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The Lefsetz Letter: Gordon Lightfoot

The Lefsetz Letter: Gordon Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot (Photo: Robin LeBlanc)
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He wasn’t a household name until he switched to Warner Brothers Records.

That’s the power of a label. Today there are only three majors, half a century ago there were tons of companies, analogous to the tech startups of the first decade of this century. And this plethora was always fighting for radio airplay, and if you didn’t get it, you were dead in the water. Insiders might know your name, you might have even had fans, but the masses were clueless…and that’s where the attention, money and fame were, unlike today, where you can be a star in your own mind and be supported by devoted followers. So, if you followed the scene, you knew who Gordon Lightfoot was, the singer-songwriter signed to Albert Grossman whose songs were covered by Peter, Paul & Mary, just like Grossman’s other client, Bob Dylan. But Lightfoot wasn’t political and wasn’t controversial, he was just a musician, and that wasn’t enough to break you through to mainstream attention, especially if you were on United Artists Records.

Not that Gordon wasn’t a star in Canada. Residents would wax rhapsodic about “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” but it was unknown south of the border.

And then the switch to WB. “If You Could Read My Mind” was a hit, but there was no story. No drug addiction, no mental hospital, Lightfoot was a cipher. We knew everything about Joni Mitchell, we knew nothing about Gordon Lightfoot.

And then came “Sundown.” It was one of the anthems of the summer of 1974. On AM radio. But by this point, the hipsters had all switched to FM. Not that they never heard “Sundown,” not everybody had an FM radio in their car, never mind a tape deck, it’s just that AM had no credibility. AM was for lightweight trifles, and tracks that crossed over from FM months later. It was pooh-poohed. And that’s where Gordon Lightfoot had his greatest success. You didn’t hear him regularly on FM like the aforementioned Joni Mitchell or James Taylor, he fell through the cracks. Furthermore, as the decade wore on, FM was codified by Lee Abrams, playlists were now tight and the sound got harder. Lightfoot was left out.

But “Sundown”…

“I can see her lying back in her satin dress
In a room where you do what you don’t confess”

That’s Cathy Smith. Who gained notoriety when it was revealed that she injected John Belushi with the speedball that killed him. Reporters started to dig, and it soon came out she’d been a girlfriend of Gordon Lightfoot, who’d previously had a reputation as squeaky-clean, at least in the eyes of the public. Lightfoot was not responsible, he’d moved on, but John Belushi was one of the most beloved people in America at the time, and somehow Lightfoot suffered the blowback, his image was tarnished. Sadly. And Gordon never had another hit in the U.S.

But Lightfoot was not a one hit wonder. Not only did he have more hits, never mind hit covers, than the average bear, by far, his songs had depth, meaning, but there was never a story, a penumbra, until the Smith/Belushi debacle, so he’s like an asteroid that missed Earth. You could see it if you were looking, but it was never a direct hit, memory wasn’t sustained, however the songs have lived on in the culture ever since.

And so has Gordon, until the other day, in fact. He kept touring when he should have retired. I know, I went to see him, his voice was gone. But what else is a poor boy to do, but to play in a rock and roll band? Yes, that’s right, singer-songwriters used to be considered rockers. Lightfoot at least lived the life of a rocker, everybody inside knew him, and now he’s gone and everybody on the outside is talking about him and he’s not here to hear it. Unfortunately.

You see Gordon Lightfoot was a master. Who created masterpieces. Not songs that were pushed up the chart, but rose because of their insight, their changes, their perfection. Nothing was out of place, they were completely finished, you almost didn’t believe a human being could write them, never mind perform them.

So from the early days you’ve got “Early Morning Rain.” And “For Lovin’ Me.” And…

But there’s one song that supersedes all the others in my mind.

“The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

I heard it sporadically, because after all it was an AM hit in an FM world. But in the CD era I ended up buying the album, because I had to hear “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” on demand. I needed it that much. There are two story songs I listen to more than any others, that go through my head on a regular basis. One is Dan Fogelberg’s “Same Old Lang Syne,” the other is “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

“The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee”

That’s Lake Superior. The largest of not only the Great Lakes, but the largest body of fresh water in the world.

Have you been there?

I doubt it. Even though the news says Duluth, where the Edmund Fitzgerald departed, is now hip. The waves are so big they surf. In the middle of the summer there can be a stiff cold wind. Today cable TV and internet and cell service goes everywhere, but in the old days, Duluth was isolated, but not as isolated as the Edmund Fitzgerald.

This was their job. Funny thing is you start doing something and you end up doing that thing for a very long time. You’re used to it, you’re making more money, it’s easy…not doing the work, but staying in the same job. These sailors are oftentimes lifers, and the things most people know about them are false. Actually, until “The Deadliest Catch” most people had no idea whatsoever.

And Duluth in summer is one thing, but as winter approaches, it’s another thing. Lake Superior may not be the ocean, but for all intents and purposes it is.

You’ve got to respect Mother Nature. Today people think they can be rescued anywhere as a result of modern communications techniques, but that is untrue. You’ve got to be prepared and exercise good judgment, and you’d be surprised how many people fail on both accounts. The weather can change in an instant. You’ll freeze to death in your shorts. And knowing when to turn back, it’s a skill, because going forward could kill you.

I’ve got no idea what was involved in the decision for the Edmund Fitzgerald to sail. But it left port and…

If you’ve ever been on a boat, you convince yourself it’s safe, because sometimes it’s positively scary. You tell yourself nothing can happen. But in the case of the Edmund Fitzgerald, it did.

Gordon Lightfoot was an artist. An artist explores, an artist tests limits, an artist doesn’t just repeat themselves. It’s hard to go your own way, but that’s where the rewards are. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” stands out not only because it’s great, but because there’s nothing like it. You hear that searing guitar intro and you hold on to the rails, get ready to go out on the water.

“In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the maritime sailors’ cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald”

Gordon Lightfoot was only one person. But that church bell should ring twenty nine times tonight, because Gordon Lightfoot single-handedly kept the memory of those sailors alive. Believe me, the disappearance of the Edmund Fitzgerald was national news, international news, yet everything fades in the rearview mirror. But one song can keep a story alive, that’s the power of music.

“Superior they said never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early”

Nobody has ever come back. No one has ever communicated with the dead. Once you cross that line, you’re gone forever. If you’re lucky, your loved ones will remember you. But as time goes by even they will pass and your memory will be lost to the sands of time.

But if you’re an artist…

I’m not talking about a performer. I’m not talking about an award-winner. I’m not talking about someone who is rich. I’m talking about someone who learns the basics and then walks into the wilderness, on their own journey, following their own compass, not someone else’s. And it’s got nothing to do with what you look like, but rather what goes on in your brain. AI can create something that sounds like the past, but it can’t create something that sounds like the future, after all it’s based on scraping the internet, and the new, the bleeding edge, the breakthroughs are never there. No one can teach you to be an artist. Not even Rick Rubin. Sure, you can be encouraged, but more often you’re discouraged. The odds are too long. Your choices are bad. You’re not that good. But some stay the course and break through. That’s Gordon Lightfoot.

Decades from now people might not know Gordon’s name, but I guarantee you they’ll be singing his songs. Because they contain truth, and for that reason they are timeless. But it’s not only the words, but the changes and the vocals. Gordon Lightfoot had it all. I’d implore you to remember him, but his songs will do the work for him.


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