I watched some of the Canada150 festivities from Parliament Hill on television this past Canada Day. I particularly wanted to see Gordon Lightfoot perform, which he did with evident glee. Justin Trudeau reminded the crowd that Lightfoot had performed on that very spot 50 years ago, for Canada’s centennial celebration in 1967.
Lightfoot, who will turn 79 in November, seemed frail and painfully thin on stage in Ottawa on Canada Day and the same could be said for his voice; a once robust baritone with a thrilling vibrato is now wheezy and constricted by age and emphysema, but still capable of emotional shadings.
Lightfoot continues to perform 70 or so shows a year throughout Canada and the United States. This is one example of the main message of former Macleans magazine feature writer Nicholas Jenning’s workmanlike new biography of Lightfoot — the guy has a great work ethic and only really feels comfortable when he’s on stage.
I can’t remember a time in my life that was pre-Lightfoot. We had his early records in the house when I was growing up, I bought more in my teens and twenties and his ballads “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” are part of the Canadian wallpaper by now.
But somewhere along the way I lost interest in him. He became just another easy listening crooner, serving up what The Los Angeles Times described in a review in the 1980s as “middle-of-the-road music for adults who don’t want to rock but aren’t ready for Vegas.”
But, seeing him in rare television interviews in the last few years, tottering around in his nearly empty mansion in Toronto’s Bridle Path enclave, long lank hair swept back from a skeletal face, I began to be curious about him anew and listening to his old songs again I was struck by just how good much of his early and mid-career work was.
Jennings is clearly a fan who never lost his love for Lightfoot’s music. This is both a good and bad thing for the book. His knowledge is encyclopedic but he tends to treat everything in Lightfoot’s back catalogue with equal reverence.
The book had its genesis, Jennings tells us, in his assignment to write the liner notes for Lightfoot’s career spanning CD boxed set, Songbook. Through that gig he managed to get interviews with many of Lightfoot’s musical collaborators. Eventually he convinced Lightfoot himself to submit to extended interviews for this book and Lightfoot is quoted at length.
Lightfoot then is as close to an autobiography as we are going to get. Unfortunately, true to his reticent nature and instinct for privacy, Lightfoot’s contributions to the book (set off in italics) aren’t usually very revealing.
To his credit, Jennings has done a large amount of research on his subject, but it is mostly about things that happened in Lightfoot’s public life. We are treated to recitations of how many shows he performed per year, who played on what album, where they were recorded, where Lightfoot lived throughout the years, etc., but the private man emerges only intermittently.
Lightfoot obviously has his demons and Jennings recounts his infidelities, failed marriages, boorish behaviour and his very public battle with alcoholism, but never seems able to get to what actually makes the man tick. He keeps coming back to his central point about Lightfoot’s dogged determination with chipper boosterism.
“Quitting drinking and adopting daily workouts required astonishing willpower,” he gushes. “But that was Lightfoot: disciplined and determined.” Fair enough. Yet he never asks where that discipline and determination were during the decades when booze was ruining his health, relationships and career.
In Lightfoot Jennings supplies his own “disciplined and determined” chronological enumeration of Lightfoot’s life and career that might satisfy his truly devoted fans, but it left me wanting less detail and more emotional inquiry.
Lightfoot by Nicholas Jennings, Viking (Penguin Canada) 334pp.