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Gordon Lightfoot on ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ Documentary, Live Stream Concert 12/18 and the Long Road He’s Traveled (The Interview)
“Well, I don’t really like to remember,” legendary songwriter Gordon Lightfoot confesses at the outset of our conversation, and it hangs in the air for a bit, mostly owing to Lightfoot’s irascible reputation.
Lightfoot, the a Canadian singer-songwriter credited with helping to define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 70s, achieved international success in the 1970s with massive hits like “Early Morning Rain,” “Sundown” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” among many others, part of a remarkable catalog that was inescapable on mid-70s AM radio and ranks high on streaming services and FM and satellite radio playlists to this day.
A recent documentary, If You Could Read My Mind, is an excellent primer into the ups and downs of Lightfoot’s remarkable career, but also, like his early-2020 release Solo, serves as a reminder of how important the man Bob Dylan ranks as one of the greatest songwriters of all time truly is.
With the COVID-19 pandemic sidelining Lightfoot’s touring plans for 2020, he was excited to tell Rock Cellar readers that he’ll be back treading the boards on December 18th, from Toronto’s legendary El Mocambo Theater, via a full-band streaming concert, and he’s got tentative live dates already planned for 2021.
In this rare interview, Lightfoot recalls the making of the documentary, the long road he’s traveled and even what it takes to write a hit song.
Rock Cellar: Let’s talk about the documentary. You don’t seem to be the kind of guy who’s nostalgic, or one for looking back. How did they cajole you into making a documentary?
Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah, I’m not. It was planned many years ago by the same people who eventually did it, and then one day recently, we thought about it, and realized, “Hey, I’m still walking around, so let’s get on with the documentary!”
Rock Cellar: And were you a willing subject? Many artists are not really people who look back much at what they’ve done. They’re more for looking forward. Was it hard for you to reflect and do those interviews, or did you enjoy it?
Gordon Lightfoot: No, but it was lovely, done by a company here in Toronto, Insight Productions, so it was quite convenient for me to do interviews and have people here at the house. My wife and I entertained quite a number of people here back in the day, back before the pox came over us all. In fact, we were pretty close to the line. We were having households of people here in December and January. So we were right on the cusp of it. We actually did our last nine shows in the States in February. The last nine shows that we were able to do.
Rock Cellar: You were lucky to get out of the U.S. alive! [Laughter]
Gordon Lightfoot: Well, I wasn’t so much worried about that, I was worried about having to stop. So we’re waiting. We’re all on a waiting list. In our hearts. I’m well taken care of. I’ve got myself covered, pretty much. So we’re just waiting for things to open up.
But back to the original question, do I mind looking back? Yes, I did. In fact, I was really kind of embarrassed, actually, by the way it started, and I know that there’s the great sequence in there of Johnny Cash, but it involved a song I really hated and I wish I’d never written, because it was such a defiant type of approach to male chauvinism before I even knew what male chauvinism was.
Rock Cellar: You’re referring to the song “For Lovin’ Me.” [Sample lyric: That’s what you get for lovin’ me/I ain’t the kind to hang around/with any new love that I found/’cause movin’ is my stock in trade/I’m movin’ on/I won’t think of you when I’m gone].
Gordon Lightfoot: Exactly. Terrible. But then I analyzed the song and I realized, you know, it could be the girl talking to the guy. It’s one of those songs that can go both ways.
Rock Cellar: Well, this is the great thing about your songs. They’re malleable, aren’t they?
Gordon Lightfoot: Indeed! The wording of the song allows a woman to say it to a man without changing anything, if you really think about it. So that pleased me, but still, I didn’t like to see it placed that right at the beginning of the film. It was embarrassing and my remarks right at the beginning were somewhat off-color. They showed it to me and I said, “Jeez, I certainly don’t like this very much.”
But it all materialized smoothly, and one thing after another, I believe eventually we had about 25 titles in that production, so that made up for it. [Laughter]
Rock Cellar: It’s interesting, you bring up how songs can evolve after they’re out in the public consciousness. I grew up in the seventies with AM radio, and your songs were everywhere. They were as ubiquitous as anybody’s songs were. And so, I wonder, does your relationship with your songs, many of which have become embedded in our DNA, change over time? Do you sometimes hate performing “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” or “Sundown?” Or do you find new ways to get inside them, like you were saying earlier?
Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah. I agree with what you just said. You find a new way. There’s a different way of going at it every time. I’ve often thought about it that way. I have several songs that you would think I would get — that I had to be tired of playing, but the opposite is true. First of all, they’re all songs that are easy to play and they’ve got a good forward motion to them, like “Early Morning Rain” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald’ or “Sundown” or “If You Could Read My Mind” or “Rainy Day People.” They have a way of expressing themselves each time, and that expression is automatic.
Rock Cellar: But you’re making it sound as though it’s just inertia, because they do have a rolling nature to them, but I’m wondering …
Gordon Lightfoot: Forward motion, I call it.
Rock Cellar: Sure. But it’s the songwriting, too.
Gordon Lightfoot: Forward momentum. That’s what it is. I think that’s what those songs have, a forward momentum, no matter whether it has a beat or it’s a ballad. It has to have forward momentum.
Rock Cellar: Were you conscious of that when you were writing them? Are you looking for that?
Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah. Already I was wondering, “Are we going to be able to do this one onstage?” Every time I’m be doing an album, I’ll write about 14 or 15 songs written, and I know I’m going to cut that down to 10. That’s a rule of thumb. And keep the rest maybe for later, for an album further down the line, maybe even the next album. And finding that combination, listening to each and every song and saying, “Which of these 15 songs can we get up and play with confidence in front of an audience?”
You start picking them out, and I really picked one big time with the song “Sundown,” I’ll tell you. I even named my album after that, I was so sure about it.
Rock Cellar: Marc Meyers, one of the writers from the Wall Street Journal, spoke to you and a load of other people about “Sundown,” and dissected it, and the story of the song.
Gordon Lightfoot: He wanted to get me into the biography around at that one.
Rock Cellar: Yeah. And I wonder, did you have any qualms about putting that out there?
Gordon Lightfoot: Well, nobody ever knew what I was talking about anyway. I didn’t even know what I was talking about. It could have been the girl I was living with at the time. It could’ve been about her. Our relationship was just about on the rocks at that time. We were both very young and ready to branch out again for the second or third time each, and we were on the verge of breaking up.
So it was right at the edge of something like that that a song like that would come out, in thinking about her, and her new adventures in the big wide world.
Rock Cellar: You’re a great songwriter and I want to talk to you about songwriting, but you’re a great singer. You deliver those songs so perfectly. Because I’ve heard many, many covers of your songs, and I always go back to the originals because there’s something about your delivery of them that speaks to me more profoundly. There are great covers, of course, but your delivery always has something a little bit special. So over time, when you’re doing “Sundown” again, or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” or something, do you have a trick for getting inside that song the way you do and making it like it’s the first time you’ve sung it?
Gordon Lightfoot: Well, with “Sundown,” for instance, it’s also a very different chord that helps with that. It’s a chord that I play in that has a fifth; an E-shaped chord with a fifth in place of the third, which is what gives it its sound. I have to talk in terms of shapes when it comes to chords. So I call it an E-shape. And that’s what gave that song its sound.
I’ve written actually three or four or five tunes using that same combination, with the fifth in place of the third in the E chord. It’s an easy one to play, actually. It’s really quite unique but easy to figure out. It’s one of those ones a songwriter will discover that will open certain creative doors, I think, like it did for me. But it’s a very simple formula for what makes what’s thought of as a “hit record.” It’s a great song, a great arrangement, and a great vocal.
Rock Cellar: Oh, that simple? [Laughter]
Gordon Lightfoot: Yeah, that’s it. So that’s what you’re always looking for. And the vocal, of course, it has to carry the melody. I learned early on from some publishing people I met when I had gotten out of high school that the lyric should marry with the melody. There should be a marriage between the melody and the lyric.
Rock Cellar: When you had that long string of hits there in the late sixties and seventies, there was a lot of competition. There were a lot of people doing what you were doing. Did that inspire you? Did that friendly rivalry inspire what you were doing?
Gordon Lightfoot: But most of the writers were writing about unrequited love. I don’t do very much. “For Lovin’ Me,” the one that Johnny Cash and I did the duet on for his television show — the one that so darn chauvinistic I stopped doing it — made me actually make a deal with myself that I wouldn’t write anything that brutal ever again, and so, I never did. But I’ve got my own unrequited love songs. But with an un-chauvinistic sort of an approach.
Rock Cellar: But you were writing songs that were very different from everybody else. Did what Joni Mitchell was doing, or Neil Young or Bob Dylan or any of these people inspire you?
Gordon Lightfoot: Oh, yeah. I knew them all, too. They’re all great people. I still talk to Joni. So sure, sure it did. And who we listened to, too. I remember several people like Ramblin’ Jack Elliot would inspire me to go on and write a song. Bobby Neuwirth, Bob Dylan’s old road manager, inspired me go and do a song. Just from listening to what they were doing. Jerry Jeff Walker, who just passed away recently. I know I was influenced by him, from “Mr. Bojangles,” really.
I told him about that one time. He also let me use his jacket once for an album jacket shoot, by the way. That’s Jerry Jeff Walker’s jacket on the cover of Gord’s Gold. But I had Randy Newman write some of the arrangements for my albums, Nick DeCaro, too. I was lucky. I got involved with some really good musicians when I was recording out in L.A. That was all done through the record company and the producers, because they knew who the people were to get, but they all wanted to work with me, which was great.
Rock Cellar: But that’s a little bit humble. You were Gordon Lightfoot and at that time, I’m sure these guys wanted to work with you too.
Gordon Lightfoot: Oh, they had the songs. The songs were good. So they had something to work with, anyhow.
Rock Cellar: And how do you approach things differently when you’re doing someone else’s song? Do you approach it the same as when you’re doing one of your own in the studio, or do you have a different way of approaching it to get inside it?
Gordon Lightfoot: I approach them probably with a little more vigor. Like with “Me and Bobby McGee” or the one that I do by Ian Tyson, “Red Velvet,” that’s a real good one that works really well on stage.
It’s about a cowboy having to give up his sweetheart, because she wants to move back into town since winter’s approaching. But the one I really liked doing and still love is a Vince Matthews song called “Susan’s Floor.” If I’m going to mention Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, I’ll do his tune “Diamond Joe!” But the one I really loved is by Bob Dylan, “Ring Them Bells.” I so a faithful version of “Ring Them Bells” by Bob Dylan and it’s one of the best tunes in my repertoire.
Whenever I want to mention Bob, I always do that song, from Oh Mercy. That was when he went through his enlightenment experience. I knew him. We had the same manager for a bit.
Rock Cellar: Yeah, talk about Albert Grossman a bit. I’m interested that you had a period with Albert Grossman managing you. How was that?
Gordon Lightfoot: Well, he was the grand poohbah of managers during the folk revival. And the folk revival was a short thing, because it only lasted probably for three or four years, though it carried right through the sixties and a lot of people had hit records, which I did. So I was into it by 1961, listening to all the music, because it started for me with the Kingston Trio. They were the first ones to do a really great version of “Early Morning Rain,” one of my tunes. Even before Peter, Paul and Mary, who Albert also managed, and eventually, Elvis Presley did it.
Rock Cellar: Talk a little bit about Elvis covering a song you’ve written. What does that feel like as a songwriter? You had to be a fan of Elvis. What was it like when that guy was interpreting your words?
Gordon Lightfoot: Well, I’ll never forget that moment. I was driving down from my hometown to Toronto, and all of a sudden, there was Elvis Presley playing “Early Morning Rain” out of the car radio. I really appreciated that a great deal, and I was supposed to meet him in Buffalo, but I just missed him. They had to get out of there. I was supposed to meet him after the show, but they had to leave. My timing was off.
But as for hearing that song for the first time, I’ve never forgot even what mileage I was at on the highway when I first heard it! And I liked it. I loved it. They were doing such a great job of it. It was just such a super thrill to get something done by him, because he was like, one of the big guys the 20th century in popular music, closely followed by the Beatles and then Bob Dylan third.
Rock Cellar: Well, Bob would take issue with that but, yeah. And what about when you’re driving in your car and you hear an artist covering one of your songs and you don’t like it?
Gordon Lightfoot: I never criticize anyone covering one of my songs. It’s not my business to criticize.
Rock Cellar: So you just appreciate them covering your work.
Gordon Lightfoot: Absolutely. Really. Totally. Totally honored.
Rock Cellar: You said you’re waiting for the lockdown to lift, essentially. What do you have planned? Do you think you’re going to record more or are you going to go back out on the road?
Gordon Lightfoot: I had an album, a solo album, that came out in March. I liked it a lot. So we are waiting right now for things to open somewhere. In the meantime, we’re rehearsing in a recording studio here in Toronto by the name of Canterbury Studio, and in that recording studio we can distance ourselves — and bring our face masks, and our disinfectants — and we just were in there for two days just this past week. We ran through 35 tunes.
We’re going to do a stream on the 18th of December. We’re going to do an 85-minute show from the El Mocambo in Toronto, which is pretty legendary and also a newly reconditioned place, with great lights and a great sound system. I checked it out. And so we’ll have a wonderful show there for the fans. I’m going to do my best stuff.
April 9, 2021
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