whores, Bill Cosby’s long trail of victims. The pretend persona, perhaps, fills a void in the behavioral makeup of the performer.

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