Anyone who ever owned an album by Gordon Lightfoot might not immediately recognize the man sitting on a metal chair in a dressing room at New York’s Town Hall. These days, Lightfoot only passingly resembles the strapping, mustached, square-jawed troubadour whose ballads, like “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Early Mornin’ Rain” and “Carefree Highway,” became coffeehouse standards. He no longer perms his hair as he once did. Lanky, sandy-brown locks now fall around his face, which is clean-shaven and, like his body, thin and bony. His hands show purple splotches. He resembles a weathered oak tree, albeit one in faded blue jeans and white tennis shoes.
Then again, consider his age. Lightfoot calls his current series of shows the “80 Years Strong Tour.” Running through December, they celebrate the milestone he hit last November.
“Tell him what you did for your birthday,” Kim Hasse, his current wife, says to her husband, flashing a you-won’t-believe-this smile.
“We had a seven-show tour coming up,” Lightfoot says. He speaks haltingly at times, placing an emphasis on certain words to make his point. “And I got pneumonia. So I went to the hospital. And there were only five days left before we had to start. I said, ‘I have to leave,’ and they said, ’You can’t.’ I said, ‘I have to. I have to go to work.’”
His tone is both wry and incredulous, as if he can’t quite believe that anyone would try to stop him from doing his job. “My heart specialist was in the building at the time and he walked in and said, ‘If he wants to go, let him go. He’s not in jail.’ So they let me go.”
Like his songs, Lightfoot endures; in recent years, he’s even been receiving more props. The Replacements’ Paul Westerberg once half-joked that he wants “If You Could Read My Mind” to be sung at his funeral (on a reunion record, the ‘Mats also covered “I’m Not Sayin’”), and last year, Lightfoot played his first-ever show at Stagecoach, Coachella’s sister country festival. Months later, he’s still sporting the wristband from that performance. (“I never took it off!” he says. “Eight thousand people in that place. Palm Springs.”) A documentary about his life, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, is currently playing in theaters in his native Canada, with a U.S. release pending.
Lightfoot’s songs were both emotive and repressed, and the best of them — a list that also includes “Sundown,” “For Lovin’ Me,” “Rainy Day People” and so many others — were simple and sturdy, like solid, reliable pieces of furniture. Asked why those tunes continue to be covered and why people still want to see him play them, Lightfoot pauses, as if he isn’t sure. “I suppose it’s the turn of the phrase. Or the fact that they’re so simple. People can play these songs if they can get around this business here,” he adds, pointing to the capo strapped onto his fretboard.
“We’ve got songs that register well with the crowd, like ‘Read My Mind’ and ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Don Quixote.’ They’re all tunes that just move along and have a forward momentum, which is what I look for in my writing. Forward momentum.”
On a table next to Lightfoot is the briefcase he carries to every show, and this afternoon, it’s open to expose what keeps his own momentum going. Several bottles of vitamins are on display, along with an empty, clean ashtray (he gave up smoking last October). Lightfoot has several hours to kill before his performance, but he isn’t going anywhere; adhering to his recurring ritual, he will stay at the venue to get a feel for its vibe and to carefully tune each of his guitars. On a clothing rack right behind him are a half dozen of his stage shirts, some embroidered. “He’s old school,” says Hasse, proudly.
Lightfoot begins reminiscing about his earlier shows in New York (including one at this same venue), which leads him to remember the time he and Canned Heat shared an unlikely double bill at San Francisco’s Fillmore West. “Yeah, we were in there with the best of ’em,” he says. “I’m a competitive sort of guy.” At this point, it is indeed possible to trace the history of post–World War II pop through him. The son of a dry-cleaner owner (“we called it the ‘carriage trade,’” he notes bemusedly), he sang in large-ensemble pop-folk groups in his native Canada, studied jazz in California, then returned to Canada and began hitting up the folk circuit. He was soon managed by the late Albert Grossman, and one of his acts, Peter, Paul and Mary, made a hit out of Lightfoot’s “Early Mornin’ Rain.”
“That’s when they said, ‘Do you sing? Do you just write songs?’ What do you do?’” Lightfoot recalls.
What he did was sing and write his own material, and his own career soon launched in full, with records and the occasional Top 40 hit rolling out during the following two decades. His songs have been covered not only by the Replacements but by Elvis Presley, Neil Young, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, Liza Minnelli and Bob Dylan, among many others.
Along the way Lightfoot befriended fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell, then living in Detroit with her first husband, Chuck: “I got to hear Joni’s music before she made a deal with anybody,” he says. “Tom Rush and I would sit with her and Chuck at the kitchen table and she would play these wonderful songs.”
He and Dylan had an often tangled history, starting with both being managed for a time by Grossman. Hours before Dylan electrified the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, Lightfoot had played an acoustic set in the afternoon. As preparation began for Dylan’s band-backed performance, Lightfoot saw for himself the emotions it provoked. “I remember Albert and the musicologist Alan Lomax getting into a wrestling match in the afternoon of that day. Joan Baez, Donovan and I, we all stood around and watched. It was over the drum kit. They were trying to stay traditional, and somebody brought the drum kit onstage for the first time. It was quite a kerfuffle over it. It was a hot day in Newport. And a dry day. And I remember the dust was flying.”
That night, Lightfoot stood by the side of the stage and watched as Dylan plugged in. He says he heard Dylan say to Grossman, “I’ve lost my harmonica, Albert,” even though it would be Paul Simon who put that line in a song (“A Simple Desultory Philippic [Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d into Submission]”). “I don’t think Paul Simon was anywhere in the vicinity,” he says. “But I heard it.
“And then Bob went on and I remember a few pennies and quarters up on the stage. I guess they were trying to insult him, but they did not succeed. He carried right on through.” (Lightfoot himself eventually added drums but not for a few years: “I wasn’t … controversy-inclined,” he says dryly.) Lightfoot can also be seen, briefly, in Martin Scorsese’s documentary on the Rolling Thunder Revue; when Dylan and his carousing folkie caravan played Toronto’s Maple Leaf Garden, Lightfoot joined them onstage and invited them back to his house for a party. Dylan inducted Lightfoot into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1986.
The Eighties were a rough time for Lightfoot as well as many of his peers. He stopped drinking in 1982, after his record company told him he was doing what he calls “irrational things.” He pauses. “Does that make sense? I was doing irrational things,” chewing over the phrase. “The record company was not happy with me over it. They said, ‘You gotta [give up alcohol] because it’s hurting you.’”
Lightfoot says he passed on starring in a movie based on his left-field 1976 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (about a real-life sinking of a freight boat and the loss of its entire crew) due to in part to his stubbornness (“I was doing things the way I was doing them and I wanted to keep going them that way”) but also because of his drinking. “I was not going to offer myself to them as an alcoholic,” he says. “My conscience would not allow me to do that.”
“Maybe you didn’t want to lose control,” Hasse offers, as if gently reminding her husband of his tendencies.
“They said, ‘Think of the money you’ll earn!’” Lightfoot says, brushing it off. “I said, ‘I don’t care. We’re doing fine.’ I’ve always felt that way. We’re doing good.”
The hits began to dry up during this time, and long before it became fashionable as it is now, Lightfoot became one of the first pop stars to be awarded a Vegas residency, at the MGM Grand in 1982. Although Lightfoot drew a crowd, the owner of the venue was still irked, telling him, “I loved your show, but you’re the first son of a bitch who ever walked on my stage in blue jeans!”
Lightfoot flashes a bemused smile. “I kept wearing my ‘costume.’” He smiles. “My costume. Good fun.”
Lightfoot’s current life is a bit more of an even keel. He and Hasse, a former actress and stand-in who is about 25 years his junior, married five years ago (“very much a surprise to me,” he says). The two live in Lightfoot’s multi-room home in the suburbs of Toronto. Drake is building a new house right across the street; Lightfoot jokes that he hasn’t yet been invited over to play basketball.
Lightfoot is on his fifth marriage and has several children. (In the Seventies, he was also briefly in a relationship with Cathy Smith, who was with John Belushi on the night he overdosed.) You wonder if all those relationships come rushing back when he sings songs he wrote about those situations — “If You Could Read My Mind,” for instance, is about the collapse of his first marriage in the late Sixties. He pauses, drops his head and nods. “I know what you mean,” he says. “Things are happening and somehow they find their way into the content. We’re going through life’s roller coaster and it just unconsciously finds its way into the song. It creates a good song.”
Then he stiffens up. “But do I feel sad or depressed? No.” He pauses, as if his life is suddenly playing itself out in his brain. “I didn’t mean to bring on some of the emotional trauma I’ve caused in people,” he says. “Because I have. I have. I’ve caused emotional trauma in myself and in women.”
Health issues beyond mere alcoholism have also dogged him. In the early Seventies, he dealt with a bout of Bell’s palsy that froze part of his face. (To cover it up, one side of his mug was shown in shadows on an album cover.) In 2002, an abdominal artery in his stomach burst, putting Lightfoot in a coma for six weeks, followed by further operations. He’s still embarrassed by the sacrifices others made for him. “I was ashamed at the amount of blood they went through,” he says disgustedly. “It would have been better off if I had died. I think it was 28 units.” Afterward, he rewarded himself with a glass of wine. “So that was the end of a roll,” he says sternly. “But did I become an alcoholic after one glass of wine? No.”
One wonders why, at this age and with some of his previous health issues, Lightfoot puts himself through the grueling rigors of the road. “Well, we’ve all got families,” he says. “And I can still earn.”
Hasse also makes the case for the emotional investment his fans still have in Lightfoot. “Guys cry when they meet him,” she says. “They get very emotional over his songs. And the girls just flirt.” She smiles broadly.
“Yeah, they flirt!” Lightfoot retorts. “Yeah, sure.” Then he seems to dismiss it: “I’m not as much of a flirt as I used to be.”
“Thank God!” Hasse says cheerily.
“I flirted more when I drank,” Lightfoot continues. “When I stopped drinking, I stopped flirting. But really … I wouldn’t call it flirting. I’m just being polite, basically. I want to be friendly and I want them to feel relaxed. I want to make ‘em feel comfortable. I don’t like to come on like any kind of special person or anything. I just want them to see me as normal sort of a guy.”
His road manager says it’s time for the ritual of the tuning of the guitars. “Let’s go down!” Lightfoot announces heartily and stands up.
At a soundcheck, he and his four-piece backup band run through parts of different songs, with Lightfoot singing along quietly, so as not to abuse his voice. The band exits once the levels are correct, but Lightfoot remains. He sits down and hunches over his guitars one by one to begin the string-by-string tuning process. It’s slow, painstaking work, and after a half hour, only Hasse is left in the theater with him. When he’s done, he looks around, momentarily bewildered at the absence of anyone around him, until Hasse calls over to him and they retreat once more to the dressing room.
“I have to make sure they’re all in perfect tune,” Lightfoot says. “Perfect … tune.”