Hey, Gord. Or Gordon. Or Mr. Lightfoot. No, I’m going to call you Gord, and I hope that’s okay. You don’t know me, but I know you. We all know you. You’re in our heads. You’re in the walls of our hearts. Your melodies hang and swerve over the great open skies and soupy lakes and long highways and your lyrics are printed in old history and geography and humanities textbooks that get passed down from grade to grade to grade. When people say “Lightfoot,” it’s like saying “Muskoka” or “Gretzky” or “Trudeau.” I dunno. “Lightfoot.”
Your name says as much as these things, maybe more. Gord, I am writing this book even though you won’t talk to me. It’s a long story, but this is a long book, so here goes. You won’t talk to me because of a song that my old band covered, a version of your nautical epic, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Back in 1989, we contacted your late manager, Barry Harvey – a good guy; at least he was to us – to ask for approval, and he gave us his blessing. But then he said that he probably wouldn’t play our version of the song for you. What he actually said was, “If I play it for him, it’ll just piss him off.”
A few months later, something else happened, which is maybe the real reason why you won’t talk to me. You see, after coming home from a tour of Ireland – an ill-fated tour; we broke up there, only to re-form and record your song, though you probably wish we’d stayed broken up – a music writer asked about our rendition. Because I was young and dumb and feeling disappointed that you – one of my heroes – refused to recognize our interpretation of what is surely one of Canada’s most famous, and best, songs, I punked out. I told him that, “well, everyone knows that it’s based on an old Irish melody. It’s not his, not really.” What I didn’t tell the writer was that a guy in a bar in Cork had told me this, nor did I tell him that there were several beers involved – in Cork, Gord, this is a given. Later on, when Barry Harvey read what I’d said, he asked me to recant my statement. I might have just grunted and hung up the phone. Barry asked again and again, and, having grown a little older and less punked-out, I said I would, but then the story appeared on the Internet (the goddamned Internet). Barry was gentlemanly about the whole thing, but he said that I’d upset you, which is what I’d wanted to do, at least in the beginning, but not anymore. You were mad and I don’t begrudge you that feeling. After all, the same guy who’d desecrated your song had called you a phony, even if he hadn’t really meant it (Cork plus beer plus being rejected by one’s hero plus an encounter with a drunken storyteller equals impetuous rant. It’s a weak defence, I know, but it’s all I’ve got). I tried taking the story down, then forgot about it. Barry called a third time, then a fourth time, asking nicely. Then he passed away. And now I am writing a book about you. And you won’t talk to me.
Last year, when my publisher asked if I wanted to do this book, I explained the situation. He said, “Do it anyway,” and so we proceeded to figure out a way to create a book without the contribution of its central figure, which is you. At first, I thought about using stories that other people had told about you, but the biographical holes were too great (turns out you’re a bit of a mystery, Gord, although it’s not like you don’t know that). Then, as I started to look back through your life, I came across an event that I remembered reading about years ago in a Peter Goddard-edited seventies Toronto pop magazine called Touch.
The event was Mariposa ’72. Because it was a great event – maybe one of the most important in Canadian musical and cultural history – I was given a starting point from which to talk about your life, without actually talking to you. I also thought it might be a way of telling the story of Canada. But I tried not to think too much about it. Instead, I just sat down and started writing.
Gord, I know you know all of this, but, at this point, I should tell the readers a few things. Okay. Readers: the 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival (the sixteenth year of the event) was unlike any that came before it. It took place on a small isthmus at the bottom of Toronto, on Centre Island, now the site of a popular kids’ amusement park. At the time, Mariposa was one of the most progressive festivals of its kind – only the Newport Folk Festival and a similar event in Philadelphia had better reputations – bringing attention to marginalized folk, blues, and traditional music. It steered clear of emerging chart music – pop and rock and even folk-rock – instead scheduling time for forgotten blues masters, Inuit throat singers, and local tubthumpers (Gord, I do not mean to disparage local folksingers by calling them “tub-thumpers,” but it’s kind of what they were. Still, I know that a lot of them are your friends, and I don’t need to piss you off any more than you already are). In 1971, excitement over the event resulted in ticketless fans swimming across the harbour to get to the island, further dissuading organizers from booking big-name talent for fear that the grassroots festival would lose its way. Such was their monastic commitment to a toned-down event that, in 1972, evening performances were cancelled, in keeping with the philosophy established by artistic director Estelle Klein, who, in 1972, was out of the country, holidaying in Greece and taking a break from the festival.
By 1972, the music scene had changed. In Toronto, it had moved from Yorkville’s coffee bar idyll to scabrous Yonge Street, with rock clubs being born every day alongside strip joints, pinball arcades, and gay taverns. These new places catered largely to the younger music fan, blessed by the drinking age in Ontario having been lowered, a year earlier, from twenty-one to eighteen. Also, because of 1971 federal legislation that required radio stations to play 33⅓ per cent Canadian music, the nation’s sonic palette widened and there was room for new bands driven by fuzz-toned guitarists and wild-haired singers who felt empowered after hearing themselves on the radio for the first time. The city’s musical culture moulted. New sounds were being heard everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except at the largest and most stubborn-minded music festival in Canada.
When Mariposa organizers sat down to program the playbill for that year’s festival, they pencilled in Murray McLauchlan and Bruce Cockburn as the de facto headliners. Gord, I’m sure that you would have headlined the festival had you not been suffering through your shittiest year ever. By ’72, you’d stopped touring, and you were dating Cathy Evelyn Smith, the same woman who’d conceived Levon Helm’s love child in the Seahorse Inn on Toronto’s southern Etobicoke lakeshore and who was later charged with murder in the speedball death of John Belushi. You had also suffered the first symptoms of Bell’s palsy during a performance at Massey Hall and, in 1971, had waged a trying battle with Grammy organizers, who demanded that you shorten “If You Could Read My Mind.” Anyway, because of your stasis, the responsibility for headlining the bill fell to two of your Yorkville proteges, both of whom, because of the new CanCon rules, had usurped a musical territory that, before the new law, had been almost exclusively yours. I don’t know if that cheesed you, Gord. I don’t even know whether, because you were lost in a deep fog of booze and drugs and pain, any of this registered. Maybe it did. It’s one of the things I hope to figure out.
Anyway, what happened on that island that weekend was an unexpected confluence of the greatest songwriters of their age, each of them – like yourself – emerging from difficult times. That it happened in my city – in your city, in our city – puts me close to the memory, although I would have been way too young to go there myself. Because it’s one of these great events that hasn’t been written about, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Writers live for this sort of thing: an untold story. The same could be said for you, Gord. It’s been over thirty years since anyone wrote a book about you. It is time. Still, the ideas didn’t end there. After poring over newsprint and microfilm about Mariposa ’72 at the Toronto Reference Library and other places, I found that the story grew and grew. What I learned was that, over the seven days leading up to Mariposa, there occurred some of the era’s most memorable and profound moments in music, politics, sports, and culture, both at home and abroad. What happened from July 10 to July 17 eclipsed any single story, including your own. In Canada, the Canada–Russia hockey teams were announced; the largest jailbreak in Canadian history occurred at Kingston’s Millhaven penitentiary; and, through a combination of forces, Trudeau mania fell fast and hard. The summer of 1972 was also when The Rolling Stones staged one of the most important – and notorious – rock and roll tours ever, in support of their important and notorious album, Exile on Main Street
. As it turns out, they were also in Toronto during the Mariposa weekend, playing two shows at Maple Leaf Gardens. Stevie Wonder opened and filmmaker Robert Frank and writer Truman Capote were in tow. On Sunday in Montreal, their equipment truck was bombed in a loading bay behind the Forum. Some said the separatists were responsible, but no one knows for sure.
World news of that week is also filled with remarkable events large and small, including the beginning of the Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky chess summit and the journey of Pioneer 10 towards Jupiter. The week started with a total eclipse of the sun, and when the bells rang out on the evening of December 31, 1972, they ended the longest twelve months in history – three seconds having been added to international time – and something about music, something about Canada, and something about the world was different than it had been before. Gord, before I started writing, I talked to people who know you. I was given advice on how to handle the situation, which proved to be no advice at all. When I announced my intentions, some folks told me to steer clear. “Whatever you do, don’t park outside his house,” said one person. “The last guy who did this had his car pissed on by him. He’s a grumpy old man. He’ll never talk to you.” Others were more encouraging.
“Gord is a beautiful person,” said Dan Hill. “After Paul [Quarrington] died, he really helped me get through my period of grieving.” Eventually, I was left with two impressions. From what I gathered, you were either a loner or you were everybody’s good time. You were either a tough guy or a sweetheart who could break down at a moment’s notice. You were either a shit-kicking cowboy or an angel; a drunk or a saint. You’d either steal someone’s girlfriend or give him the shirt off your back. You were either Canada’s Townes Van Zandt or a Roger Whittaker wannabe in a plaid shirt. You were either hell on your band or loyal to a fault. You either loved Canada or had tried as hard as you could to get the hell out. Your small-town roots were either the driving force of your art, or the small, airless pepper box in which your life was confined. You were either here – showing up at Leafs games or attending industry banquets – or not here – disappearing to go on long canoe trips, or hiding out in a friend’s apartment in Detroit.
Because you won’t talk to me – I’ve called your record company a bunch of times, written emails, all of that, and still nothing – I decided to write you a letter, which, by now, is kind of obvious. I should also tell you that this book alternates between a letter to you and a description of the events of that week in ’72, leading up to Mariposa and a wild prose crescendo that will leave even the crustiest old critic lachrymose and braying from his knees.
There’s one other thing, Gord. It’s actually a big thing.
You see, in the letter sections, I’ve made stuff up. Some of it might have happened; some of it might not. Because you won’t talk to me, I’m left having to imagine your life. Because I’m a musician, too, I wanted to use all that I’ve seen and heard and done in my own rock and roll life to help piece together your story; to understand how you – a small-town choirboy – ended up creating this country’s most formidable body of song. The lawyers don’t want me to write this book, Gord. They think you will come and find me and drag this book down. My wife doesn’t want me to write it. She doesn’t want our car pissed on. But no artist ever did anything based on whether a lawyer liked their idea or not. Well, maybe some did, but not me.
Still, if you won’t talk to me, Gord, I’m going to talk to you. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first conversation that started without both people listening.
So, okay, Gord.
I’ll start.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Writing Gordon Lightfoot by Dave Bidini. Copyright © 2011 by Dave Bidini. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.