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Old 01-23-2020, 07:56 PM   #8
Join Date: May 2000
Posts: 15,630
Default Re: Analysis of Lightfoot career - long read.

I’ve been fairly unsparing of this artist, but I’ve tried to be — fair. It’s challenging, because he’s like family to me. When you’re with family you can be overwhelmed by the dissonant thoughts, “This is exactly where I belong” and “These people are absurd and exasperating and why can’t they just try to be a little better?” To get outside my private turmoil and take a measure of this man’s worth, it helps to keep in mind Randall Jarrell’s definition of a poet: “A man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in a thunderstorm, to be struck by lightning five or six times.” Gordon Lightfoot has a far lustier appetite than I do for consonance, simple reiteration, and what I can’t think of a less judgmental term for than sappiness. But then it’s true that I’ve never written an “Early Morning Rain.” By the most gimlet-eyed count, Mr. Lightfoot has managed to get his body into the elusive electrical field and to produce songs this unimprovable at least half a dozen times. This puts him easily in the top tenth of the top one-percent of living songwriters, that exalted sliver of success where, if I were Elizabeth Warren, I would have to rob him of some of his neurons to spread among the huddled hordes of twenty-something Spotify megastars.

The story of an artistic career that spans over fifty years is the story of two overlapping sets of changes. An organism moving along the arrow of time sends us messages through a technology that is itself moving. Telling the story, one takes in the drift and decay of the organism with the usual sense of melancholy that it must be thus; but it’s sad in a more surprising way to note changes in the music industry, specifically the marketing and audio-recording of “storytelling” songwriters, on a five-decade scale. As bell-bottoms and facial hair put their visual stamp on a still or moving image, setting a distance that compromises our ability to receive the related art on its own terms, there is a correlation of sound with year of release that is so consistent as to be distracting. It’s an easy laugh to revisit what the early 1970s thought looked good or the early 1980s thought sounded exciting. But if we’re calling the stuff art, then a little alarm accompanies the hilarity. One wishes for a system that allows for fat profits and canny marketing, but also allows artists and producers to favor thoughtful (as opposed to voguish) instrumentations and austere, time-tested recording standards. Seeing how few artists find a perch above contemporary follies and fads, one takes this as a vain wish, and consequently takes a forgiving attitude toward Gordon Lightfoot. He shrewdly branded himself as an earnest folksinger when that fever was high and as a Christlike Casanova when Godspell and John Denver were centerstage. But let him that is without time-coded fashion sin cast the first, uh, stone-washed jeans.

On a simpler human scale, we can admire this man’s work ethic, his decision against following up any particular hit song with another of its kind, his devotion to his players, his sheer longevity. Let the record show that he avoided some of the traps of his long era: no disco, wah-wah guitar, or delay-drenched snare drums mar his work. His early recordings — this hit me pretty hard — have a springtime glow to them. He sounds gleefully drunk on his own aliveness and potential. I can control my voice at the extremes of its natural range, write a symphony about a ten-thousand-year geological epoch, and make women bring me coffee on a silver tray besides! Who wouldn’t be gleeful?

A takeaway from this project, then, is the supremacy of youthful metabolism. Impossible to fake, or to replace once gone. And it papers over at least a half-dozen flaws. During these early years, before he had encumbered himself with much methodology, Lightfoot was airborne. Later, secure in his process and ratified by sales, he faltered, and started sputtering toward the earth. H.L. Mencken remarked that the artist “soon or late falls victim to his professional technic. His very skill… degenerates inevitably into mere virtuosity, and so he becomes a sorry mountebank, juggling brilliantly a set of gaudy but increasingly hollow balls.”

Lightfoot’s second act can serve as a useful though negative lesson in how creators who want to stay in the game’s later innings might push through and past middle age. Another guitarist-writer, close in age, who entered commercial music through the folk-scare window, is Paul Simon. It’s not by mere chance that Simon’s old-age music, regardless of how it compares to his younger output, demands and rewards close listening. In five words: his curiosity has kept sharp. This pays off in instrumental settings that change and evolve, song structures that freely defy convention, harmonies that transcend “chord progressions,” and lyrics that probe situations more multi-dimensionally and detachedly than a younger writer could probably pull off. At 50, 60, 70: there he is, still resisting over-tidiness, the clean tight corners that an attraction to rhyme and irony pull a writer into; still abjuring lazy attachments to simplicity and complexity both. Keeping curious and avoiding relaxation puts the writer into a tough and finally hopeless battle against biology, entropy, and time itself. For the writer whose antennae start to retract at midlife, the counsel I take from this particular life is as cold as it is banal. Stop watering down your legacy with work of diminishing quality. Go to the gym, stay married, curb your vices, take care of your voice.
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