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Old 09-19-2011, 05:05 PM   #1
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Default Workin It Thru with Gordon Lightfoot

Sep 12, 2011, 10:04 p.m.
By David Laurell

“My life has been a real roller coaster,” says Gordon Lightfoot as he takes a drag on a cigarette. “No different than anyone else who has had the ups and downs of things going very good and then having health problems, or a marriage that isn’t working, or being caught in a bad economy. You just have to work through it.”

Lightfoot, to the benefit of five decades of music lovers, has always worked through his ups and downs by blending his baritone voice and 12-string acoustic guitar with some of the most hauntingly poignant and well-crafted lyrics ever put to music.

Born in Ontario, his mother recognized his musical talent at an early age and encouraged him to make his singing debut when he was just a fourth grader – over his school’s public address system during a parents’ day event. Young Gordon then went on to teach himself to play piano, guitar and drums.

By the time he was in high school, Lightfoot had done numerous performances in local venues and felt it was time to get serious about music. In 1958, he moved to California, where he studied jazz composition and orchestration at Hollywood’s Westlake College of Music, supporting himself by writing, arranging and producing commercial jingles.

After returning to Toronto to become involved in the local folk-club scene, the 1960s saw him emerge into the mainstream, going on to record 19 albums, garner five Grammy nominations and hit the U.S. charts with such classics as “If You Could Read My Mind" and “Carefree Highway.”

In 1972, after contracting Bell’s palsy, which left his face partially paralyzed for a time, Lightfoot continued to write, record and tour, and by the summer of 1974, he hit the top spot on the U.S. chart with “Sundown.” Two years later, he was one short of the top in the U.S. and hit Number 1 in Canada with a song he wrote after reading a “Newsweek” article about the sinking of the freighter, the SS Edmund Fitzgerald.

Always one to keep a hectic touring schedule, September of 2002 found Lightfoot suffering severe stomach pains between shows. He was transported to an Ontario medical center where he underwent emergency surgery for a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm – the same medical problem that would cause the death of actor John Ritter the following year. After the surgery, he remained in serious condition and in a coma for six weeks. During the following months, he underwent four more operations and was finally released in December.

In July of 2004, Lightfoot was well enough to start singing and touring again – something he did until September of 2006 when, in the middle of a performance, he suffered a minor stroke that left him without the use of fingers on his right hand.

Today, with a career that has spanned more than five decades and produced more than 200 recordings, he has earned his place in music history by being a defining voice and lyricist of the folk and pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s.

Revered for his lyrical skill by many of his peers including Bob Dylan and the late Johnny Cash, Lightfoot says his skill in storytelling did not come from within his own household. “My parents were not storytellers, but they had friends who were great storytellers,” he recalls. “I grew up listening to them talk about topical things and when I wrote my first song, when I was in 12th grade, it was a topical song – about something I had read in the newspaper. Then, during the folk-music revival in 1959 and 1960, with people like Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and Bob Gibson, that broadened the scope and things to write about.”

Lightfoot says that from a technical standpoint, he usually gets a song’s melody and chords going before he starts thinking about the words or story that would best fit the music. “That’s not a hard-and-fast rule because, at times, I’ve first come up with a title or a line and just worked from that,” he reveals. “In fact, some of my best songs came from just a title, like ‘Carefree Highway’ and ‘Home from the Forest.’ When I’m working on a song, I’m always thinking about what kind of a reaction it will elicit. The marriage of words and music has always been one of my strong points. Writing lyrics and creating melodies have always come relatively easily for me.”

The author of such lyrical lines as: “Sometimes I think it’s a sin when I feel like I’m winning when I’m losing again;” “Searchin’ through the fragments of my dream-shattered sleep” and “Does anyone know where the love of God goes when the waves turn the minutes to hours?, Lightfoot says he is at a point in his career in which he can look back with great satisfaction at his accomplishmnets. “I think I’ve written many good lines and when I hear them today, many years later, they still surprise me. I wrote a song, ‘Fine As Fine Can Be,’ for my daughter when she was 10 years old. There’s a line in that song I think is really strong – ‘Like the rain is for the crops, you’re like food for my thoughts.’ There are also great lines in ‘Restless’ and ‘If You Could Read My Mind.’”

While most songwriters regard their lyrics as sacrosanct, Lightfoot has proven to be extremely open-minded about changing them when he has been convinced his original words were misguided or hurtful. That is the case with a line from one of his most compelling songs, “If You Could Read My Mind,” written about the failing of his marriage to his first wife, Brita Ingegerd Olaisson, with whom he had two children. “My daughter, Ingrid, didn’t like the line: ‘You know that I’m just trying to understand, the feelings that YOU lack.’ She felt I was pointing my finger at her mother and blaming her for the marriage failing. She brought that to my attention about 15 years ago and I changed it to: ‘the feelings that WE lack.’”

He also decided to change a line in “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” for two reasons – being convinced it was inaccurate and that it was hurtful to families whose loved ones perished on the doomed ship.

“Over the years, I have gotten to know many of the family members,” he says. “When I wrote the song I included the line: ‘At 7 p.m a main hatchway caved in, he said fellows it’s been good to know ya.’ It was an idea I put forth in the song about what might have happened. Since then I have learned that a 21-year-old deck hand named Bruce Hudson and a watchman, Ransom Cundy, were the men in charge of the hatch covers. Hudson’s mother and Cundy’s daughter were always concerned about that line, because they felt it pointed fault at their loved ones. Then National Geographic did a documentary called “Dive Detectives” on what happened to the Edmund Fitzgerald. They proved that the ship broke in half and that the sinking had nothing to do with the hatch covers. Well, I couldn’t do anything about what was on the record, but after that, I decided I would never sing that line again. I changed it to: ‘At 7 p.m. it grew dark, it was then he said fellows it’s been good to know ya.’”

Today, with the exception of the changes of those lines, fans from coast-to-coast get to relive the memories that are conjured up by hearing a Gordon Lightfoot song by getting to see him in concert. “I really love doing tours and concerts,” says Lightfoot. “I did 82 shows last year and we’ll do over 70 this year. Each one gives me something to look forward to.”

As for the audiences he attracts, Lightfoot says that along with those that grew up with his music, his concerts also bring out a much younger crowd of kids who grew up with their parents listening to his music. “Sometimes I think the younger people come just to find out how you can stay relevant for so long,” he says with a laugh.

If that is the case, they quickly learn that his relevance is largely due to perseverance. “As I said, everyone’s life is a roller coaster. Everyone has ups and downs. You just have to work through it. My medical problems changed me. As an artist, it gave me the guts to summon up my talent and take it further. As a performer, it improved my playing because after I had the stroke, I had to practice a lot to get my fingers to work again. And it changed the way I live my life. I get up every morning and go to a gym and do cardio because it keeps my lungs functioning well and helps my singing. I have to work out to keep my voice functioning. I still smoke – have since I was 17 – which is why I go to the gym every day. I hope the cardio work will balance out the effects of the smoking. I don’t know if there’s any truth to be found in that, but I do feel it helps me, because I feel great and I’m singing well and I always keep moving.”

When not on the road, Lightfoot, who will turn 73 next month, says he enjoys spending time at his home in Toronto near his children who range in age from 17 to 46. Pressed as to whether, after a lifetime of ups and downs, he has any higher ups he hopes to reach, he shrugs. “I’m happy with what I’ve done and what I continue to do. I’ve worked through so many things. The only thing I want to achieve now is to get absolute perfect tuning on both of my 12-string guitars.”
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Old 09-19-2011, 10:36 PM   #2
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Default Re: Workin It Thru with Gordon Lightfoot

Good piece of reading material, and it even got printed on my birthday too!
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Old 09-20-2011, 07:30 AM   #3
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Happy Birthday!
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Old 09-20-2011, 09:09 AM   #4
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I liked it too, very well written and you always seem to learn more about Gordon with every article about him.
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Old 09-20-2011, 09:46 AM   #5
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I like the part when he says he thinks "the young kids come out with their parents just to see how you can stay relevant for so long." amen.
Not many of the artists of the last while will be out on tour or relevant to the degree some of the 'oldsters' of my day are when they are in their 70's. It's really quite remarkable.
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Old 09-20-2011, 09:58 AM   #6
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This is a great article. Gotta love the "down to earthness" of that guy.

I like what he says at the end of the interview about getting absolute perfect tuning on his twelve strings.

Well, he sure does have the right luthier to help him with that.

John Laroque at "Ring Music" in Toronto now is also my luthier and he set my 12 string two years ago and it holds the tune perfect still. I can even move the capo around the fingerboard and not have to adjust the tuning in most cases. A great guy as well.


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Old 09-20-2011, 03:25 PM   #7
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Default Re: Workin It Thru with Gordon Lightfoot

Nice - and more good advice for all of us from our mentor and hero! "You just have to work through it". That's really timeless when you think about it.

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Old 09-20-2011, 10:12 PM   #8
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My kids (currently age 18 and 16) have loved coming out to Gordon's concerts for the past 10 years. They absolutely love the Man and his music. They are old enough now to have the option of staying home when my wife and I go out to see Gordon's concerts, but they always insist on coming. Gordon transcends the generations.
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