Ottawa Citizen Interview

Revered songwriter reveals stories behind 10 tunes

Patrick Langston
The Ottawa Citizen

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Countless fans may revere Gordon Lightfoot as one of Canada's pre-eminent songwriters, but the man himself seems remarkably casual about the value of his creations.

Speaking from his home in Toronto recently, Lightfoot said of his songwriting legacy, "there's not enough substance there to last an indefinite length of time. The realities of it are, that my publishing will be sold and you might hear one of my songs someday on a commercial. It won't really matter to me then anyway."

Sheesh. Twenty-odd albums over the past four decades, 15 RPM/Juno awards, a berth in the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, only to wind up on the soundtrack of a VIA Rail commercial?

Maybe Lightfoot's brush with death from an abdominal hemorrhage in 2002 has given him an objective perspective on life. And it's said that age -- Lightfoot turns 70 this year -- brings a sharper sense of one's place in world.

Or perhaps the occasional bout of loneliness makes your life's work seem suddenly as isolated as you feel: Lightfoot's Citizen interview far exceeded its scheduled 30 minutes. "I don't mind," he said. "There's no one here at night. It's someone to talk to."

One way or the other, Lightfoot is again touring (he plays the NAC April 19 and 20), singing the tunes that have brought the laundry owner's son from Orillia admiration from his peers and adulation from his fans.

Facts surrounding some of those tunes are already well known. Recordings of Early Mornin' Rain by Peter, Paul and Mary and by Ian and Sylvia helped put Lightfoot on the map in the mid-1960s, and Dylan later recorded it ("I was thrilled," says Lightfoot). The Canadian Railroad Trilogy was commissioned by the CBC to celebrate the centennial in 1967. Inspired by a magazine article, 1976's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald was Lightfoot's last big hit, reaching No. 2 on Billboard.

Specifics of other songs may be less familiar. Modest about his legacy or not, Lightfoot was happy to discuss 10 of the tunes. The following is an edited transcript.

Pussywillows, Cat-Tails (1966)
I had a vision of a very definite spot up on the northwest side of Orillia where we used to ride to on our bicycles. A little river was there, the bullrushes, the pussywillows, the geese, the fish. And a pond, oh yes, a pond. And a mill. It was called Marchmont. It's just a picture of that little spot.

Go Go Round (1967)
That one came from when we used to hang out down at the Hawk's Nest (owned by Ronnie Hawkins in Toronto). It was just about the atmosphere of the club and the go-go dancers going up on the stage. We got some good usage out of that. It was a good stage song, a nice little tune.

Did She Mention My Name (1968)
I think I got the idea for that song from playing hockey in the Orillia Community Centre, because that's what pops into my head whenever I play it. I wrote it in an old rooming house in Toronto when I was first trying to make it in the music business. I was thinking about Orillia and I guess I was feeling a little homesick or something.

Black Day In July (1968)
That one sort of got squashed as a single because some stations in Detroit would play it and others wouldn't. And I was glad, because it was meant to be an album song. Do I like it? Not particularly, no. It got done by the Tragically Hip (on the 2003 tribute album Beautiful); I love the way that Gord Downie handled the vocal.

If You Could Read My Mind (1970)
My best song has to be If You Could Read My Mind. We always save it for near the end of the show. It's a good one to play, it's fun to sing. It's a rollicking easy lyric to handle and an easy melody. I can sing that song without even thinking and just think about the guitar work.

Don Quixote (1972)
I wrote it with a couple of others for a movie called Hail, Hero, but I withheld it for the album. It was the first movie Michael Douglas made: it wound up in the can and will probably stay there. It was written during the Vietnam War about a person trying to bring about a change. I was up half the night before recording that one; I would love to have had another shot at three or four of those. Too much partying.

Sundown (1974)
I moved Paul McCartney out of first place in Billboard with that one. For a while I had a farm north of Toronto and I used to sit and watch these gorgeous sunsets over the hayfield and that's where I got the idea for the song. I don't usually look at sunsets. (When it's pointed out that the song is a menacing one about an urban love obsession, Lightfoot says, "I was involved in various things in my life and some of it finds its way into your work. We just hope it sells.")

Anything For Love (1986)
The record company decided that David Foster and I should work together, so we wrote that song for East of Midnight. I wanted that album to be my best album and up till that point I'd produced it and it was nearly finished.
But then David Foster wound up getting credit for producing the whole album because of that one song. In the words of my old mum, "He stole my thunder." We're friends, though, don't get me wrong.

A Painter Passing Through (1998)
That's a timely song about growing older gracefully. It's full of images about groovy things in your past. Things you'd like to be; things you'd like to have been. My favourite line is "I was in my stride/Always at my game." It's a great one on stage; it's a bit of a show stopper.

Harmony (2004)
I wrote that for my estranged wife. The song is about the harmony of a relationship, and the woman who brings the muse. They usually do bring it, until they get tired; they get bored after a while. I wrote that song the night after she left me for the first time. That one came from the heart.

Gordon Lightfoot plays the NAC April 19 and 20.

© The Ottawa Citizen 2008