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Saturday, June 26, 1999

Gordon Lightfoot: The way he felt

He may seem out of date now, but a new collection
recalls how the singer captured a romantic national
vision even in the moment it was being lost.

Music Critic

taken from

Toronto -- Somewhere in the American Southwest, Gordon Lightfoot is singing the old songs. In concerts at Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Sacramento, the trains are heading across the northern prairie and the Edmund Fitzgeraldis going down in a winter storm.

For Lightfoot's loyal fans, any place is a good place to start down that carefree highway, and to dream about what it's like to be Alberta-bound. They'll be ready for the trip when he sweeps across Canada next fall, and they're probably out right now buying his new, four-CD anthology of songs that, as the album notes hopefully suggest, "never go out of fashion."

"It's so damn basic, what I do," Lightfoot once said. "All I do is play and sing and write songs." That order of things is about right these days -- the few new songs are overshadowed by the old favourites, nine of which he performs without fail at every concert.

Lightfoot is 60, and in a sense this vintage country-folk singer is in the same business as the 50-year-old rockers who tour as the Eagles or the Stones. But while Jumpin' Jack Flash and Hotel California have become as international as Mickey Mouse, Lightfoot's songs belong to us. They're as Canadian as the Group of Seven. They're as familiar as family, and like family they tend to get strong reactions.

When I mentioned to friends that I was going to write about Lightfoot and his music, each one of them offered horrified condolences. They obviously thought that listening to the selected works of this Canadian icon would be about as exciting as reading an old social-studies textbook, the kind that used to have titles like Canada and Her Neighbours.

Like many Canadians, my friends and I figure we have become too sophisticated for Lightfoot. His countrified persona grates on us, and his habit of singing about hopping freights rings false, especially since we know that he lives in a mansion in Toronto's posh Rosedale area.

Yet there is power still in some of the music, and reason to wonder why the particular national consciousness it articulates has gone out of our popular culture. Like time capsules, Lightfoot's songs preserve a mythic, rural vision of Canada that was strong in the sixties and seventies but has been waning ever since.

"Lightfoot's is the voice of the romantic," the Village Voice wrote in 1974, when the singer was at his peak. "For him (as for Don Quixote, one of his chosen heroes) perfection is always in view and always slipping from his grasp."

Gordon Lightfoot Songbook, the boxed set just out on Warner's Rhino label, covers the whole of his career -- with three discs for the period up to 1981, and just one for everything since. It charts his transformation from a mellow country crooner (think of Pat Boone) into a god of the folk revival who, by the late sixties, was being compared regularly and favourably with Bob Dylan.

Lightfoot was a Cancon success before there were regulations supporting such things. He toured the country tirelessly during the sixties, and hit the charts with tunes like Spin, Spin and Black Day in July. He seemed unstoppable in the early seventies -- the hits included If You Could Read My Mind, Sundown, Carefree Highway, Don Quixote, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald -- but went into a long decline through the eighties. He stopped writing altogether for awhile, and has produced only two albums this decade, including last year's A Painter Passing Through. But he has never stopped performing, and his past hits are still staples of golden-oldie radio.

Many people have covered his tunes -- folkies Peter, Paul and Mary (For Lovin' Me), country icon Marty Robbins (Ribbon of Darkness), and more recently the dance-music trio Stars on 54 (If You Could Read My Mind) -- but in a sense the songs are inseparable from his way of performing them. When he got into the country-folk groove, Lightfoot (who was a prize-winning boy soprano in his native Orillia) quickly realized that a bland crooner voice would not do. He developed a punchier delivery.

In this new style he would often hit at the notes and then immediately back off into a more confidential sound, made urgent by a quick vibrato that was almost like the dramatic tremor of an actor of the Gielgud generation. This is the voice we all know, the voice of rugged taciturnity that has been provoked into song by strong feeling. You can hear its characteristics most clearly on tunes such as You'll Still Be Needing Me (1967) and Shadows (1982).

That voice connects strongly with his imagery of trees and birds and endless rain. It's easy to imagine that the singer of Early Morning Rain (1966) had done time as a field hand or railway worker -- you can practically hear the train whistle in his long repeated high notes. And yet just as Lightfoot is making that stuff palpable in his voice, he's telling you that it's all lost and doomed: "You can't jump a jet plane/ Like you can a freight train."

This very Canadian sense of loss seems to have come to Lightfoot instinctively, which is part of his strength. If he had been more deliberate about choosing his theme, he wouldn't have sounded so genuine.

Of course, Lightfoot has had his own real losses to contend with. The fresh-faced lad who used to dance and sing on Country Hoedown, a hugely popular CBC show of the fifties and early sixties, developed a serious alcohol problem as his career took off, and wrecked several long-term relationships with his womanizing. One extramarital tussle led to a broken cheekbone for one-time girlfriend Cathy Smith, a serial groupie who later administered a lethal heroin hit to comedian John Belushi. And Lightfoot's creative blockage in the late eighties must have been a trial for a man with his kind of old-time Protestant work ethic.

The boxed set unintentionally hammers home what Lightfoot's critics have been saying for the past quarter century -- that his talent is genuine but narrow, and that he repeats himself. And yet no one prominent in Canadian popular music (with the possible exception of James Keelaghan) is connected to this country the way Lightfoot was. The strong stream of folk-roots music out of Nova Scotia has more to do with a broad Celtic revival than with anything specifically Canadian. Shania and Celine and Alanis just aren't interested -- and may have no reason to be. Lightfoot's obsessions are (or were) the concerns of their parents and grandparents, who can remember trans-Canada passenger-rail service and the nationalist optimism of Pierre Berton's "last good year," 1967.

Round about 1983, Lightfoot's voice began to change again. It got more nasal and less warm, as its lower resonances seemed to drain away. In his recording of A Lesson in Love (1986), his upper register sounds almost Dylan-like. On A Painter Passing Through, it's recognizably an old man's voice, worn and frail and squeezed out.

Characteristically, A Painter Passing Through is about the glories of yesterday, "when I was in my prime." But for once Lightfoot isn't mourning his losses, even though they're real and personal and permanent. He'll leave the lamenting to the rest of us. After all, haven't we lost something too?

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