Massey Hall 1976
Robert Markle, who wrote the excellent liner notes on the original "The Way I Feel" and "Sunday Concert" albums, returned to write an article about the 1976 Massey Hall series all those years later. Markle at the time makes note of the Lightfoot bio he was writing, but unfortunately it has never materialized. This was originally published in the Toronto Star's weekend magazine in 1977.
KNOWING LIGHTFOOT: A Friend's Portrait Of The Artist At Work And Play
Trying to go back through time is always a mug's game. We tend to see the past exactly the way we want to see it, with no loose ends to tangle up the trip - and that time last spring (1976) with Lightfoot and Lightfoot's party was a tangle. Misplaced enthusiasms, images with faint edges come racing back, washing me in the energies of that time. I have to scramble for the notes I made, like hasty sketches of lost landscapes, to bring any sense to what I know and what I think probably happened. But oh! what a time.
Massey Hall's paint is peeling in places. The wood that surrounds the stage needs work. Worn plush, threadbare carpets, scuffs, yet the lady still has class. The sound in there is first rate. And when those balcony seats are filled and the warmth of a receptive audience reaches out almost to the stage, that place works very well. There are plans for a new Massey Hall: no doubt glass, concrete, wood veneer.
It's early in the day, but you'd never know by the light. Massey Hall's light defies time, it glows to its own clock. Gordon Lightfoot is putting his band through a tough rehearsal, going over familiar songs, working on the new material. Technicians, stage managers rush about, plugging things in, setting things up, checking mikes, levels, lighting. The Edmund Fitzgerald is done over and over again. Lightfoot sometimes stopping it in mid-phrase to demand something of the band, working the song through, turning it over, searching for its "rightness," all this among the chaos of wires and humming
We had spent the Saturday night before talking and drinking at the Brunswick, a favorite tavern; two old friends with too little time to spend together. The talk had got around the Lightfoot's long, driving, haunting song-story, The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald. Lightfoot's involvement with that tradgedy
is understandable. You see, Lightfoot himself sails, and his fraternity with the sea is as dear to him as anything his work, or his work's future, might have to offer. And he has sailed many times in those waters. So I'm sure, I know, that Lightfoot saw in that water's vicious reality, in the lives of those doomed men of the Fitzgerald, a fear so near that it could only be fully understood if exorcized through his art.
I look around the hall, all those people readying for tonight's show, the rehearsal winding down. Lightfoot looks around, as if noticing the room for the first time, recognizing it as an old friend; we talk over the stage's apron. "Massey Hall is just a great place to perform. The sound here rings, I love this place."
Tonight would be the first of eight concerts Lightfoot would be giving here in seven days. And they all were sellouts. Audiences from all over, and beyond. This is an important time in Lightfoot's yearly schedule; although he was born in Orillia, Ontario, it's Toronto that gave him his roots, Toronto and Massey Hall. This is his home; you leave the hall, turn right and go north and you find his house.
"Toronto's a tough town." I had brought a friend, a photographer, and she was snapping away. Lightfoot saw her over my shoulder and became very aware of the glasses he was wearing. He doesn't like pictures of himself with his glasses on; he whipped them off. "I know it's silly, but that's the way it is. Could you tell her?" He was going back to the house, to be alone and get ready for tonight. "We've got some new material and we're understadably nervous. This is a tough town, we've got some problems with the sound system, it's new, and a worry..."
That night Lightfoot's audience was there, filling every seat, filling Massey Hall with an air of rich expectancy. Walking around, it was like moving through space grown physical with the high charge of anticipatory energy. The eager audience hummed, buzzing into the enriched air. Looking for their own kind of confirmation. Outrageously beautiful girls dressed outrageously, laughing as they snuggled into their seats. Factory-sealed records on their flowered laps, behind their excited eyes lay the hope of an autograph. Some carried flowers, gifts. Parcels carefully wrapped. And instamatics. Flashbars. Boys in jeans and hand stitched shirts from Mexico or shops up the street. Men in suits from smart downtown. Sensible looking boys and girls out spending their precious time together.
I'm attracted to other sights, other stories. Grey suits, executives. Boppers, dopers. Dreamers, aspiring virgin talent. Fans. Fanatics. I talk to a girl, a young woman really, with slim, shapely legs. She had travelled here from her home in California, leaving a roomful of Lightfoot memorabilia: 500 photos, scrapbooks, the walls covered, to sit here in Toronto, front row centre, to witness the content of her dreams. Old and young, hip and square, nice and easy, neat and street chic - all waiting for Gordon Lightfoot to take over their lives for a moment, all waiting to get lost in his... just for a little while.
Lights dim, and all attention turns to the stage. The band settles in. A spotlight finds Lightfoot at rear stage and guides him to stage centre. He's bombarded by popping flashbulbs. And applause. Lightfoot's guitar sends back light, its glistening laquered suface reflects and forms the color into
washes of blues and oranges that bathes the black space of the audience that he knows is there. The audience's noisy appreciation of all this, of his very existence then diminishes, leaving room for Lightfoot to strum and sing into the dark, sparkling space of the concert hall.
It was a beautiful evening. Lightfoot moved easily through the wealth of his material. Old favorites caught the crowd unawares; they clapped their surprise, and mouthed the words like a litany. And they listened hard to the new stuff, searching through the unfamiliar lyrics to find hooks to hang their own lives on. They found them, and were readily swept into the new worlds that Lightfoot's music gave them.
I thought of Lightfoot's critics. Most of them reside in newspapers. I stood in the faint amber light of the hall's inner perimeter, listening, thinking, walking along the edge of the audience, watching their rapture. Lightfoot's critics are constantly telling me about his lack of stage presence, his flat, uninspired delivery, his inability to get the smooth subtlety of his record albums into the immediacy of the concert hall. Why doesn't he sound like his records? They are missing very important points. Because it dawned on me that what was happening here tonight (and would happen throughout the week) was that Lightfoot was making this time unique, that in stretching his own music and finding new twists and shapes to his lyrics he was inviting everyone there to share in the making of experience. This was obviously more than a simple live pantomime of a staged presentation of his hit records, this was an event, complete with the dangers and the demands of the creative process itself. Lightfoot led them through the nuances, forcing them into the music's subtle departures from the albums so that they might sense the night's complexities. Massey Hall filled with people sharing, people willing to bring much of themselves to the time.
I've given my share of critiscism to Lightfoot over the years, as friends must if they're to sustain any kind of honest relationship, but while watching my friend up there on that stage and seeing that audience, I couldn't for the life of me remember just what those critical thoughts were. I knew they
would come back, forcing me into more searching, more suspicions, but for now they were gone and I felt myself drawn into the same space as all those starstruck faces, participating in the moment's making.
Lightfoot and the band worked harder, each song seemed better. The air thickened, saturated with activity. All the energies of anticipation, fulfilment, the fear that it will all end, all hung in that hall, looking for solution. And Lightfoot sang to solve, searching for the end, looking for the ending's time. Finding it: seeing the time perfectly. He left his audience in the glowing glare of the houselights wanting more.
Encores only partially mollify an insatiable crowd, yet they seem to know, or sense, that the night was properly over, they slowly filed out as the diminishing waves of applause drifted down from the far reaches of the dying hall, gone to sputter.
I headed backstage, bypassing the inevitable crowd of autograph seekers, gift-givers and star-grabbers who pressed into the small stairwell at the side of the stage. They were waiting for Lightfoot to come back, as he would, to talk and sign, and to top off their evening. Backstage were the
invited few, who invariablt turn into the invited many. Friends and fans. The music industry. The record industry. Family. Friends of family. Other musicians. Honored media snapping for saleable group portraits. Hype run amok.
Famous people. And people who just look famous. This happens during every concert during this Massey Hall stand. Lightfoot demands absolute privacy before working, but when the work is done, he likes to entertain, and unwind in the chaotic hustle of this backstage revelry. And these people are for
the most part friends, this is the one chance Lightfoot has to spend any time at all with many of them. It's a fairly free-feeling affair, there's beer, and as many of them say, "lots of good vibes." They're here to be near the star, of course, but also to honestly wish him well, they treasure this one time when they can tell him that they still feel a part of whatever it was in their shared past that made them friends.
Lightfoot is told how good his concert was, how good it is to see him, how good it is to be there. Other stars, other musicians come by. Mired in their own unrelenting sense of professionalism they offer polite congratulations, covering all bets, revealing nothing. Cameras flash as they meet across the
weakening space of the room. People speculate. The beer is running out.
"I love this place." Lightfoot catches my attention with a whisper that strangely enough carries under the noise. "Playing Massey Hall is like Christmas to me." looking around, smiling. "I'm home, I get to see my family, all my friends. I can entertain them in my home..."
The beer has run out. Everything has been said, or seems to have been. And maybe nothing has been said. But it doesn't matter, because the night is not over, merely shifting gears.
At least once during this week of concerts the evening does not end here in the green rooms of Massey Hall's backstage but will move on: Lightfoot is having a party tonight, and taxis, cars, borrowed rides, hustle us north into the window-lit brick streets of Rosedale.
Lightfoot throws an excellent party. He cares. Plenty of food, drink and the warmth of sharing. He has a huge house now, but he's always liked to entertain, sharing whatever he has with his friends. Even way back when in those cramped basement-apartment days when he had little, what little he had was shared. Images spring to mind: tumblers of spilling red wine, and knees-to-knees conversations over the tinny sound of an overworked Seabreeze. And now, with prosperity, fatter wallets, bigger rooms, it
only means that Lightfoot has more to share with the people who mean something to him.
Friends and their friends fill the mansion. The heavy front door opens and in come more, many close to being strangers, they pile in from the night. Coats piled on chairs, couches. Sandwiches piled on plates. Women in soft cloth that fingered their figures, their eyes shaped by the room light's shadow and all the colors of the rainbow. Ennui slouch and rouge, busy with the business of being there. Friends of family with joyful, unassuming handshakes, eager to meet Lightfoot's guests, they seem to me like true
fans, honestly thrilled by the night's promise. People in the business, striding through the rooms looking for people to profitably talk to. Lightfoot walks through his party, listening, smiling, shaking hands, exchanging pleasantries, accepting compliments, acknowledging the debts of friendship.
From mouth level on down, the rooms are all talk and wet glasses. Above that, the space is easily filled with the murmur of a machine in one of the room's corners, a tape deck putting out a mush of block chords and words, music that was never meant to background anything, yet here it is not ill-used, and it
nicely compliments the buzz of conversation. Everyone seems to know that Gord and I are working on a book or something. I get a lot of "Don't quote me," and "Are you getting all this down, Markle?" as I move through the crowd. I make notes. Looks like a good place for gossip. One scribbled line says,
"Great looking blonde with freak." Must be an earlier observation. I'm studying that when somebody who should know better comes up and nudges me into attention. He talks to me as if on a dare "...the Juno awards are pure bullshit ... can you imagine Murray McLauchlan as the best country and
western singer? I suppose they had to give the guy something..." His voice fades as he walks away, tilting drink, shaking head, disappearing into the swarming rooms. Oh boy, I couldn't wait to write that down: Juno...bullshit.
I move off to the relative safety of an unused corner and make more notes. People ask me, "How's the book coming?" as I furiously write "How's the book coming?...I try for depth and feeling, for local color, status detail. I make more notes on the brands of beer and the furniture in the rooms. Then I put the notebook away, find willing arms and dance into the party, determined to act like a civilian. The rooms spin. I'm loving it, the challenge of keeping one's drink and one's conduct on an even keel, the
swirl of the party. I'm introduced to a great looking blonde who seems accompanied at very close quarters by a freak. She is beautiful, and more than that, she's Liona Boyd, a classical guitarist of impeccable worth. I'm very pleased to meet her, being a fan. I'm drunk enough to pull no punches. "Who's the freak?" She's classy enough to answer me. "He's my brother." We laugh as I try to explain to her my notes and then right before her eyes make the neccesary additions. I like her, but in the mad rush of the Lightfoot party, we can only mouth spare words.
Time sweeps the night along. Parents, their young families home in the care of blossoming babysitters, find that it's time to leave. Their evenings out are perfectly delineated: parenthood, something they are sure they were born to, dictates the rules of their lives. They're quick to call a cab. Others, in the maze of faces, frenzy and frolic, find someone to care for, someone who cares for them, and they move off into the night that Lightfoot has given them. But for the most part, the most part stays.
Again the night shifts gears, searching for a higher purpose. The rooms are still filled, and into what few spaces there are, music rushes. Lightfoot asks for quiet, and gives Liona his best guitar. She sits beside the grand piano, perfectly defined by the nightlight of blown glass windows, touches the strings and enlarges the room.
Later Liona and Gord sit together and talk. They seem, amid the chaos, to see only each other. From the opposite sides of the tracks, two artists meet, but maybe the distance isn't all that great. Their respective, frantic lives have somehow left enough room for just such an encounter.
In another room, under Tiffany lamps, games of pool are being played. Balls roll effortlessly over the green nap and fall like suicides into the net and leather pockets. Men boast, and take off their jackets. they roll cues along the table's surface to test their pedigree, then stab at the cue ball, looking to find space in this night by beating somebody. The light cast up from the felt give them a weary look, like pasty failure, and they all stink!
Later still, Murray McLauchlan, feeling expansive and no pain, grabs the guitar Liona has left parked beside the piano and starts in on a song written especially for Gord. This is a nice moment. I'm reminded of other times in this house when the night was winding down, and Kris Kristofferson,
Bob Dylan, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Joan Baez, Jerry Jeff Walker sat in these rooms and picked and sang and shared the good times and some of their secrets. Murray sings on, all about Gord and his hard luck with women, and Murray's love for him. Words like, "I'd like to raise a glass to you, I feel no pain,
I dug yours songs, since I heard Early Morning Rain." Lyrics like the inside of a valentine. Lightfoot searches the room for someplace to put his eyes, laughing in his embarrassment. "Murray, I'll tell ya, it's nice, and I'm truly touched, but promise me it will never be published, 'cause it's just not up to your usual excellent standards."
The, uh, billiard room looks vacant and Lightfoot and McLauchlan decide to shoot some pool. For big bucks. Off they go, swaggering. Now's my chance to chat up Liona. But she's gone. I get away from there. In the kitchen I bump into Bernie, Bernie Fiedler, owner of the Riverboat coffehouse, friend of
Gord's, producer of many of his concerts, into many things. I've always liked Bernie. He seems to be one of the few real people caught in all this. And he's fun to drink with. I do. He puts an arm around me, and says it all: "Don't quote me, how's the book coming?" I persist though, looking for a scoop. But all he says is, "Sometimes he's a jerk (aren't we all?), sometime she's great, but what the hell, I love him..."
We go back to the billiard room just in time to see Lightfoot grabbing bills out of the corner pocket and counting them on the table. Balls are all over the place, it's obviously the middle of the game. McLauchlan watches from the other end of the table. "...twenty, forty, forty-five, fifty-five, SEVENTY-five," Lightfoot is counting out the money, slapping the bills down in neat piles. "One hundred seventy-five, one hundred eighty, one ninety." He looks around, back into the pocket, then in others. "There's only one hundred and ninety dollars here!"
"Jeezus." Murray comes over, grabs the money and counts it out. "TWO HUNDRED!" Triumphantly.
Lightfoot tries again. Bernie and I are laughing. Lightfoot finds the pile again 10 short.
So Bernie counts it. All there. I count it out, trying for visual proof, putting the bills in easily understandable lots of 50's: all there.
Lightfoot tries once more, the beginnings of bewilderment setting in. Again he comes up short, tosses what he thinks is $100 towards Murray and pockets the rest. "Oh man, this is impossible. I can't play like this. Let's forget about it." By this time we're all breaking up, the cues are racked and we all get back to what's left of the party.
Gord and I find ourselves alone in the kitchen. I reminded how I thought he never sounded better than in those old days in my studio kitchen, and he tells me that I'm full of crap. I remember those arguments. I insisted that, without the fuss of show business and the demands of fame, just the face-to-
face confrontation over my kitchen table, he came closer to what he really was. But now I'm realizing how wrong I was. True, he did sound good, and that is mine. Yet it is only the dynamics of the audience, that precariousness professionalism demands, that truly make the event. That's when he really sounds like something. When he's struggling not only with the nuances of his own material but also with the ramifications of his act, only then is Gordon Lightfoot really alive, really performing. And for me to come to any judgmental opinion based on an event without the audience is to see it all wrong, to deprive Gord of his logical aspirations. It's like robbing the arist of half his palette.
Soon the house is empty. Lightfoot and I end up sitting across from one another at the kitchen table toying with the last of the beer, watching the dawn fill the room.
A pause, watching the light shift. Along with Lightfoot's face. "I don't know why you want to talk with me anyway," he says. Whenever you write anything it's always about you. I'll probably not even be in it."
I get a brainstorm, thanks to his last little dig. "I know what. This is a good time for you to say anything you want to the press. Go on. It'll get printed. Say anything!"
"Sure. Go ahead. Anything you want."
Another pause. I'm ready. Pen. Notebook. Lightfoot's laughing.
"I can't think of anything...nothing, really..."
Great brainstorm. "What about bad reviews? I remember the days when a bad word about you would drive you nuts."
"Well, that sort of thing doesn't bother me that much anymore. And there are times when the criticism is fully justified. I've had bad nights just like anyone else, so I don't mind when that sort of thing is talked or written about."
"But what really does bother me is a magazine like Rolling Stone coming along and describing my drinking, for instance. Like, uh...totally unfounded: Lightfoot standing with a glass of Canadian Club filled to the brim, which is pure poppycock, just pure crap, with his belly hanging over his belt and uh, looking completely plastered, you know, like almost a Joe Cocker image..." He started to laugh at that, watching me make notes. "I guess I shouldn't bring poor old Joe into this. Anyway, I got so pissed off at Rolling Stone about that article that I don't even talk with them. About anything! If they want my picture on the front page, I'll say no!...I haven't been approached by them, of course, but it could happen, and if it does, I'll say the hell with you." He looked off, past me, out into the room as if seeing vague images of Rolling Stone writers. "A bunch of smart-asses anyway..."
Now we are tired. But I want one last thought from him before I leave. I ask him about the business, his fears, writing blocks, drying up, the next 10 years.
"The next 10 years is going to be music, and sailing. I'm just now getting interested in this business. I get tired of it sometimes, sometimes it really gets to you. If I dry up, that's the time I'll start thinking about other things. Right now, it's no problem. I don't find writing to be a frightening experience. I mean, I've actually made enough money at it that I can at least get along if I don't write. But I don't know. I guess there's going to come a time when the valve's gonna shut off, like anything else. You know, I feel fortunate that I've got this far. I've got 12 original albums, that's a lot of work. I feel secure with my audience. Writers never lose their appeal because the audience is always getting a fresh supply of material; that's one thing I've got going for me. And if I didn't write my own stuff, I'm sure I'd pick material that was interesting enough. Of course, if I ever got to the point where I couldn't get it together to write, I also wouldn't be able to get it together to find suitable material..."
"So it's a matter of discipline. Sometimes I drink too much and I...waste a lot of time. You know, drinking...If I didn't drink I'd probably get a lot more done, but I wouldn't have any fun. And I wouldn't have anything to write about. You've got to do something. You've got to have relaxation. And drinking is my relaxation. If I have people around the house, shooting the baloney, I like to have a drink in my hand...But nevertheless, they say it's bad for your health and, well, I just don't know..."
"...I'm a very simple human being. Sometimes life looks a little bleak to me, like the only thing you have to look forward to is getting old. I don't know if that's too groovy or not. But I'll tell you one thing, it's nicer to get old and have something than to get old and have nothing. So I'm one up there, too, probably. Life's been pretty good to me, basically, up until now. The way I've been plotting my course I don't see any end in sight...right now..."
I think it was a good year for Gord, what with Grammy nominations, the inevitable two Junos, a well-received album, and maybe somewhere along the line he found some of the things he's looking for. But I do worry, and I wonder just how the future looks now to my good friend, Gordon Lightfoot.