Robbie Fulks is a musician—country, but also strongly attracted to jazz, bluegrass, gospel, experimental musics—living near Chicago. His latest solo record, Upland Stories, was a multiple Grammy nominee, and his most recent release, Wild! Wild! Wild!, is a collaboration with Linda Gail Lewis. His website is here.
For me, his name conjures a queasy kaleidoscope of personae: etcher of piquant phrases, tonal source of earliest memory, curiosity, anachronism, hack, nullity. For you, a comparatively normal person, Gordon Lightfoot is probably something more graspable. A pop-music legend. An octogenarian folkie. An inoffensive radio staple, the Jim Croce of Canada, hirsute soft-seller of anodyne MOR balladry with a vaguely macho edge, the hitmaker who once upon an ice storm gave us “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” and “Rainy Day People.”
The voice is one of the first things I recall. I was 3 when his first American record came out. My parents, connoisseurs of then-contemporary folk, revered his music and played his records without surcease or pity. By the time I started playing guitar, I knew many if not most of his songs by heart. We sang them as a family, harmonizing and strumming. Many was the summer afternoon I spent chopping wood in the yard, as portable speakers in tall rust-colored cabinets, jammed into open windowframes and run from our living room by lamp cord, blasted “Don Quixote” and “Song For A Winter’s Night” into the North Carolina heat. Nary a preteen moment was Lightfoot-free.
In April 1976, Lightfoot appeared as musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Later that year, “Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald,” the thousand-verse maritime disaster singalong, would mesmerize Western society. Meantime, my own allegiances were shifting, from hand-me-down music to up-yours revolt. SNL in its first iteration was pure catnip for an attitudinal teen and a chrysalid comedy junkie, and reader, I was that cat. I loved Chevy Chase and John Belushi in particular, and modeled myself on their sarcasm and cockiness.
Lightfoot chose for his appearance a snug pair of bell-bottoms with a giant embroidered rose, suspenders, and wide-collared polka-dot shirt. His earnest face was haloed by permed curls. (I don’t have a miraculous gift of memory; it’s on Hulu.) He looked, not to put too fine a point on it, like a public-television children’s show host. His first song, “Summertime Dream,” sounded somewhat like Norman Blake’s “Ginseng Sullivan.” The opening verse went: “Where the road runs down by the butternut grove, to Old Bill Skinner’s stream… It’s time for a summertime dream!” Flanking Lightfoot were a drummer, bassist, pedal steel player, and a man with a Shaun Cassidy hairdo, seated oddly downstage from the boss, mugging shamelessly and playing single-note lines through a flange effect on an early 1960s Gretsch Country Gentleman.
After his second song, a ballad addressed to moss (“Spanish moss, wish you knew what I was sayin’”) that sounded somewhat like Buddy Holly’s “Raining In My Heart,” a bit of business happened. Lightfoot started in on a third song but was brusquely interrupted by the host, Buck Henry. He told the singer his time was up, the show had to move on. When Lightfoot began to protest, John Belushi entered in Samurai dress. A close-up was tightly — pornographically, I daresay — framed on the Martin’s soundhole, as Belushi snapped all six guitar strings with a wire-cutter, Lightfoot standing like a game aristocrat getting spritzed in a Three Stooges short. Then the three men stood in a row facing the camera, Henry grimacing, Belushi bowing, and Lightfoot shrugging “Whaaa?”
You don’t have to watch this for yourself to know that it wasn’t funny. In this original era of SNL, when the writing staff was headed by a darkly charismatic man who declared that “making people laugh is the lowest form of comedy,” the aim was frequently something other than “funny.” Cutting a taut guitar string isn’t funny; cutting six of them takes as long to do as to watch, and also isn’t good for the instrument. Framing the violence in close-up added a nasty edge. Isn’t this all supposed to be playacting, and in good fun? The drummer, who smiled broadly from behind the kit during the bit, thought so, but I didn’t. The year before, ABBA had appeared on the show, and the writers had put their performance of “S.O.S” on a shipboard dining-room set, cutting away repeatedly from the singers to Robert Klein in captain’s uniform flailing at water spraying through a leak. The message: If our televised revolution is for whatever reason compelled to advertise these flavor-of-the-month mediocrities, revenge will be had.
The clunky anti-comedy meeting of Lightfoot and Belushi is a little chilling in light of what happened six years later. As the actor lay dying in his LA hotel room after multiple injections of a cocaine-heroin mixture, a woman fleeing the scene in Belushi’s rented Mercedes was stopped by police. Cathy Smith’s torrid early-1970s romance with Lightfoot had inspired songs and destroyed his first marriage. Her connection to Belushi came later and was more tangential. He had a taste for “speedballs” but was afraid of needles, while she had the illicit components on hand and was willing to inject them. The LAPD eventually filed charges against her and she turned herself in, admitting to involuntary manslaughter, serving 15 months in prison, and suffering deportation to Canada.
Although her obituary will doubtless lead with a particular wild night at the Chateau Marmont, Ms. Smith was more than one man’s cupcake and another’s Kevorkian. Rick Danko of The Band once called her “the most beautiful girl in Toronto.” A notorious groupie, she supplied sex and drugs to a stellar network of musical acquaintances — Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Levon Helm, Hoyt Axton, Lightfoot — in such a prodigious flow that one can hardly reconstruct which relationships were based on which goods. One time she became pregnant with a child dubbed “the Band baby,” since she had slept with too many members of the group to feel sure about the paternity. On another occasion she gave a blow job to a Toronto policeman to derail a developing criminal drug charge against Danko.
These salacious doings underscore a disconnect between Lightfoot’s wholesome, butternut-grove versifying and his biography. He was beset by addictions, and was a heavy partier. His relationships with his three wives and his mistresses were not always pretty: He broke Smith’s cheekbone with his hand in a drunken fit, and in 1973 wrote “Sundown” based on the roiling jealousies she generated in him. The alimony settlement in the singer’s divorce suit that year was, at the time, Canada’s largest ever. But are stark asymmetries between a performer’s public and private faces very notable? It’s a common enough pattern to have become a shopworn irony — Dean Martin with his cup of milk at day’s end, Alice Cooper’s golf game, Jimmy Swaggart’s whores, Bill Cosby’s long trail of victims. The pretend persona, perhaps, fills a void in the behavioral makeup of the performer.
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.
The Way I Feel was made in Nashville. The great session veteran Charlie McCoy pumps up the energy on several instruments, and Kenny Buttrey, who drummed on Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding that year and joined Poco a few years later, lends a sexiness that truly lifts “Go-Go Round” — a forlorn young stripper falls in love with a gentleman who doesn’t know she exists, oy vey — and “If You’ve Got It,” in which Lightfoot tries on a Bobby Darin persona. The drums sound as though they may not be mic-ed, audible through bleed alone—very organic and sweet.
Did She Mention My Name? (1968) is Lightfoot’s weirdest and least cohesive record, but I found myself enjoying its disarray, breadth, and utterly zany string arrangements (by John Simon, the famed producer of Janis Joplin and The Band, not the acerbic dead theater critic). I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that the record moves, track by track, through the following tableaux: Paul McCartney sunshine, Andy Williams purple romance, Phil Ochs protest with electric blues guitar and almost patternless drumming, The Monkees, Gordon Lightfoot, and something that can only be described as Jimmy Webb trying to make theme music for The Sterile Cuckoo. That’s side one. Side two has some truly outlandish sounds. Maybe it’s harp feedback on “Boss Man”; whatever is autopanned on “Something Very Special” sounds like a guitar sample fed through swishing bead-curtains. Song endings defy expectations and logic. Major turns minor with a low blast of trombones. Guitars cross-fade into a delicate string composition. A gentle retard, closing chord, and… banjo hoedown!
Relistening after all these years, I found myself unable to dislodge my ill will toward Lightfoot’s vibrato. It doesn’t show up all the time, but when it does, it’s an unwelcome visitor that pops in almost comically, like Gene Wilder’s spasmatic shooting hand in Blazing Saddles. Nor did I find Lightfoot’s corniness less corny than I had remembered, his arrogant sexism less eye-rolling. This is at its barest in the taunting anthem to infidelity, “For Lovin’ Me”: “I won’t forget you when I’m gone/there you go, you’ve cried again/I’ve had a hundred more like you, so don’t be blue / I’ll have a thousand ‘fore I’m through.”
Back Here On Earth (1968) and Sunday Concert (1969) are his fourth and fifth albums. Then came a label change, United Artists to Warner/Reprise. With this change comes the start of purposeful move toward quietly sympathetic production and an artist persona presented steadily and within limits. Lightfoot entered the 1970s without settling into a sound or cracking the top 40, but having compiled an impressive catalog of songs. A simple question: Why is he making these records? Songs earn serious money; big-label records and club touring — good luck. The royalties alone from “Early Morning Rain,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” and “For Lovin’ Me,” all compositions on the first record, point to a pretty easy life of staying home and hauling checks in from the mailbox. The next seven or eight records also yielded a sprinkling of contemporary versions by others, but the cover train only got well underway in the mid-1970s. Since then, the variety of genres in which Lightfoot’s been covered, and the high rank of the acts within them— including bluegrass (The Country Gentlemen, Kentucky Colonels, Tony Rice), folk (The Kingston Trio, Bob Gibson, Judy Collins), easy-listening (Johnny Mathis, Ray Conniff, Andy Williams, Harry Belafonte), country (Glen Campbell, Don Williams, Olivia Newton-John, George Hamilton, Jerry Reed, Johnny Cash), and rock (Ronnie Hawkins, Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Grateful Dead, Jimmy Buffet) — have been extraordinary.
From this vantage point the 1960s appear to have been an investment phase for Lightfoot. It was worth it: From the albums — some years he released two, every year at least one — others plucked rich fruit. And from the travel he built a loyal, lifelong fan base. Satisfying as fat royalty checks (I imagine) are, they don’t applaud, cry your name tenderly, tell you you’ve changed their life, or give you the mystical lift that you get playing music with others. Every subcategory of labor in the music business tends to bring on dizziness and boredom, except stage performance, which makes you feel like a god. A man who writes passionately about the pleasures of vagabondage is probably not a man content to sit home soberly monitoring his retirement savings. Nor is Lightfoot a cater-to-market sort of writer. He carries his own highly personalized aesthetic, and so needs to make records of his own to reify it. Writing and performing, activities which respectively stress mind and body, make a good yin-yang pair. Considering the formal niceties that abound in his carefully drafted songs, and how many damned songs there are, one infers a mind on overdrive, a man kept at his desk by the fun of manipulating language and the sound of frequencies jibing serendipitously.
Backstage after a radio show 20 or so years back, I plugged David Rawlings for information on Lightfoot, as the two had recently performed on a bill together somewhere. “He was really concerned about being in tune,” David said. “I mean, he was really concerned. Going from player to player, ten minutes before downbeat, then five and then one — ‘Are you in tune, Rick? Are we in tune together?’”
This purported bugbear is confirmed amply by interview transcripts. Here’s Gordon answering a reporter who observed that his concerts seem to be improving and the band enjoying itself more, 35 years in:
“One of the reasons why it sounds better, Valerie, is that we’ve been getting scientifically involved in tuning the instruments, in getting them locked in with the keyboards. And that is something that has gelled just in the last three or four years….It’s a very careful and exacting process. We’re working on it; it’s improving. That’s why we think it sounds better.”
A writer from Rolling Stone reports from a soundcheck:
“He sits down and hunches over his guitars one by one to begin the string-by-string tuning process. [Unlike that notorious five-string-at-a-time tuning process.] It’s slow, painstaking work, and after a half-hour, only Hasse [his wife] is left in the theater with him… ’I have to make sure they’re all in perfect tune,’ Lightfoot says. ‘Perfect… tune.’
From a 2019 Sound And Vision feature:
Q: You’re very meticulous about the time you spend tuning your guitars on show days. How do you know when a guitar sounds right to you?
A: We do tune our own instruments, because I like to make sure the right intonation is on them. If I can be sure I have all of my octaves and my fifths perfectly aligned, then all of the instruments should be in tune. I really have four instruments on the go during every show. I have to make sure all of them are in tune during the day, so I arrive at the venue very early.
It seems no one is able to spend five minutes in a room with Gordon Lightfoot without his lapsing into a panegyric on the wonders of tuning. A half-hour? “Scientifically”? Arrive early? Let’s dive into this insanity. When you’re cursed with perfect pitch, as this man may be, degrees of disharmony or distance from 440 that are imperceptible — or actually pleasing! — to the rest of us can take on the sensations of toothache. For many of these people, the torture never stops, because at least a tiny degree of departure from flawlessly consonant thirds and fifths is built into music.
Perfect intonation is unachievable, simply put. In the fourth century B.C., Pythagoras defined the octave frequency ratio as 2:1 and the fifth as 3:2. Those ratios make beautiful sounds — octaves and fifths go great together — but they don’t scale (confusing pun intended) up into a system; the ratios don’t work as well with higher numbers, and don’t overlay mathematically. To numerically quantify frequencies in a systematic way — to build intervals, scales and multiple octaves — you need either to make the number frequencies within scales irrational, or round them off. That rounding, which effectively knocks some scale tones out of whack to make others align more perfectly and mathematically, is called tempering. Tempering, then, is like a musical version of Einstein’s cosmological constant, a small fudging that allows a system that’s useful and desirable to stay intact. (And multiple systems of temperament exist, so that obsessives can really get lost in this stuff.)
If you’re a guitarist you face only six adjustable variables, the open strings. (Lightfoot sometimes plays a twelve-string which admittedly is an added tuning burden.) The tools are electronic tuners and your ears, and both are fallible. The obstacles, all inhibiting or actually preventing perfect tuning, and all out of your control, are: environmental/locational contingencies (temperatures move around and wood and glue respond in kind), math (see above), and the set-up of your fretted instrument. Further constraining you is the fact that the first note you tune becomes a standard in itself, and further tunings become relative to it. The limitations are frustrating, but they do save time.
Once when I was sound-checking in an Indiana bar with the banjoist Noam Pikelny, he was disturbed by an ambient hum in the room, coming from a refrigeration unit or something. I couldn’t hear it until he pointed it out. It wasn’t only that it was soft, it didn’t sound much like a note to me. But it was driving him nuts, and so all of us tuned to 442 to avoid clashing with the hum. It’s possible Lightfoot is changing up frequency standards night by night in this way, based on room characteristics. But I doubt it. It’s possible he’s tuning a digital keyboard to a guitar rather than vice-versa, possible he’s switching out saddles of different heights or angles. There’s a number of absurd, time-wasting things he could be doing.
Tuning is more a matter of taste than “science,” and old people’s tastes have a way of morphing into goofy convictions. I strongly suspect Mr. Lightfoot has fallen into a rabbit hole, and I wish he would devote more energy to non-tuning aspects of his craft. On the spectrum of persnickety intonation standards and dissonance thresholds — Katy Perry and Gordon Lightfoot at one end and flying close to the Pythagorean sun; big-city orchestras using their ears and an oboe’s A-note as guideposts; schmucks like me with their Snark clip-ons and on-the-road-too-long hearing loss; a 1960s R&B group pushing the envelope but sounding great anyway; a bar band too proud to give a shit and consequently sounding just awful — my own preference is for music that’s just a little out of tune. Sometimes I like it a little more out-of-tune and sometimes a little less — odd though it may sound, it really depends who’s playing. In all, I think there are reasons to prefer the slightly wobbly music of the younger Gordon Lightfoot to his rigorously tuned and boring records of more recent vintage.
THE HIGH NOON OF COMMERCE
In 1970 Lightfoot paired fatefully with Warner/Reprise’s legendary A&R executive Lenny Waronker, then at the beginning of a career that would come to encompass some of the most era-defining, intelligently arranged pop music of the 1970s: Rickie Lee Jones, James Taylor, Ry Cooder, Maria Muldaur, Randy Newman. The two men began dabbling with orchestrations and working toward the easy-grooving Laurel Canyon-flavored sound by which most people would come to know Lightfoot. For his first production, Sit Down Young Stranger, Waronker brought in a mini-murderers’-row of kind-eyed, flowery-shirted, bigshots-to-be. Ry Cooder and John Sebastian played on the record, and both Nick DeCaro and Randy Newman did string arrangements. Van Dyke Parks played freakish harmonium lines over the back half of “Cobwebs and Dust,” belching low thirds and effortfully (pumping a harmonium always seems to sound a little like a fat man climbing stairs) cranking out demented organ-grinder arpeggios, a surreal contrast to Lightfoot’s mellifluous nursery-rhyme vocals.
From this messing-around came “If You Could Read My Mind.” The song pulsed with sincere, depressive feeling; the lyrics offered up striking details (a “three-way script”) while circling but never articulating the sad central facts; the chord changes and vocal melody were smart; and the audio tailoring worked. Waronker’s presence was a decisive boon, and his production of Sundown three years later proved the game-changer for Lightfoot. That album’s two hits, the title song and “Carefree Highway,” play on adult-contemporary and oldies radio to this day.
Sundown was in many respects no departure. Its subject matter included horniness, the troubled ways of the modern world, the sea: familiar themes familiarly decorated, with an overlay of melancholy philosophy, a profusion of rhymes, and fat-free melodies. The album, like most of Lightfoot’s early discography, offered a little brainy form-stretching that ran contrary to the writer’s reputation for three-chord simplicity. “Seven Island Suite,” like “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” and “Cabaret” before it, has mixed meters and a quasi-symphonic layout; it juggles polyrhythms and creatively plays 6/8 against 4/4 over the course of six-plus minutes.
Sundown also has unique elements. It’s Lightfoot’s grooviest record, being the first of two albums that Jim Gordon drums on, and featuring the percussionist Milt Holland. The former gentleman, best known for drumming on “Layla” and killing his mother with a butcher knife nine years after these sessions, proves the ideal fit for Lightfoot, feeling the songs in real time and operating with an intensity and restraint that don’t feel “performed.” Elsewhere in the playing, the record gleams with clarity. Acoustic guitars outline chord patterns, rest behind vocals, and reiterate vocal melodies during solos. Nick DeCaro, whose strings are one of the key ingredients of effective 1970s songwriter music, is, as ever, serene and unostentatious.
Cathy Smith (hey, it’s a two-killer record!) sings on the choruses of “High And Dry.” I love her performance. It sounds non-professionally self-conscious, and is set back and bathed in echo, as though it’s a jagged element that wanted smoothing over. It’s nice to hear a voice harmonizing with Lightfoot other than himself, because his dense timbre isn’t good cloning material. Perhaps Waronker helped tame his vibrato (mercifully dialed back), and admitted fresh voices in. “Cold On The Shoulder,” the title song of the album after Sundown, features the Partridge Family’s Jackie Ward.
CONFUSION AND DECLINE
At Sundown Gordon is 36 years old and at the zenith of his power and leverage, a place more than 99.9% of musicians dream of and try for but fail to reach. With the advantages of wealth, platform, audience, and relative youth, he and his professional and personal dependents must have been looking ahead to many years of productivity. But the story played out differently. Why his standards began to slacken with the record following, why soon after the hits stopped happening, why after that his writing started to wilt and his baritone to thin and decay, with the result that his last 35 years’ recorded output has amounted to a short sad pile, is beyond me to say. But let’s stipulate that a ten-record-long streak of remarkably creative composing with a king’s ransom of royalties is an odds-defying feat, as is a three-year season in the sun as a muscular chart artist. If his slide needs explanation as anything other than the end of a lucky streak, we can guess at divorce, drinking, drugging, and constant travel. Waronker’s departure as producer in 1980 was another blow, for no subsequent producer came close to getting the same balance of organicism, shrewdness in arrangement, and aural dimensionality. And who knows but that pressures from label and audiences were psychologically deforming. It’s been known to happen.
Cold On The Shoulder (1975) and Summertime Dream (1976) yielded the hits “Rainy Day People” and “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” The first of these uses the phrase “rainy day” thirteen times across twenty-four lines, while “Fitzgerald,” despite its fine phrasework, is a single four-bar figure, repeated for five minutes and fifty-eight seconds. These labor-saving devices seem to signal a drop in agility and aspiration. And sure enough, the next few years saw a steep rise in dull metric blocks, limpid childlike novelties, and anaphora-driven stanzas. Half of the lines in 1978’s “Sometimes I Don’t Mind” begin with “sometimes,” and 12 of the 22 lines in 1980’s “Dream Street Rose” begin with the title phrase. 1981’s “Canary Yellow Canoe” consists of alternations of “I want to [insert verb or verbal phrase] in my canary yellow canoe” with names of rivers. Likewise, Lightfoot’s melodies, which previously offered occasional scalar shifts and interval jumps (e.g. the very cool one-octave leap in “Mountains and Marianne”), began to sound like copy-and-paste fragments of major scales. Possibly this was a utility-driven development, since his voice was beginning to deteriorate.
There were sideman changes. Red Shea retreated step by step, first from roadwork then recording. His replacement was Terry Clements, whose minimal, bluesy style made for some lucid signatures and perhaps slotted into a quintet more easily than Shea’s, with its never-say-die prodigiousness. But these chin-scratching terms can’t hide the way I feel. For me, much of the flavor, as well as the groove, drained away when Shea left. In 1975 Barry Keane joined the traveling band, beginning his impressively long stint as Lightfoot’s sole drummer, on road and record.
If you’ll permit me a sidebar, I don’t know what authority decreed that Gordon Lightfoot’s music, like all other commercially viable music these past 70 years, must have non-tonal banging in the form of a drumset mic-ed six or ten ways. A thousand various objects, hit with as many other objects, can make a groove. These include not only woodblocks hit with mallets and storm drains hit with human breath but, more conventionally, piano keys hit with fingers and, as on dozens of Lightfoot tracks, guitar strings hit with metal picks. When a drummer is fitting a song into a metronomic frame, announcing locational specifics (dit-dum dit-duh-dum — chorus), and little more, it’s uncertain what value he’s adding to the music. Most of Lightfoot’s songs are rhythmically transparent; their bars don’t beg to be firmly subdivided with kick and snare, nor new sections set up with broad strokes, for us to know where we are. It’s supererogatory, and often annoying, as when characters in plays delineate their motives or spell out their back stories, or when facial reactions to dramatic events in movies are shown in close-up. A drumkit has become a basic necessity in much modern music, and yet the kit is much less important than who’s sitting behind it. A non-creative drummer is very often like a brash flight attendant standing over you and explaining how seatbelts buckle.
Late Lightfoot is essentially the sound of many seatbelts clicking into a locked position. We hear chord triads cleanly defined by multiple, “scientifically tuned” instruments, with the bass note that is the name of that chord at the bottom. We hear performance policed by percussion, and percussion policed by click-track. We hear Lightfoot concentrating powerfully on singing right in the middle of each note, without emotion or dynamism, each syllable weighted equally. Madness! Meanwhile, his lyrics still show an understanding of a listener’s need for ambiguity, incompleteness, ends left hanging. It’s just too bad the rest of his music doesn’t.
I LOSE INTEREST AND PLEASURE IN THE PROJECT
I found the records from Dream Street Rose (1980) through Harmony (2004, and for now his swansong as a release of new originals) to be so dispiriting, I had to limit my exposure. A few minutes in and a penumbral gloom would settle upon me. I had begun the project during a slow work month. Now one month was bleeding into the next, and I was deep in the grim chore of vetting the last several records. I hadn’t anticipated all these flat, digitized productions, flat melodies, tiresome progressions, units of shaped sound fitted neatly into slots.
Here’s a stanza from the 1993 song “Wild Strawberries”:
People often ask me just the way it must feel
To be standing up here with you down there
Let it now be known that throughout all of these years
I have been wearing polka-dot underwear
If you think that’s funny then you fracture easier than I do. However, the openness to underwear humor at least indicates neural activity: time to retire the Handsome Harry persona and try a modified, age-appropriate angle. The only light I found in these records was some movement in that direction, the direction of maturity. You hear looseness, account-taking, reflections on decades past, resignation, regret. Age gives a writer a potential privilege or two. The raw material of emotion can be more objectively manipulable in recall, can take on a tint of uncontrived tragedy, and can be mined more sensitively for universally applicable meanings. The writer only needs the stamina to sort through the baggage.
In 2002, at age 63, Lightfoot suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm that entailed a tracheotomy, three other surgeries, and three months of hospitalization, during six weeks of which the singer was comatose. In 2006 he had a stroke that temporarily stilled two of his fingers. The following decade found him traveling to dates with oxygen to manage his emphysema. He had quit drinking in 1982. He gave up smoking approaching his 80th birthday.
An online video of his 2018 Coachella set provides 64 minutes of evidence on the state of his health. It’s painful to watch and hear, and it provoked a typical YouTuber array of dyspepsia and defensiveness. “Ouch, I hope nobody paid money for that,” says one viewer. “At 80, Gordon is still willing to thrill fans for over an hour,” marvels another. Onefoot7 wonders, “Is he eating, at all?????” and later returns with “Fuckin yikes.” Love Life disagrees: “He still has it. May God bless him.” Another viewer cloaked her criticism in compassion: “I feel for him, but age and health have taken their toll. Very sad.”
I asked my former voice therapist in Chicago to compare samples of Lightfoot’s youthful voice with his current one, and share her thoughts:
“His recent singing seems like he’s belting it out rather than the smooth voice from earlier years. He’s not articulating his words as well… Being in a coma for six weeks means he was likely intubated during that time. The tube would cause irritation, especially if he woke occasionally and tried to talk (or, worse, tried to pull it out). Without further medical info, I’d hate to speculate but we often see things like vocal fold bowing and/or granuloma after long term intubation. Of course, age is a factor, too. The vocal folds get thinner as we get older and the muscles supporting the breath aren’t as strong. His posture in the later videos looks like he’s using his whole body to push out the sound.”
Gordon has hit the gym religiously since 1980 (“There’s a price for everything, so with me I gotta go to the club and I gotta go to the gym and I don’t care”) and current interview footage shows that his wits and his speech are quick. Maybe he will come up with another record of fine new songs. Let’s hope they’re animated by catchy tunes, inspired rhymes, and late-life wisdom. Let’s hope the playing is vigorous, unconstrained by metronomes without and caution within.
Here are Lightfoot’s six most common subject areas, with percentages based on their appearance in my 236-song sample:
- Nature appreciation (9%)
- Roguish wanderers, itinerant bohemians (10%)
- Memorials to hookups and brief love affairs (11%)
- Seductions (8%)
- Semi-inscrutable philosophic reflections (18%)
- Things of the sea (4%)
Naturally some subjective discretion influenced these category assignments. “The Mountains and Marianne” concerns a hookup (the singer racing cross-country in pursuit of “hot-blooded mountain love to satisfy my soul”) but has so many details on travel and freedom that I decided to put it in the “Roguish Wanderer” box. “Don Quixote” and “Cabaret” have those same details but I marked them as “Reflections” due to their semi-inscrutability. Mr. Lightfoot’s quirkiest interest, matters thalassic, gets the sparsest attention, philosophy the most, and everything else is neck-and-neck. The distribution is very shapely. It’s almost like he thought of all this before I did.
The six topics add up to 60%. The rest of the songpile spans bitter regret (“Sometimes I Wish,” 2003), pitiful women (“Poor Little Allison,” 1970), geographic history (“Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” 1967), romantic loneliness (“Ribbon of Darkness,” 1966), war (“The Patriot’s Game,” 1972), elderly perverts (“Uncle Toad Said,” 1998), nostalgic longing (“Did She Mention My Name?”), social commentary (“Black Day In July,” 1968), sexual boasts (“Walls,” 1967), and welfare poverty (“Circle of Steel,” 1974). Broad though that is, there are some territories unexplored. Little or no play is given to savage emotions like fear of death, unappeasable anger, self-disgust, and profound grief. Lightfoot’s gaze seldom alights on love that is uxorious, familial, or child-focused — love, that is, outside the arena of high-octane heterosexual carnality.
The lyrics in entirety reflect better on the writer than the person. “Rosanna” pays tribute to a woman who serves “coffee on a silver tray” and sees that “the dinner’s served at eight o’clock, on time,” endorsing a sexual politics out of I Dream of Jeannie; “The List” assures a woman that the singer will make room in his schedule for her to bed him; “Affair On 8th Avenue” turns secretive coitus to sickening treacle (“If you should ask me what secrets I hide / I’m only your lover, don’t make me decide”); “Softly” is a tender ode to a woman who orgasms then leaves before sunup. Though some of this attitude was then in the drinking water, I can’t completely absolve the writer of these sentiments, and no conscientious effort to separate author from art would relax me into letting him near my daughter unsupervised.
As a craftsman, though, Lightfoot easily compels respect. He balances a commitment to unfiltered experience — the tumult of thought, the reactiveness to the rush of daily particulars, the wonderment at all that is beyond the reach of man’s ken—with editorial vigilance. At a line level, he makes few trips to the same wells. I dumped the lyrics of the 236 songs into a word-processing document and did global searches on railroad, leaving, beautiful, lady, rock. These and other suspect terms recurred remarkably little. (Sea, however, appears on average in every seventh song.)
Lightfoot’s website describes him a “storyteller,” and so it interested me to see that story-songs like “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” are rare in his catalog. The term “storyteller” is conventionally used to describe any tunesmith with a literary bent, but rather few of the songs of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young feature characters moving in a story-like progression, from point A to something that feels like an endpoint. Lightfoot, for his part, specializes in mood snapshots. “If You Could Read My Mind,” for example, is a relationship dissection with little reward in the way of hard insight; it’s a trawl through an attic littered with decaying keepsakes. I don’t disbelieve Wikipedia’s claim that “Sundown” is about Lightfoot’s self-destructive jealousy of Cathy Smith, but I receive it as mood. “Early Morning Rain” coheres very well as a linkage of lamentations, but it’s not a story; you know it’s about to end only because the penultimate line is “So I’d best be on my way.” And you can switch verses around on songs like “Cold On The Shoulder,” “Long Thin Dawn,” “Endless Wire,” and one hundred others without much damaging the songs’ meanings or effects.
“The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” is one of the last of its kind, a hit story-song that chronicles a contemporary event. Only eight months elapsed between the 1975 Great Lakes disaster, in which the whole crew of 29 died, and the song’s release. Lightfoot, who was attracted to shipwrecks and had previously written of them in “Marie Christine” and “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle,” was working fast in a heat of inspiration. He was on well-trodden ground. A generation before, writers like Wilf Carter, Yip Harburg, and Carson Robison spun true headlines into hit-parade gold. Tragic narratives, both reality-based and invented from whole cloth, flourished from the earliest era of recorded popular music (“Down With The Old Canoe”) through the 1950s (“Drunken Driver”) and 1960s (“Leader of the Pack”), and all the way into Lightfoot’s prime (“Run, Joey, Run”), before tailing off. In country music, a genre where neither abject misery nor verbal clarity ever quite falls out of style, they continue to thrive.
But the trendline is etched. If the first part of the 20th century left us scores of popular songs dramatizing the wreck of the Titanic, the Great Depression, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the last half-century has failed to set our feet to tapping with accounts of Jonestown, the 2008 recession, and 9/11. The ever-tightening grip of the radio and recording industries since World War II has gradually come to privilege musical qualities our brains crave in bulk and repetition — polyrhythms, textural density, surprise within parameters — over word-chains with little interpretive flexibility. The computer scientist Stephen Wolfram pioneered a classification scheme for cellular automata — computer-generated arbitrary patterns — that spans four levels of complexity. Class one is constant and class four is chaotic. The middle classes are more interesting: Two comprises patterns that are nested and clearly repetitive, and three has patterns that are a bit messy. Might we say that contemporary popular music productions aspire to patterned structures that, in order to draw us in time after time, ride the edge between these two classes? As an unpopular songwriter and a non-scientist, I put this theory forward with diffidence.
As mentioned, I was surprised by how routinely Lightfoot skirted lyric clichés. But I came to think that his avoidance was sometimes actually problematic, leading to a forced originality, with unseemly word combinations tortured into being: “another chapter in the breeze,” “the kind of girl you’d like to see in a movie or a rosary”; “a rundown jail was the kind of a scene where he’d never fail”; “the sorting of the reach is a thing no school can teach,” “she took me by the will.”
You can see what’s causing some of these distortions: the lure of the rhyme. Writing songs, one repeatedly faces trade-offs of meaningfulness and prosody. In a standoff, you tend to favor what sings well over what states well. Lightfoot is a devotee of — a sucker for, might be more accurate — rhyme, which he reveals by the profusion of gratuitous rhymes — leonine, internal, multi-syllable — in his lines:
“There’s caterers who cater not/And waiters who don’t wait a lot” — “The No Hotel” (2001)
“Like a shellfish in the sea/I’m as selfish as can be” — “Shellfish” (2001)
“His eyes were red, his hopes were dead” — “Home From The Forest” (1967)
“Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms, when they left fully loaded for Cleveland” — “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976)
“As surely as the light of day/Must come to drive the night away” — “Magnificent Outpouring” (1968)
That shellfish one is impressive, isn’t it? And “light of day, night away” — it’s astounding to think that no one beat Lightfoot to that, but as far as I know no one but the Illinois-born 19th-century poet George Sanford Washington did: “See the glorious light of day/O’er the hilltops dawning / Soon ‘twill drive the night away/Oh! behold the morning.” (I used Google to find that obscurity; there’s no reason to think Lightfoot found and lifted it.)
Each of these excellent rhymes weaves a smooth pleasure into a communicative utterance that drives the song along and passes the test of sense. So far, batting one thousand. But the writer seems not to know when to turn it off:
“Don’t linger in time, or finger what’s mine” — “Unsettled Ways” (1968)
“Now that I am old, let me rest a spell/All that I am told, I can never tell” — “A Painter Passing Through” (1998)
“‘Nothing can hurt me,’” a small voice said into a mic/‘Take a hike’” — “Welcome To Try” (1993)
“He walked into a house where love had been misplaced/His chance to waste” — “Summer Side of Life” (1970)
You can, perhaps, tease coherent thoughts from some of these lines, but their violations of idiomatic English — linger “in time”? Where else? “Finger what’s mine”? Eww! — make the writer’s process distractingly visible. He has spied the enticing butterfly of rhyme, off in the tall grass, and has scampered illegally off the marked path to net it.
Careful writing and philosophical diction seem like the coefficients of deeply meaningful ideas, but I’m not sure Lightfoot is a songwriter who is pulled strongly toward “meanings” at all. His songs are studded with thoughts that are untrue:
“The house that you live in will never fall down, if you pity the stranger who stands at your gate.” Tell it to Sharon Tate.
“Sometimes I think it’s a shame, when I get feelin’ better when I’m feelin’ no pain.” Regret over feeling better, while a neat irony, isn’t a known emotion in the human repertoire.
“Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms, when they left fully loaded for Cleveland.” The Edmund Fitzgerald was bound for Detroit.
Other thoughts emerge as unintelligible maxims:
“Be always too soon, be never too fast, at the time when all bets must be laid.”
“Making hay with no gravy brings the good folk down.”
“Never rest until you find what is best to be forgot.”
“Even if you don’t see the end of what lies beyond the bend, don’t stay that way.”
“Be known as a man who will always be candid on questions that do not relate.”
“The power that is stored in this no-man’s-land of chance is the someone who knows what they’re doing.”
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.