Reflections: Gordon Lightfoot

Jeff Tamarkin on September 28, 2020
Reflections: Gordon Lightfoot

In the very first scene of If You Could Read My Mind, the new documentary spotlighting the life and career of Canadian singer-songwriter extraordinaire Gordon Lightfoot, the film’s subject admits that he can’t stand one of his own songs. It’s “For Lovin’ Me,” which he recorded in late 1964 for his debut album and released just over a year later. In the meantime, the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary cut a cover of the tune that landed at No. 30 on Billboard’s singles chart in America, helping Lightfoot gain a bit of attention south of his Toronto base.

“I hate that song because it was very unflattering toward women,” Lightfoot says today. “Peter, Paul and Mary changed it into a different animal; they did a lighthearted version, and then after they recorded it, I was stuck with it. I kept playing it during my concerts for 25 years, until I’d finally had enough. Fortunately, by then, I had a huge repertoire.”

That’s putting it mildly. Lightfoot, now 81, is one of the most heralded songwriters and performers of his time. His own singles, all released in the U.S. on the Reprise label, included four Top 10 hits: “If You Could Read My Mind” (1970), the No. 1 smash “Sundown” (1974), “Carefree Highway” (1974), and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (1976). Even before he reached that plateau, however, he was well-established as a composer. “Early Morning Rain,” which also appeared on his debut album—simply titled Lightfoot! and released on United Artists Records—was covered by Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley and even an embryonic version of the Grateful Dead, who knocked out a studio demo version in late 1965, well before they signed with Warner Bros. Records. (“I’m very impressed with it,” says Lightfoot. “They’re a great band.”)

The same honesty that allows Lightfoot to dismiss one of his best-known tunes carries through the entire documentary, which charts his rise from a young folkie working Toronto’s Yorkville section in the ‘60s through his ‘70s success, his years of struggle with substance abuse, several serious health issues and his current status as an elder statesman. Revered as one of Canada’s most significant contributors to pop-rock music—alongside Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen and most of the members of The Band— Lightfoot has accumulated a slew of honors over the years, including 16 Junos and induction into both the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. His face appears on a Canadian postage stamp and there’s a bronze sculpture of his likeness in his hometown.

Lightfoot is acutely aware of his own strengths and weaknesses—he talks about them openly in the film, and when asked to elaborate, he’s quick to note that it took him a while to reach what he calls his “professional peak.” That happened, he says, “probably by my second or third album. I was a very shy person by nature. My confidence started to grow when we got to ‘Sundown.’ By that time, too, I had enlarged my band to five pieces, and we had some great arrangements. I was able to write my own charts—write things the way I wanted them to be—and have everything in the proper order. I got into a way of structuring my songs where they would have more of a forward momentum to them. I always thought, ‘Would this one work good in front of a crowd?’ You’d see which ones would go over the best. I didn’t know that ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ was going to be what it was. Sometimes you get a surprise.”

He received another surprise not long ago when, while going through some piles of stuff in an old office, he came across a dozen songs he’d written and recorded, sans accompaniment, around 1998 but never released. Finding the material unexpectedly worthy, he pondered what to do with it. At first, he considered going back into the studio with some other musicians and recutting the tunes. “I could reorchestrate the thing and work on it for the next two and a half years,” he says. “We were going to, but we couldn’t get it any better.”

Instead, Lightfoot decided to issue 10 of the tracks as is— the album, released in March on Rhino, is simply titled Solo. “It took a while to make some decisions about what to do and whether I should really be using this stuff. But they had this feel,” Lightfoot says of the music. “It’s similar to Springsteen’s Nebraska album.” Lightfoot’s 21st album, Solo finds the singer still in fine form. “I was really performing well and my playing was a lot better then, too,” he says. “At that time, I had that drive and attack that you have when you’re still only 60 years old.”

As for the future, he’s eager to get back out on the road once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides. “I’ve had a few health issues, and I feel tired some days,” he says. “I’m also thinking about my family.”

He pauses, and then adds, “But, right now, I’m fine, and I’m also thinking about my band.”