It's oddly appropriate that Gordon Lightfoot heard about his own death on a car radio.
It was, after all, over the radio airwaves in the 1960s and '70s that millions came to regard the folk poet from Orillia, Ont. as the nation's greatest songwriter.
Early last year, the legend was en route from a dentist appointment to his Toronto office when he heard a radio host mourning his demise.
"I was driving past Mount Pleasant Cemetery," recalls Lightfoot, 73, by phone from his home in Toronto's Bayview area. "I heard Charles Adler start to play If You Could Read My Mind, and he began reading my obituary. All I did was step on the gas."
The singer-songwriter, who doesn't own a cellphone or Internet-connected gadget, eventually learned that his premature death was a hoax that originated "on Twitter or some bloody thing" and was reported online by several major media outlets.
"My plan (for later that day) was to see my lawyer about my estate planning," he says with a chuckle.
Lightfoot, a grandfather of four, had already cheated death in 2002 when he suffered a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm that left him hospitalized for more than three months. The day of the hoax, it must have been eerie to get a preview of how Canadians will react to his passing. But if he found it an emotional experience, he's not saying so. He's a friendly interview subject, but a guarded one.
For those who treasure his 20 albums released since 1966, it can be difficult to reconcile achingly sensitive classics like Early Morning Rain, Beautiful and If You Could Read My Mind with the inarticulate guy who penned them.
Of course, Lightfoot, who plays the MTS Centre with his four-piece band on Friday, isn't a charismatic or witty showman, either. This reporter once wrote about his melancholy air in concert, "His poignant love songs seldom suggest stability, but rather fragility, longing, loneliness or regret. Often he's the wanderer, the drunk, the dreamer or the loser, and in those roles he touches us in a way that a more upbeat personality never could."
In the new book Writing Gordon Lightfoot, musician Dave Bidini has penned a series of letters to the cultural icon. In one, he writes, "In the lyrics — and in your persona, really — you create a place where tough and sad meet."
According to Bidini, Lightfoot spurned his request to write a biography. But the singer shrugs that off. "We have people asking us two or three times a year if they can write a book about me. He's just one of those people who has gone ahead... and has probably gone a little over the top."
Bidini focuses on the year 1972 and says Lightfoot was in a "deep fog of booze and pain and drugs" in that period.
"Oh, yeah, I was an alcoholic until 1982," the singer says. "I started drinking beer in Grade 13 — it's that plain and simple. I never stopped. It just kept gradually increasing...
"I was in some fast company all through the '70s. I liked to stay up all night."
The twice-married Lightfoot has said that his devotion to solitary songwriting damaged his relationships, and that his 2004 album Harmony will likely be his last.
He recently told the Calgary Herald that he's not writing these days, partly because it would pull him away from his family. "At this stage in my life, there's a lot of isolation involved in songwriting, and I just don't want to be isolated like that."
His 1966 song For Lovin' Me, which Bob Dylan famously said he wished he'd written, now makes Lightfoot cringe with its sneering lyrics ("I got a hundred more like you") from the standpoint of a callous womanizer.
"It's the most chauvinistic song.... I was very young and very stupid at that point," Lightfoot says. "All the stuff about myself that I hate is in that song."
Showing a similar kind of regret, he altered the lyrics of 1970's If You Could Read My Mind — written about the breakup of his first marriage — after his daughter asked him to change "the feelings that you lack" to "the feelings that we lack."
Lightfoot stays in touch with the families of the 29 crew members lost in the 1975 Lake Superior tragedy that inspired his epic ballad The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He recounts how an investigation recently determined that a rogue wave, not human error related to the hatch covers, probably caused the sinking.
In response, he has changed the lyrics. "They proved that the hatch covers did not come loose," he says. "Every time I sing it now in concert, the part about the hatch covers is gone."
Though his distinctive baritone voice has weakened, he still loves to get out and tour. "I can improve my performance, for one thing," he says.
When it's suggested that his real obituaries will honour him as a national treasure on a par with his friend and admirer Dylan, Lightfoot disagrees.
"I wouldn't say that. Between him and Neil Young and Elton John, I would give myself a reasonable position on the totem pole. All I wanted to do was leave a good record of work."
The legend lives on
— Lightfoot's songs have been recorded by countless artists, from Johnny Cash to Barbra Streisand. What ranks as his favourite cover? "On the Canadian side, Murray McLauchlan's version of Home From the Forest (on the tribute album Beautiful: A Tribute to Gordon Lightfoot)," he says. "Internationally, Elvis Presley: Early Morning Rain. He recorded two of my songs, actually. The other was a rockabilly version of For Lovin' Me, which he learned from Jerry Lee Lewis."
— Lightfoot could have moved to the U.S. like Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, but chose to stay rooted in Toronto. Was it a deliberate act of patriotism? Hardly, he says. "I really wanted to be close to my folks in southern Ontario and up Orillia way." He also wanted to stay connected to the majestic landscape he depicted in songs like Canadian Railroad Trilogy. "I've canoed all over the North," he says. "And I love the winter. I was raised that way."
— In 1976, Lightfoot passed up the chance to perform in the The Band's iconic concert documentary The Last Waltz, featuring Young, Mitchell, Bob Dylan and a parade of other stars. Lightfoot says he was sitting in the audience at a table that included guitarist Ron Wood. The Band's Robbie Robertson came and asked him to perform, but he declined. "I had no guitar. I had no warm-up. I wasn't prepared," he recalls. "What a show it was! Apart from Bob Dylan, I really liked Van Morrison." It's been said that his notorious perfectionism got the better of him that night. Does he wish he had jumped onstage? "I don't wish that at all," he says. "I got to play on (Dylan's) Rolling Thunder Revue tour."
Friday at 8 p.m.
Tickets $54.75 to $85.75 at Ticketmaster