If you could read his mind, what a tale his thoughts could tell. So claimed Gordon Lightfoot in his 1970 breakout hit, the song that would launch his career as one of the most consistently satisfying singer-songwriters of the decade and would subsequently be recorded by some 300 other artists.
There was a lot of musical confession in those days, with James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and so many others wearing their hearts on their lyric sleeves. Yet Lightfoot generally kept his mind to himself. A reserved Canadian, he played his emotional cards comparatively close to his vest, rarely granting interviews and rarely saying much when he did. Even in live performance, he came across as a tight-lipped stoic, the troubadour as rugged northwoodsman.
So, it’s a revelation here to find Lightfoot opening up at all. Not surprisingly, the biographer to whom he has confided is a fellow Canadian, veteran music journalist Nicholas Jennings, who enjoyed his subject’s full cooperation. Not that this is a kiss-and-tell book. But, regrets, he has a few, and Lightfoot airs them. He has paid a price for keeping his feelings to himself, for letting his career consume his private life, for drinking himself numb. It took him three marriages and assorted relationships (at least one of them borderline toxic) to give him a sense of how to be a husband and a father.
We learn that the smooth surface of his signature sound belies the turbulence that has inspired some of his most memorable material, such as the enigmatic “Sundown” (an obsessive jealousy corrodes the soul) and even “If You Could Read My Mind” (a beguiling melody that finds a marriage on the rocks). In Lightfoot’s songcraft, still waters run deep, or at least deeper than you’d expect for someone who became branded an easy-listening artist.
He first showed promise as a schoolboy soloist in the church choir and then as a harmonizer in barbershop quartets. He served an apprenticeship on a corny TV show called “Country Hoedown,” where he became nicknamed “Gord Leadfoot” for his inability to master the choreography. His first songwriting effort was “The Hula Hoop Song” (1957).
Inauspicious beginnings, but Lightfoot was determined to make music his career. He studied theory and notation and became more interested in jazz than rock. He moved to Toronto, where he found a burgeoning folk scene. Ian & Sylvia were the leading lights, and their blend of folk and Canadian country showed Lightfoot a path forward.
He also found his manager through the duo, the notorious Albert Grossman, whose top clients were Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, all of whom would record Lightfoot material. He found success as a songwriter through early efforts such as “Early Morning Rain,” but it took much longer for him to establish himself as a recording artist, particularly in the United States.
As Jennings points out, Lightfoot’s breakthrough was something of a fluke. He had signed with a new label to release his fifth album, initially titled “Sit Down Young Stranger.” Despite his reputation as a songwriter, the first single from the album was the only song he didn’t write, an early cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” On the flip side was “If You Could Read My Mind,” a track that Reprise Records hadn’t considered very commercial.
“It’s a highly sophisticated, beautiful song, but it didn’t have a conventional structure, so I assumed radio wasn’t going to accept it,” the label’s Lenny Waronker told the author. But one DJ played the flip side, and then everyone did. The album was reissued with the hit as its title, and radio subsequently accepted pretty much everything Lightfoot released through the 1970s, including “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” an even less likely popular favorite. Lightfoot wasn’t an artist who followed formulas or trends; he was a significant artist with a singular sound.
He was also an increasingly troubled man, very conflicted, not comfortable with the glare of the spotlight in a hype-riddled industry. He had trouble with women — not attracting them, but sustaining a fulfilling relationship. And it’s a weakness of the book that we never hear from any of these women — the wives, the girlfriends. This is very much Gord’s story, his version. The more successful he became, the harder he worked, the more he drank, the less he stayed home, the more vicious the circle became.
Inevitably, the hits stopped coming, the marriages and relationships fell apart, and his voice, his health and his performances all suffered.
But there’s a happy ending of sorts, because he sobered up, married happily and survived a couple of serious hospitalizations. He has channeled his obsessiveness into exercise and performing, transforming himself from has-been into something of a mythic icon, certainly in Canada.
How great is he, or was he? Not as great as Dylan, the biography suggests, but the two are mutual admirers who understand each other better than most.
“They’re both reclusive and eccentric, so to some degree they’re kindred spirits,” says singer-
songwriter Murray McLauchlan, who knows them both. “Except Gord’s life is not a fabrication. He is who he is. Bob Dylan is a complete myth.”
Don McLeese is a journalism professor at the University of Iowa and a veteran critic of music, books and popular culture.
By Nicholas Jennings
Viking. 328 pp. $30