Gordon Lightfoot Reflects on Life, Love and Musical Inspiration
"I've simply never wanted to retire," Lightfoot said, as he prepared to release his 21st studio album. Photo: Bryan Adams
I’m driving up Toronto’s Bayview Avenue on a winter’s night in early January. I turn into the Bridle Path neighbourhood, an ultra-posh enclave known as Millionaire’s Row.
I slow down opposite rapper Drake’s monster palace, complete with indoor basketball court, and turn toward the stately home of Gordon Lightfoot. It’s a route I know well. As Lightfoot’s biographer, I’ve travelled there many times, off and on, over a 12-year period.
Much has transpired since my book, Lightfoot, was published in 2017. For one thing, Lightfoot has reached the age of 81. For another, he was the subject of a major documentary, Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, in which he discussed his storied career and timeless songs alongside fans like Geddy Lee, Anne Murray and Alec Baldwin. Plus, he’d become a great-grandfather. He’s already the father of six children (by four mothers) and grandfather to another five. Think of him as Papa Lightfoot, the last of the troubadours, the grand old man of Canadian song.
As I head up the winding driveway, I wonder what awaits. It’s a new year and new decade. What will be the latest chapter in the singer-songwriter’s tale, and will the notoriously reticent artist be more forthcoming? I park out front. There’s plenty of room because Lightfoot keeps his 2001 Chevy Monte Carlo in the garage around back. I walk across lightly fallen snow and ring his doorbell. Already something’s different. A weathered lawn chair is folded up and set to one side. On previous visits, Lightfoot would often be sitting in that chair, smoking a cigarette, even in the dead of winter.
The door opens, and Lightfoot’s wife, Kim, greets me enthusiastically. She leads me to the music room off the large, marbled-tiled foyer. This is Lightfoot’s lair, a dark, wood-panelled room full of Martin and Gibson guitars, Fender and Traynor amps, vintage cassette recorders and shelves full of tapes and notebooks containing the set lists of concerts going back decades. “Have a seat,” Lightfoot tells me. “Let’s get down to business.”
I’m there, in part, to learn more about Solo, Lightfoot’s 21st studio album and his first since the 2004’s Harmony. Solo is a collection made up entirely of songs that date back to the early 2000s. Lightfoot found the recordings last year while moving out of his Early Morning Productions office on Yonge Street. What’s remarkable about the album’s 10 tracks is their stark intimacy, both lyrically and musically.
I’m also here to gather fresh insights into the composer of classics such as “Sundown,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “If You Could Read My Mind” and the man Bob Dylan once called a mentor. “Tell me something surprising, Gord,” I say right off the bat. He stands up, still spry at 81, lean as a whippet, and begins thumbing through a Webster’s dictionary. Finding the word he’s looking for, he spells it out and reads the definition: “H-E-M-A-T-O-M-A — a local tumour or swelling filled with an effusion of blood between the muscle and the epidermis.” I knew all about it. Last July, Lightfoot injured his left leg on a piece of exercise equipment at the Toronto fitness centre he’s been going to religiously since he quit drinking in 1982. The swelling was so bad he needed surgery. Lightfoot was forced to cancel tour dates, something he hated doing.
But I didn’t know that Lightfoot is anemic and, perhaps as a result, the hematoma still hasn’t fully healed. Lightfoot is wearing shorts that reveal his bandaged leg, and he wants to tell me all about the wound in graphic detail. “It was a weeper, a real weeper,” he exclaims almost gleefully, insisting I look at two photos, before and after surgery, something I cannot un-see. Lightfoot may be a legendary artist, with songs covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Barbra Streisand, but he’s just like the rest of us when it comes to sharing health dramas.
Lightfoot rhymes off his other ailments, including “dry vasomotor rhinitis,” a chronic inflammation of the sinuses. It affects his singing voice, and he needs nasal spray to perform. He has had two brushes with death — one real, the other a hoax. In September 2002, he had severe stomach pains right before a concert in his hometown of Orillia, Ont. His sister, Beverley, found him lying on the floor of his dressing room in agony. He had to be airlifted to Hamilton, where he had a tracheotomy and emergency surgery for a ruptured aortic artery. He spent six weeks in a coma and had four operations over several months. But Lightfoot, miraculously, bounced back. Just two years later, he released Harmony and slowly returned to performing. Then in 2006, he suffered a transient stroke that affected his ability to fingerpick, but he “pressed on” and fully recovered.
The hoax came four years later, when a false report of his death went viral. Lightfoot heard the news on the radio on the way to his dentist and called in to quash it. Ever since, he’s joked in concert that, like Mark Twain, reports of his death have been greatly exaggerated.
On top of all this, Lightfoot has emphysema. He has always been a heavy smoker — he started when he was 15 and singing in barbershop quartets — but had his last cigarette in late 2018. What motivated him was surprising. It wasn’t his emphysema (which his mother, Jessica, also a heavy smoker, died from in 1998) but a pact he made with his youngest son, Miles. Miles bailed, but Lightfoot stuck it out — proof of his ironclad will and his steely resolve to survive. It also explains the folded lawn chair on the porch. “I haven’t quit smoking everything,” he explains with a grin, noting his taste for legal cannabis, “although I may switch to edibles.”
All the talk of health brings us to Kim, his 59-year-old third wife, whom he met in 2008 at a concert in Orlando, Fla. He married the background actor from Mason City, Iowa, on Dec. 19, 2014, at Toronto’s Rosedale United Church, where Lightfoot sings at the Christmas Eve service.
“Kim’s a very helpful and good person in so many ways,” he says. “She travels with me on tour. She looks after me, and that means my family doesn’t have to do it — they should consider themselves lucky! She goes to the pharmacy, looks after my medications, goes with me to all appointments and would rather sleep on the hospital floor than leave me there — and you can print that!”
Journalists have always found Lightfoot tight-lipped about his personal life. Interviews are a minefield, and he navigates them assiduously, careful not to step on any potentially explosive topic. With me, he even used the words “powder keg,” to explain why he suddenly closed the door on further talk about the women in his life, including his previous wife, Elizabeth. And he worries that if he says too much about any of them — his first wife, Brita, his tumultuous affair with Cathy Smith or his common-law marriage to Cathy Coonley — the words will “come back to haunt me.”
Speaking of haunting, one of Lightfoot’s most famous songs, the 1970 hit “If You Could Read My Mind,” covered by everyone from Liza Minnelli to Neil Young, was written amid his dissolving six-year marriage to Brita, who died in 2005. “It was a kind of unrequited love song, partly due to love’s roller-coaster,” Lightfoot has explained. “Marriages that don’t succeed — I guess it relates to that.” When pressed, he recognizes his affairs are the reason the marriage failed. It’s why he no longer performs his earliest hit, 1965’s “For Lovin’ Me,” with its boast: “I’ve got a hundred more (women) like you, I’ll have a thousand ’fore I’m through.” “That,” Lightfoot previously told me, “was chauvinistic.”
Lightfoot had no shortage of affairs during his heyday, and his wild ways were fuelled by drugs and booze, sometimes a bottle of Canadian Club a day. His 1974 chart topper “Sundown” was a taut tale of jealousy, written during his time with Smith, a beautiful and notorious flirt and sometime backup singer who later served prison time for injecting John Belushi with a fatal dose of heroin and cocaine. But Lightfoot dramatically changed his ways and now often speaks of being in a state of “repentance.” Along with no longer singing “For Lovin’ Me,” he rewrote the words to “If You Could Read My Mind” at the insistence of his daughter Ingrid. Now when he performs the classic song, he sings “the feelings that we lack” rather than “the feelings that you lack,” acknowledging that marriage is a two-way street.
Part of Lightfoot’s repentance involves making time for his kids, whom he says he neglected when his career was a constant cycle of writing, recording, touring, partying, sailing and then canoeing, drying out and getting fit for the next round of writing, recording and touring. Today, his complex schedule would benefit from a flow chart, mapping out where and when he sees his large, extended family. His two eldest children, Fred, 56, and Ingrid, 54, from his first marriage to Brita, are in the Toronto area, and each have two kids of their own. Lightfoot’s nine-month-old great-grandson, Adam, comes from Ingrid’s daughter Amber. His sons, Eric, 38, from his common-law marriage to Coonley, and Galen, 44, are out on the West Coast, but Lightfoot stays in close touch. Galen’s mother was a waitress at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, with whom Lightfoot had an affair in the ’70s.
Meanwhile, Miles, 30, lives in Thornhill, while his sister, 25-year-old Meredith, who goes by their mother Elizabeth’s maiden name of Moon, has moved about while pursuing her musical ambitions as a singer-banjoist. Lightfoot and Elizabeth separated in 2003, shortly after his near-fatal aneurysm, and divorced eight years later. About his children, Lightfoot says: “We visit back and forth. They come to me or I go to them. If we’re not doing that, then we speak on the telephone. A bit of emailing goes on between Kim and a couple of the kids because I don’t use computers.” (Lightfoot doesn’t have a cellphone either.)
Has Lightfoot been able to maintain good relations with his ex-wife? “Well, I handle that as best I can but I’m really not going to touch on that subject,” he replies, not wanting to upset Kim. It’s clear from everything I’ve witnessed that Kim and Lightfoot have a good marriage. Nonetheless, Lightfoot doesn’t say too much else about her in our interview to dodge a possible “commotion” with Elizabeth. There’s that minefield again.
Our attention shifts to Solo. For the first time in Lightfoot’s nearly 60-year recording career, there’s no accompaniment on the album — just his unvarnished voice and ringing acoustic guitar. Never has he sounded so raw and vulnerable. By turns wistful and whimsical, the songs are soul-baring, full of candid reflections on life and love, taking stock of his past. At one point, Lightfoot considered calling the album Bare Tracks, while his four-year-old granddaughter, Lennox, suggested Bare Ass Naked. Naked, indeed.
The album opens with the nostalgic “Oh So Sweet,” a steady, fingerpicked number that looks back on good times amid regrets about “things said and done.” The gently strummed “E-Motion” finds Lightfoot confessing to being a “king-sized fool,” while on the bluesy “Dreamdrift,” he’s “still as crazy as I always have been.” There are philosophical ruminations on “Return Into Dust” and “The Laughter We Seek,” and “Just a Little Bit” is a humorous litany of routine chores and surroundings, including the CN Tower. There are several up-tempo numbers Lightfoot quaintly calls “toe-tappers” and romantic ones he describes as “lovey-dovey.”
I ask what happened to “It Doesn’t Really Matter” and “24 Hour Blues,” two newer songs he played me several years ago that don’t appear on Solo. Lightfoot, ever the perfectionist, says the former “simply wasn’t good enough” to include, while the latter “bit the dust” because it had a line that he worried might offend one of his doctors — I kid you not. I change gears and ask if Lightfoot can give an example of the good times with a past lover that he hints at on “Oh So Sweet.” “Oh jeez,” he groans, “I don’t want to do that! People get mad at you when they read about your past, and you don’t want to cause some kind of confrontation. I try and tell them it’s poetic licence, but that doesn’t work with Kim. She believes I’m relating back to a former relationship and gets offended.” Kim later texts me, admitting that while she finds it hard listening to her husband’s songs about other women, she has come to realize she must share him. “No one can have all of Gordon — we each have our unique love story with him.”
It’s the songwriter’s curse, I tell Lightfoot. Couldn’t a lover in one of your songs be a composite of different women, I ask, and the narrative be set in a mix of times and places? “Yes, indeed!” Lightfoot replies, excitedly. “That’s poetic licence!” The man with the long, lanky hair sitting across from me suddenly goes quiet. He is staring down at his hands. I notice the long, slender fingers and finely manicured nails, essential for fingerpicking, the liver spots that dot the back of his hands and a rubber wristband from Stagecoach, the California country music festival he played in 2018. Reading his mood, I decide to lighten the conversation.
Knowing that Lightfoot has been friends with Dylan going back to 1965 when they shared a manager in Albert Grossman, I ask if he’s seen Martin Scorsese’s 2019 film about the Rolling Thunder Revue, Dylan’s celebrated travelling circus tour with musical friends that featured Lightfoot when it stopped in Toronto. He hasn’t watched it yet. I tell him there’s a scene with Dylan, Joni Mitchell and ex-Byrd Roger McGuinn jamming on the second floor of Lightfoot’s Rosedale mansion, where the Rolling Thunder entourage had a wild party after one of the shows. You can spot Lightfoot in the background, trying to stay out of the eye of the camera. “Yeah, they were all there at the house,” Lightfoot recalls. “Bob’s road manager, Bob Neuwirth, came over in advance to ask if they could come by for drinks. I said sure and called my sister, Beverley, and other family members to see if they’d help out. I got Ingrid and Cathy Coonley involved. They were all there, all the cast, Ronnie Hawkins and even Allen Ginsberg. It was quite a gathering.” Typical Lightfoot understatement. The party was pure rock ’n’ roll bacchanal. “Yeah, I should see the film,” says Lightfoot, “I’m told I’d like it.”
Lightfoot’s a movie buff (his favourite film is 1984’s Amadeus, about the rivalry between composers Mozart and Salieri), so I ask if he’s seen Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, which is set in 1969 at the time of the Manson murders. I thought Lightfoot would be interested. “I’ve watched half of it,” he says. “I don’t even like to think about how I was in the Hollywood Hills that night.” Lightfoot was staying at his friend Jack Nicholson’s guesthouse on Mulholland Drive, in bed with Helena Kallianiotes, the striking belly dancer and actress who’d appeared in the Monkees’ experimental movie Head, which Nicholson wrote and produced. They awoke the next morning to learn the grisly murders had taken place just a couple of blocks away.
Despite his extraordinary journey and success, Lightfoot remains refreshingly unaffected. While ambitious and competitive about his career, he’s down to earth and humble and laser-focused on touring with his band members, some of whom he’s been with longer than any of his wives. He’s a creature of habit and doesn’t like change or surprises. Loyalty and hard work are just two of the small-town values he inherited from his dad, who ran Orillia’s laundry service. Lightfoot has had the same booking agent (Bernie Fiedler), barber (Sandy Bozzo) and bass player (Rick Haynes) since the 1960s. He’s a details-oriented guy, constantly making lists of tasks and tour plans. After performing an astonishing 78 shows in 2018 and 43 last year, he and his band (Haynes, drummer Barry Keane, keyboardist Michael Heffernan and guitarist Carter Lancaster) have some 50 dates booked to the end of 2020.
Having dodged death and overcome medical crises, not to mention outlasting most of his musical contemporaries by sticking to his tried-and-true folk sound, Lightfoot may be pop’s ultimate survivor. How long will he keep going? “To quote my friend Bob Dylan,” he replies, “‘Work while the day lasts because the night will come when you can no longer work.’ I’ve simply never wanted to retire.”
It’s getting late, and I know that Lightfoot, a fitness freak, turns in early to be at the gym every day before 10, so I finish by asking whether he’s learning to like himself more. “I guess I’m doing okay,” he says, “but I always think I could do better. I don’t think I try hard enough with my kids. I’m still trying to make up for the way I treated their mothers.
“Have I learned anything?” Light-foot continues. “Yeah, I’ve learned to control my emotional self better when arguments occur. Anger can kill you — kill you right where you’re standing — with a stroke. I try to listen when I talk with people, try to get them talking about themselves. But with wives and mates … I sometimes find it hard to get my point across.”
Finally, I ask about personal demons and whether he’s been able to make peace with his life. Lightfoot takes a deep breath and sighs. “God, I don’t know.” Then he adds, in a voice that’s barely above a whisper: “I don’t actually know if I’ve made peace with anything.”
A version of this article appeared in the March/April 2020 issue with the headline, “Just Like a Paperback Novel,” p. 40-48.