It recently came to my attention that I’m supposed to be ashamed of my deep love for Gordon Lightfoot. If loving Gordon Lightfoot is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.
But loving Gordon Lightfoot isn’t wrong, not by a damn sight. In fact, a deep and abiding love for the man is just one quality I share with Vincent Gallo, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Waylon Jennings, Steve Earle, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bob Dylan. Dylan, of course, once famously remarked, “I can't think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don't like. Every time I hear a song of his, it's like I wish it would last forever.”
Indeed. “High and Dry,” “10 Degrees and Getting Colder” and “Beautiful” are just three of Lightfoot’s tracks that I’ve spent days or even weeks binge-listening to on repeat, because I wished they would last forever.
Lightfoot often gets lumped in with “sensitive” singer-songwriters of the 1970s like James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg or pre-Footloose Kenny Loggins. A better comparison is Jim Croce, who carries the same cross, despite being outstanding in similar ways to Lightfoot (quality songwriting, dark lyrics and one hell of a set of pipes). An even better comparison is Dylan or Jennings. Lightfoot might just occupy the perfect middle ground between the hippie-hating folkie-turned-rocker and the thrice-married dark poet of outlaw country.
So if you’ve never listened to Lightfoot — or never really, really listened to him at any rate — allow me to make the argument.
First and foremost, the man is an incredible songwriter, straddling the boundary between country and folk music. He retains the spareness of folk, but Lightfoot’s folk has a decided countrified twang about it, which is not surprising given his roots in the middle of nowhere in Ontario. With little more than his rich baritone and a guitar, he’s been able to craft timeless classic tracks covered by the likes of Elvis and Waylon, Cash and Dylan. So either they’re clueless and know nothing about music or Lightfoot is a certified genius.
Perhaps most impressively, the height of Lightfoot’s career, both commercially and artistically, coincided with an attack of Bell’s palsy that left half of his face paralyzed.
Into dark lyrics? I sure as hell am. “If You Could Read My Mind” deserves the Steely Dan Award for Dark Lyrics Your Mom Cluelessly Sings Along With at the Supermarket. “Ten Degrees and Getting Colder” is the best song ever written about a man freezing to death on the side of the highway after a woman ruins his life. “Carefree Highway” begins with the decidedly non-carefree line, “Picking up the pieces of my sweet, shattered dreams.” “Sundown” is just what the doctor ordered when you’re feeling down about wanting someone who treats you like shit. If you have a bad mood, Gordon Lightfoot has a song for you.
Curiously, despite working in such a traditional idiom, Lightfoot was an undeniably forward-thinking musician. He was one of the first musicians of any guitar-based genre to start incorporating electronic elements into his music. But he does this so seamlessly that it’s hard to even notice, such as on “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” His 1980 effort Dream Street Rose was one of the first digitally recorded albums ever.
It’s cool that he was an innovator, but that’s not what has me hooked on Lightfoot. I love a musician who can tell a moving story in three or four minutes. If he can do that with nothing but his voice and a guitar, all the better. Lightfoot was able to write evocative portraits of lovers, losers and lushes (or, in his words, “the ramblin’, the lovin’, girls and gamblin’”) that never seem trite, cliched or boring.
So next time you’re down at Amoeba, head over to the country and folk bins. You can get Lightfoot records for a dollar or two and you’ll get your money’s worth, I guarantee it. Few things go better with a half-finished bottle of bourbon than Lightfoot!, Sundown, Don Quixote or Summer Side of Life.
Go ahead. Gamble the dollar. You won’t regret it.