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Old 01-23-2020, 07:52 PM   #2
Join Date: May 2000
Posts: 15,630
Default Re: Analysis of Lightfoot career - long read.

For most of the last 40 years, Lightfoot and I have been strictly on the outs. Since developing my own musical tastes, I haven’t felt a need to return to his records, though I’ve sometimes wished I could forget them. Anytime I might feel like playing “Second Cup of Coffee” (with its squirmy image, “Thinking of girls/With their fingers in my curls/Too young to understand how love begins”) or “Pussy Willows, Cattails” (a Russ Meyer-like vision of “catbirds and cornfields… slanted rays and colored days… naked limbs and wheat bins”), I surely can. There’s nothing wrong with the simple chords and sturdy melodies of these songs. It’s the other qualities that are a little nauseating. Lyrical clichés. A vibrato-soaked baritone croon, perfect for seducing your grandmother or frightening black people but otherwise simply off-putting. The twilight-in-Margaritaville production of the 1970s stuff, to which future historians can refer in order to understand why we all cheered when Ric Ocasek and Joey Ramone showed up. Self-parodying poeticisms (“In the name of love, kind sir I pray”). Misogyny. Sappiness, good God, the sappiness.

However, these are opinions that, whatever their merits, were set in place when I was 13. I recently started to think of testing my prejudices against a fresh listen. Gordon Lightfoot is now 81 and still at it, Messrs. Ocasek and Ramone are moot, Chevy Chase walks only technically among the living, and I myself am at an age where reconsidering anything at all is starting to feel like a form of aerobics. The time is ripe for a softening of the spirit and a granting of mercy. Anyone who has had hit after hit, as well as fifty-plus years of live performance before a dedicated audience, must be doing something right. Certainly the regulars at my local karaoke bar, none of whom smirked or chortled as I recently tried out “Carefree Highway” before them, seemed to take a kindly view of the Canadian. I asked one of the drunks, an old friend, where he thought Lightfoot stood with hipsters and the under-70 crowd. “People love him because he’s outlived his shitty reputation,” he said thoughtfully.

That career strategy, surviving, is a solid one; but I wasn’t closed to the idea that old Gordon had other talents as well. Reviewing the words of “Early Morning Rain,” I was struck by the possibility that they came back so easily to me not just because of steady childhood exposure but because they were smartly put together.

In the early morning rain
With a dollar in my hand
And an achin’ in my heart
And my pockets full of sand.

“Simple” writing, but deceptively so. It’s on a tight metric grid: trochaic tetrameter, each line seven syllables precisely. With the “and” linking the third and fourth lines, and the “in my” tying the middle two, the words in this half-verse stick together like quarks in a proton. Sure, the Poor Heartsick Narrator, with his dollar bill and his unspeakable ache that must be sung, is a trope of self-pitying masculine songsmithery. The pockets full of sand, though—that’s something fresh. I combed through lyrics from other well-known songs, and was surprised at how few clichés they really did contain. Those of “Early Morning Rain” are balanced by light-handed invention and novelty, so as to make the song (which unlike a poem demands real-time comprehension) float. Crucially, the central hook is really good. Early, morning, and rain are three words not before consecutively conjoined in a title. They sum up to an image instantly, humanly relatable: This isn’t the rain that comes at 10:30 AM, it’s an even worse rain.

Speaking of even worse, here’s what I ended up doing: listening to every Gordon Lightfoot song on every Gordon Lightfoot release (236 songs, 21 albums not counting the anthologies). I also studied lyric sheets, listened a second and third time, took notes, and discussed my thoughts among friends. This of course was completely out of proportion to the money that Talkhouse pays its writers. I considered it an experiment in self-improvement, to see whether I might revise a set of prejudices to arrive at a clearer understanding, perhaps even empathy.


I section his career three ways. Lightfoot emerged in the US with his 1966 debut and made several successive LPs that lacked hits. These are the Experimental Years. In 1971, “If You Could Read My Mind” took off (unexpectedly, as great successes so often do; the album it was on, Sit Down Young Stranger, was quickly re-pressed with the new title If You Could Read My Mind), and in 1974, Sundown landed, with the title track becoming his biggest chart success. Between these two milestones Lightfoot established his production template and gained true momentum, and at this blurry point we mark the start of his second period, the Commercial Years. They end, to my way of thinking, not in 1976 with his final charting single, but in 1980, after which his productions began to sound robotic and the time between releases grew longer. The 1980s were so unkind to so many. Anyway, I call this last chapter the Confused Years, or, more simply, Decline. I don’t wish to offend any Lightfoot enthusiasts, but it’s a really long chapter.

In the beginning, though, it was all about acoustic guitars, those of six and 12 strings. The first record, Lightfoot!, features some future concert staples like “Steel Rail Blues” and “I’m Not Sayin’” as well as compositions already made familiar by others. Peter Paul & Mary had cut “For Lovin’ Me,” Marty Robbins “Ribbon of Darkness,” and both Ian & Sylvia and PP&M “Early Morning Rain,” all in 1965. Diversifying Lightfoot! are “Oh Linda,” a blues with string bass as the solo instrument, and a nature meditation called “Long River.” The bassist Bill Lee (Spike’s father) helped “The Way I Feel,” a song using oak trees and bird behaviors to metaphorize human eros, to groove deeply, and David Rea and Bruce Langhorne played additional guitars. Three covers (written by Phil Ochs, Ewan MacColl, and Hamilton Camp—incidentally a Chicago Second City performer like John Belushi) suggested that Lightfoot was a vocal interpreter as much as he was a writer, and helped insure against sophomore slump.

Starting at Lightfoot’s second record, 1967’s The Way I Feel (that song now re-recorded in a more psychedelic arrangement), and continuing for many records after, the live-performance trio of guitar-guitar-bass served as his core sound. The bassist was John Stockfish at first, later Rick Haynes, who joined the team in 1969 and, remarkably, is still there. The second guitarist bouncing off of Lightfoot’s skilled playing was a superweapon of a Saskatchewanian named Laurice “Red” Shea. Shea was already a known quantity in Canadian folk and rock-and-roll by the time of Lightfoot’s breakout, having done TV and records with his brother Les from his teens. To hear him flutter over tracks like “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “Miguel,” and “Magnificent Outpouring” is to marvel at his fluidity, and to wonder about the origins of his unusual style. Some of it traces to electric guitar vocabulary, and some is consistent with Bruce Langhorne’s genteel blues, as branded into the first record. Shea loves double-stops, rapid pull-offs, and beguiling unbends that cross over subdominant and dominant sevenths. He drapes already melodramatic songs in shamelessly flamboyant chord colors (e.g. the three pyramidal chords that end “Softly”). His country influences include, almost surely, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, and Grady Martin, and his clean cross-pick patterns hint at John Hurt. But Shea is his own man, with a heedless creativity to his back-up that never lets up—he’s always playing, as though self-entertaining. It shouldn’t work, but undermixed as it is, it does; also, the tumult of information raining from Shea’s and Lightfoot’s combined strings is offset by Stockfish/Haynes, who do a lot of pedalling and droning.

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