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Old 08-16-2020, 03:14 PM   #1
Join Date: May 2000
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Default WALL STREET JOURNAL - August 2020


The Jealousy Behind Gordon Lightfoot’s ‘Sundown’

A late night and a fading relationship sparked the Canadian singer’s 1974 No. 1 hit

By Marc Myers
Aug. 12, 2020 11:27 am ET

A prolific Canadian singer-songwriter and recording artist since 1962, Gordon Lightfoot became a country-folk sensation when “If You Could Read My Mind” crossed over to the U.S. charts in 1970.

Then came “Sundown” in 1974. The song, about a failing relationship, reached No. 1 on two Billboard charts. Twelve years later, Cathy Smith, the song’s unnamed subject, pleaded no contest to injecting comedian John Belushi with a fatal dose of heroin and cocaine in Hollywood in 1982 and served 15 months in prison.

Recently, Mr. Lightfoot and producer Lenny Waronker looked back at the song. Mr. Lightfoot’s latest album is “Solo” (Rhino), and a documentary on his life, “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind” will be available streaming on-demand on various platforms starting Aug. 21. Edited from interviews.

Gordon Lightfoot: Jealousy isn’t healthy for a relationship, but it tends to work out pretty well when writing a song. At least it did for me.

In June 1973, I was living in Aurora, Ontario, about 40 minutes north of Toronto. I wanted to see how I’d do writing in the country, on the quiet side of things. I was due to record my next album that fall and needed another bunch of songs.

In Aurora, I rented part of a small two-story farmhouse on land that no longer was being worked on. The space had a sizable music room where I could write and keep my instruments and records.

At the time, I was living with a woman named Cathy. We first met in 1971 at a country & western lounge in Toronto’s Edison Hotel. I went there to hear an artist backing singer George Jones.

At some point, I looked across the bar and saw her. Cathy was beautiful.

When she passed me, I said hello. On her way back, she stopped to talk. We made a date to go out and before long we moved in together.

Two years later, up at the Aurora farmhouse, our relationship was fading. My first wife and I were separated and soon to be divorced. I didn’t want to jump back into marriage. Cathy was resentful or bored. Either way, we weren’t getting along.

Late one afternoon in July, Cathy said she was going into Aurora for a night with her Toronto girlfriends. I wasn’t happy about that. Neither of us had been prudent about some of the things we had done in the relationship.

After she left, I watched the sun set slowly out back. I felt tremendous jealousy. Once the ball of orange disappeared behind the hills, I grabbed my Gibson B-45 12-string guitar and began writing a song.

I came up with an E chord to use as a drone behind a melody. You can hear the drone chord throughout the song. That chord was my dread about what Cathy was up to at the local bars.

By then, I was sitting at my desk with the guitar in my lap looking out at my front yard toward the road with a pad and pen.

I wrote “Sundown” using just three chords. Once I had the melody, the lyrics came pretty quickly. Songs have way of pulling themselves forward. Given the jealousy and emotional trauma I felt, I knew my relationship with Cathy was in trouble.

As I wrote, I couldn’t help imagining that Cathy was chatting up guys. That image turned up in the opening verse:

“I can see her lying back in her satin dress / In a room where you do what you don’t confess.”

The same goes for “She’s been lookin’ like a queen in a sailor’s dream / And she don’t always say what she really means.”

“A queen in a sailor’s dream”—I was happy with that line. It’s one of my favorites in the song.

The chorus—“Sundown, you better take care / If I find you been creepin’ ’round my back stairs”—was aimed at the imaginary guy she met. If you’re gonna pick up my girl, don’t show up at my house, please.

“Sometimes I think it’s a shame / When I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain.” That’s about drinking to numb the emotional pain.

“I can picture every move that a man could make / Getting lost in her lovin’ is your first mistake.” In those lines, I’m imagining guys checking her out.

The sunset was so beautiful that evening it made me mellow and aware of what I was feeling and how saving the relationship was pretty much impossible.

But I was happy the relationship was winding down. You can hear my two different emotions in the song—a sense of blues and relief. Once I got going on a song, I usually didn’t stop until it was done.

Cathy returned alone by 2 a.m. All of that stuff I had cooked up in my head—it was imaginary. When she came in, I had finished “Sundown” and was already on to another.

A publicity still to promote the Gordon Lightfoot album 'Sundown' on Reprise records.

In the weeks that followed, I finished writing the album’s remaining songs. Then I wrote arrangements for them. I’d studied arranging at Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles right out of high school.

I knew from the start I wanted a big bass part for my bass player, John Stockfish. He was a great player. The same was true for guitarist Red Shea. We had worked as a trio for years.

In November ’73, we recorded at Eastern Sound Studios in Toronto. At the first session, we rehearsed the song. That’s when John came up with that superlative bass line that drives the song. It sounds big because he was a big player.

I played rhythm guitar on the opening and throughout the song on my Gibson 12-string. Red played lead on his Martin D-18 acoustic. His electric guitar solo in the middle and at the end was done on a Fender.

I overdubbed all the background vocals on the chorus myself. I added two voices to my lead vocal—a high part and a middle one. Then I doubled them to widen the sound.

We recorded all of it without a click track keeping the beat. That’s a natural feel on there, and it only took us two or three takes.

Lenny Waronker: In Toronto, drummer Jimmy Gordon played the first take with an emphasis on the second and fourth beats. But something didn’t sit right.

Fortunately, the engineer I was working with—Lee Herschberg—was pretty damn smart. When Lee and I talked in the control booth between takes, he suggested we ease up on the backbeat.

So in the verses, I had Jimmy hit just the fourth beat. That opened up space so you could better hear Gordon’s vocal and guitar part. Jimmy resumed hitting the second and fourth beats on the chorus.

The first time Red took his electric guitar solo in the middle of the song, it didn’t sound cool enough. The lyrics had a lot of drama, so the solo needed a toughness or a vibe. Otherwise it was going to turn out square.

I walked into the studio, and Red and I talked about it for a while. Then I had a suggestion: “What about Pops Staples? Let’s go that route.”

Pops was the father of the Staple Singers and the group’s guitarist. He liked playing with a lot of tremolo. So Red adjusted his settings, and the tremolo added a lot of character to his solo. It was an easy fix, and it worked.

At some point, Gordon wanted to overdub a tambourine accenting Jimmy’s beat. I pushed back. I was worried the song would turn out too pop. But he overruled me.

In L.A., I was at Amigo Studios mixing the song and album when producer Ted Templeman, one of my closest friends, stopped by. I played him the tambourine overdub on “Sundown.” He said, “Are you kidding? Keep it. It’s just right.”

Gordon knew what he wanted and could hear everything in his head. “Sundown” had a vibe, it had a sound. The moment he overdubbed his background voices in the chorus, it was over. I knew then that the song was undeniable.

Mr. Lightfoot: After the summer in Aurora, Cathy and I moved back to Toronto. We were together for another year and split in mid-’74, after “Sundown” came out.

She heard the song, but I never told her it was about her. In fact, it wasn’t about her. It was about me. I was singing about the emotional stress I was going through leading up to our split.

It was a tough breakup. Cathy had gotten to know my kids from my previous marriage. We had a good thing, but the relationship didn’t have fidelity across the board.

After we parted, I saw her from time to time in Toronto. But I didn’t feel bad. It had to be done. I don’t know if she figured out the song. She probably did. I never got into it with her.

The Aurora farmhouse is gone now. It was torn down soon after to make room for Highway 404. But the sun still sets beautifully up there, especially in the summer.
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Old 08-16-2020, 08:11 PM   #2
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Default Re: WALL STREET JOURNAL - August 2020

What a great article, thanks for posting. Always loved Jim's drumming but had never noticed the specific use of the backbeat on this track until it was pointed out.
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Old 08-16-2020, 08:50 PM   #3
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Default Re: WALL STREET JOURNAL - August 2020

Have thought for a long time that Gordon's entire catalogue needs analysis like this in book form. There's still time to do it, a musical biography ...
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Old 08-17-2020, 05:58 AM   #4
Martyn Miles
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Default Re: WALL STREET JOURNAL - August 2020

It’s good to see how GL constructs a song, as it was his songwriting that got me into his music.
We all know the songs which ‘do it’ for us and I have my very special ones.
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Old 08-17-2020, 06:23 AM   #5
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Default Re: WALL STREET JOURNAL - August 2020

Wow! Fascinating analysis of the song & the times he was experiencing!

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