Gordon Lightfoot: If you could read his mind

Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon these days

Singer Gordon Lightfoot, now 77, makes a long-awaited return to the UK and Ireland. He spoke to Michael McDonagh.

It is hard to believe that it is 35 years since Canada’s greatest songwriter and folk-rock legend Gordon Lightfoot last appeared here.

This incredible man whose classic songs, like Early Morning Rain and If You Could Read My Mind, have been covered by everybody from Elvis Presley to Bob Dylan and by Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Judy Collins, Johnny Mathis, Barbara Streisand, Eric Clapton, The Irish Rovers and the Clancy Brothers among others.

Gordon Lightfoot

Now, at long last, he is touring here, starting in Glasgow next week (May 18) he will play ten dates including concerts at the Royal Albert Hall and in Dublin and Belfast. The first time he actually spoke to me was in 1971.

This time we began by me asking him, at his home in Ontario: “So what kept you?”

He laughed ruefully, and replied: “Gee I don’t know. I always wonder about that, we were just so busy over here and my personal life was complicated. I have just been married for the third time. It was like a roller-coaster, it just didn’t happen in the scheduling and we always wondered if it would work as we are not one of those acts that draw, like 15,000 people and somehow it never happened.

Gordon Lightfoot

“It was probably because if I come I like to bring my band so that means ten of us coming which means a lot of people travelling so maybe that would not work for just one festival.

“I’ve done quite a few (outdoor festivals) through the years. There has been Newport, Mariposa and one at Stanford University that we did, that kind of a situation here. I guess sometimes these activities did not come my way, maybe I was just too commercial.”

Hippy

That time in 1971, the first words he said to me were: “Who is smoking those horse sh*t cigarettes? It was 1966 in the Riverboat Club in Yorkville, the hippy village of Toronto. He was being filmed for the Canadian Centennial documentary MOVIN’ about Canadian National Railways, featuring his classic Canadian Railroad Trilogy.

“My role was to walk in front of him with a fag in my mouth and represent the audience in the club. To appear cool and like a ‘beatnik’ I smoked French Gitanes. Gordon did not approve of their pungent aroma.

Gordon Lightfoot
A much younger Michael McDonagh trying to look like a hip beatnik with Gitanes in 1966

“Its good to re-connect after all that time, oh sure I remember them all. So we are all getting on, I’m 77. That’s why they had you smoking the cigarettes, that was Turkish tobacco. We did some of that film down at the Hump Yards here in Toronto. At the time of the Yorkville scene I had two children so could not stay around much and spent most of my time trying to tune up my twelve-string guitar. There were two sets a night back then so it was hard work.”

I still have that first LP which he signed and gave to me. I asked him if it was true that the Queen is a fan of his Canadian Railroad Trilogy: “Yes. We met once in Ottawa, she said she liked it and just said ‘that song, that song’.”

The last time he and I worked together was when BBC TV producer Stanley Dorfman recorded in 1971 an In Concert special. So I asked him if he remembered it: “Ah yes the Dorfman show, that was good but we are better now than we were then.”

Gordon lived in London in 1963 for the so-called Swinging Sixties: “Oh yes. I was there. It was a time for shopping (but) I never bought much, they were getting into a real fashion thing. There was a lot going on with lots in the shops and I guess it was the British style and the fashion design followed the Beatles’ music, that British style thing.

“I remember being there when they broke, I really do, in 1963 I was living there. The Beatles came on TV with the girl saying ‘I’ll give it five’ and she gave them five too. They came off damn good on that show, I might add.”

Gordon Lightfoot
Clodagh Rodgers

During that time he hosted The Country and Western Show for BBC TV and met Ballymena-born Eurovision singer Clodagh Rodgers and recorded with her: “I wrote two or three songs with Louis, her father, who was her manager and I got to know them quite well. We actually had the studio booked before I had the songs. I was living at 56 Gloucester Road. The Rodgers family lived in Willesden and Frank Rodgers told me the studio was Decca West Hampstead, which was nearby.”

It was an Irish song, of course, that kickstarted Gordon’s stage career: “Oh yes. Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral (an Irish lullaby) I was in grade four so I would have been 10 and that would have been my first recording. I always remember that my High School principal had recording machinery way, way, back then, unbelievable.

“That would have been my first recording back in the 1950s. When Van Morrison later did that song for the Band’s Last Waltz concert (filmed in November 1976 in San Francisco by Martin Scorsese) I was there but did not get up and join him as I had no warning and I was with a group of people.

“I was invited to go there as a guest with the president of my record company and my record producer. I was supposed to be an onlooker. I sure enjoyed that show. My friend Ronnie Hawkins played and he made the front page of the San Francisco papers the next day. I was sitting and drinking with Ronnie Wood, it was fun. Robbie Robertson (of The Band) asked me before the show if I wanted to do it but I was not warmed up and I was with people so it did not happen. Van did great a great job and it was a great show.

Irish influence

I brought up his hit ballad The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald and asked him if that too had an Irish influence: “I think that Irish air came to me when I was three years old, I had forgotten all about it but it kinda snuck up on me. I already had the chord progression for the song but really no melody.

Gordon Lightfoot
Gordon in the 1970s

Of course the instrumental part is completely different, I’m just talking about the first few lines that have a familiar ring to them. Oddly enough some of the first music I listened to was classical music, my parents played some of that and some of that music fell under the category of traditional Irish.

“I was reminded of that by a group of Irishmen in Dublin one night when we were out drinking Guinness, [slips into Irish accent] ‘Do ye know where that song came from?’”

Of touring Ireland he says: “I kissed the Blarney Stone, I got right on my back and kissed it. Sure, I would still like to have a Guinness but I gave up alcohol in 1982.” Given he was actually at the 1960s folk boom in Greenwich Village in New York did he hang around with the Clancy Brothers, who were HUGE?

“Yes I did and I remember I was walking up one night with Red (his guitarist who died in 2008) and we were talking to (LSD ‘guru’) Timothy Leary, remember him? What would you call him? An over the top philosopher.

I recall things like that and going into The Kettle of Fish or The Gaslight. I remember Dylan introducing that song, the one with ‘darkness at the break of noon’ (It’s All Right Ma) it’s the one where he sings, ‘But even the President of the United States sometimes must have to stand naked’. Remember that?” With so many great people singing his songs, has he a favourite cover?

Gordon Lightfoot
The album he signed for Mick back in 1966

“I’ve had good fish in there, its been very good, and I have had some great publishing relationships too. I was with M Witmark & Son and that’s a really good company. I’d hate to leave anyone out but Neil Young has just done Early Morning Rain and Diana Krall and one of our other girls, Sarah McLachlan, have just done a duet of If You Could Read My Mind, it’s just beautiful.”

And there was the 1970 Viola Wills disco version of that song: “Oh that’s the one I loved best. And I am always proud of Elvis doing Early Morning Rain, Charlie McCoy played harmonica on it, that was special.”

Having won countless awards, five Grammy nominations, his face on a postage stamp, and being inducted into the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, what next?

“To get to my next tour. We do about seven of them a year. We have just finished trip number three and our next one, trip number four, is to the UK and Ireland. We are all excited by that, the whole band is excited.”

For tour dates check out Gordan’s website: www.gordonlightfoot.com

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