November 12, 2019

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Road warrior

Gordon Lightfoot's highs and lows chronicled in thorough new bio

Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Canadian Press files</p><p>As Nicholas Jennings documents, decades on the road have taken a toll on Gordon Lightfoot’s health and relationships.</p>

Aaron Vincent Elkaim / The Canadian Press files

As Nicholas Jennings documents, decades on the road have taken a toll on Gordon Lightfoot’s health and relationships.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/9/2017 (773 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/9/2017 (773 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

As you turn the pages of this engaging authorized biography of Canadian music legend Gordon Lightfoot, it becomes obvious why it has taken so long for such a book to appear.

Its publicity-shy subject, the composer of such masterpieces as Early Morning Rain, The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and Canadian Railroad Trilogy, has avoided any consideration of it.

He likely felt burned by the tough 1988 bio Lightfoot: If You Could Read His Mind, by the late Ottawa author and playwright Maynard Collins.

"I’m not worthy," Lightfoot told a Hamilton reporter in 1993, as though concurring with Collins’ clear-eyed treatment of the boozing, womanizing and often violent temper that dogged the singer-songwriter’s reputation in the 1970s.

"I’m humble to the point of feeling inferior most of the time."

Flash forward another 25 years, and Lightfoot — now scarily gaunt and thin of voice at age 78 — is likely tending his legacy.

He has co-operated with Toronto journalist and author Nicholas Jennings on a new life and times. Titled, simply, Lightfoot, it is much more thorough and generous, without ignoring the singer’s warts.

Jennings has done an excellent job of, among other things, teasing out the roots of his old friend’s chronic insecurities.

He traces them back to Lightfoot’s boyhood in Orillia, Ont. — also famous as the setting of satirist Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town — where small-town Scots-Presbyterian values took a dim view of anyone getting too big for their britches.

He captures the excitement of the Toronto folk scene in the ’60s when Lightfoot, always driven and focused, climbed the greasy pole of success, meanwhile seeking comfort in the bottle.

Alcohol, he felt, helped him write. It also let him enjoy the company of his musical contemporaries, many of whom he found "overwhelming."

Cathy Smith, Lightfoot’s live-in girlfriend for three years in the early ’70s and later notorious for injecting actor John Belushi with his fatal drug overdose, said that Lightfoot drank "more than any man I’d ever known."

By the late 1970s, he was often blitzed onstage. His name was dragged through Canadian papers after police stopped him for impaired driving.

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press</p><p>Lightfoot performs during Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations in Ottawa.</p></p>

Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

Lightfoot performs during Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations in Ottawa.

In England in 1981, an audience booed after he insulted them. His hometown Orillia paper carried the headline "Brits Wish Gord Good Riddance."

Chastened and humiliated, he stopped drinking in 1982. He channelled his formidable willpower into a fitness regimen that continues, Jennings insists, to this day.

Jennings relates Lightfoot’s story in chronological order and without much editorializing — the latter something Collins couldn’t resist.

A longtime Maclean’s music writer, Jennings conducted many original interviews, including several with Lightfoot himself. He has also read Lightfoot’s voluminous clipping file, and credits his sources appropriately.

Needless to say, Jennings enumerates Lightfoot’s many triumphs as a songwriter and performer: a 300-plus-title songbook, 10 million albums sold and an artistic reputation up there with the likes of his fellow Canadian greats Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young.

And Lightfoot accomplished all this without leaving Toronto. Popular historian Pierre Berton, author of The Last Spike, once said, "You did more good with your damn song (Canadian Railroad Trilogy) than I did with my entire book on the same subject."

In the U.S., Lightfoot songs have been recorded by the likes of Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand and Johnny Cash. More than 300 acts have covered one song alone, If You Could Read My Mind.

Frank Sinatra changed his mind. "I can’t sing this," he said. "There’s too many words."

Jennings recounts Lightfoot’s passion for environmental issues and his love of wilderness canoeing. He often talks dollars and cents (no tag day needed for Gord) and documents Lightfoot’s health troubles.

In 1972, he dealt with a debilitating bout of Bell’s palsy, a paralysis of the facial muscles. More seriously, in 2002 he suffered an abdominal aortic aneurysm that nearly finished him. He was in an induced coma for six-and-a-half weeks. A smoker all his life, he now battles emphysema, the disease that killed his mother.

Nor does Jennings shy away from Lightfoot’s energetic love life. He has had three wives, numerous live-in girlfriends and has fathered six children.

Married or single, he was seldom alone on the road. He has spent the last 35 years atoning for his irresponsibility as a father and husband.

Lightfoot has known many of the famous musicians of his day, but the one who stands out for Jennings is Bob Dylan.

He opens the book with an anecdote from 1975, when the Bard of Minnesota was in Toronto with his Rolling Thunder Revue. Dylan and friends stopped by Lightfoot’s Rosedale mansion for a raucous party.

Their paths have always crossed. Despite their many artistic differences, Dylan and Lightfoot share a similar social awkwardness, not to mention a love of playing pool and a mutual regard for each other’s songs.

Moreover, Jennings emphasizes, they both live for the stage. Dylan has his Never Ending Tour, and Lightfoot plans to tour until he drops. These days, he takes a few hits from an oxygen tank at intermission.

He will back in Winnipeg at Club Regent on Nov. 3, two weeks after his 79th birthday.

Morley Walker is a retired Free Press arts columnist and books editor.

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