An iconic singer/songwriter poised to enter his eighth decade still brings fans his deeply emotional songs that transcend time and space.
By Steve Houk
In the vast world of songwriting, there are those very rare folks who can paint a masterful and memorable picture with their words, who can not only convey indelible images and moods, but also deep levels of sometimes very difficult emotions, ones that many of us share.
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It is a gift, to be sure, and for nearly 60 years, Gordon Lightfoot has been one of those people who has been adorned with such a gift. His songs convey vivid and subtly powerful themes and scenes that seep into the mind and hover there, often forever. In a couple of oft-referred-to accolades, fellow Canadian Robbie Robertson described Lightfoot as “a national treasure,” and a guy named Bob Dylan called him one of his favorite songwriters of all time, saying that when he heard a Lightfoot song, he wished “it would last forever.” I mean, you can’t get two better endorsements than that anywhere.
Now almost 80, Lightfoot continues to tour vigorously, or as vigorously as a man about to enter his eighth decade can, and his current run brings him to the Birchmere on June 18th. So how he is still able to muster the strength and verve that it takes to get up and sing in front of thousands each year? He’ll tell you it’s all about keeping the body and mind moving, moving, moving.
“I’ve relied on exercise to keep myself ready,” the iconic Lightfoot, who has received just about every high-end musical accolade the Great White North can bestow, told me recently. “That is what’s keeping me walking around. I’ll be 80 this year, so when you get to that age, you do it more, the older you get. So, like, I have…what is the thing that they say? ‘Motion is the potion’?”
From a musical standpoint, Lightfoot treats his audience with a deep level of respect, and that comes from a true and lasting dedication to his preparation. But that’s always been his way, to prepare and present something his audience will forever remember.
“It’s not different now, it’s the same as it’s always been, as far as performing,” Lightfoot said in his quiet yet clear tone. “I think about what I’m going to be doing, in terms of the material, and we’ve always got too much. And I try to get a rotation of material, over certain periods of time. I like to be polite, I like to be a little courteous with my audience, I don’t like to wear out the welcome mat, so to speak, time-wise. And I practice a lot, every day on my instrument, here in my little work room. That’s an ongoing thing that has to be done just about every day, if you can do it. You can’t do it every day, but just about every day, and it’s the same as with the class, the training. You’ve got to be religious about practicing with your instrument.”
It’s sheer joy to hear Lightfoot’s voice light up when he harkens back to his childhood and his first taste of music, when this master of the remarkable song was just learning what singing and playing was all about. And it was what one of his first music teachers told him and his fellow students that has stuck with him to this day.
“My mother said, if I was going to sing, I had better take piano lessons, and I did not turn out to be a great piano player. I remember those early lessons, and it wasn’t meant to be. But I sang well enough to be in the junior choir, and I sang at a Christmas concert when I was about six years old. And I remember what the teacher said at the end of the performance, she told us all, ‘Do the best with what you’ve got.’ I had that sink in, and I’ve never ever forgot that.”
A few years later, a different kind of critique spurred Lightfoot’s mother, a typically non-confrontational sort, to defend her burgeoning son’s musical talents, and Lightfoot is clearly tickled as he recounts the tale.
“I think I was about maybe 11 or 12, and I got to do a performance at the local radio station. I remember, we did three or four Bing Crosby songs, and what we did came out quite well. Except the next day, that same singing teacher, Mrs. Murphy, said that she’d heard that show on the radio and said, ‘You sounded just like a little frog.’ My mother was not the kind of a person who scolded people, but I’ll be darned if she didn’t call the music teacher and give her a scolding.”
It was a few years later, as he was finishing high school, that Lightfoot discovered that he could also write songs, a revelation reinforced by professionals who clearly saw a rare talent forming in the young man from central Ontario.
“I wrote a song when I was in grade 12, a topical song, I just wrote it. We lived about 80 miles north of Toronto in a little town called Orillia, and I had such a strong belief in this song that I actually borrowed my father’s car and brought that thing down to Toronto, to the publishing society down here, BMI Canada. Although they didn’t see any immediate use for the tune, the man was quite complimentary on the fact that I’d written a topical song. It was the first song I’d ever written, and he said, ‘Don’t stop, and if you write anything else, send it to us,’ and I started sending stuff in.”
Among other themes, it is Lightfoot’s songs about loss, loneliness, being left behind, and the emotional depth of his writing, evidenced piercingly in perhaps his most renowned song ever, “If You Could Read My Mind,” that was cultivated early and often by deeply personal experiences, and has been a distinctive part of his unparalleled legacy.
“I got into a lonely period, around about, 20, 21 years old, and I remember seeing a woman, so I wrote a song, ‘Remember Me I’m the One’ it was called, Peter, Paul and Mary had a huge hit with it. That was about maybe the second or third song that I wrote, and it was a song about unrequited love, and I found a different way to go after that animal, eventually. ‘Attachment is the root of all suffering,’ that’s one of Buddha’s sayings. And I was often attached and then unattached. Every time it happened, it hurt so bad, that some of it stuck in your subterranean conscience. And it would certainly come out, and you would think about things while you were working on something, and there it would be. And it would bring something back. That happens to me onstage. I mean, it doesn’t bother me at all, because I know that everybody out there has been through the same damn thing as I’ve been through.”
Gordon Lightfoot is truly not only a national treasure to his native Canada, but a treasure to the world. And as he continues to thrill audiences worldwide with his mere presence let alone his songs, it’s really all about loving what he has been doing for the past six-plus decades that keeps him going strong.
“You really have to enjoy the work, and I really, really do. And I have a group of people working with me who feel the same way about it, we just enjoy what we do. And yes…we love the people. ”
Gordon Lightfoot performs Monday June 18th at The Birchmere, 3701 Mount Vernon Avenue, Alexandria VA 22305. For tickets click here.