Lighthearted Gordon talks about the past, present and future in exclusive interview
By Eric J. Greenberg
June 15, 1999
"Hi, Eric, I was just about to call you."
It was the familiar voice of Gordon Lightfoot on the other end of the phone line.
And with classic Lightfoot graciousness, here he was apologizing to me for keeping me waiting a few minutes for our recently scheduled chat.
In my 20 plus years of writing about him, whether in magazine articles or newspaper reviews, I've always found Gordon Lightfoot to be gracious and open, no matter what craziness may be going on behind the scenes. Whether it be in Buffalo, Baltimore, Virginia, or Toronto - especially Toronto - Gordon has extended kindness, friendship and down to earth hospitality that is not often seen in an entertainment business that is more than ever about hype, money and power.
Once, at a party in his home celebrating the end of another successful Massey Hall run, Lightfoot, at the embarrassed request of an overwhelmed guest, dug up some old memorabilia and shared it with a few select guests, to their everlasting delight.
On this occasion, the release of the 4-CD box set "Songbook", Lightfoot sounds in good spirits. He is sitting in Toronto in his soon-to-be ex-home, looking forward to the big move to a swankier part of his beloved city, with wife and children in tow.
He's between dates, having just finished several shows in Michigan and Georgia, and getting ready for the California gigs - where the idea for Songbook was hatched by Rhino's Thane Tierney almost exactly a year before.
We chatted about some personal stuff and then got into it. Here's some of how it went down.
EG: I'd like to know your reaction to the disco version of If You Could Read My Mind. How did it come about?
GL: "It just happened. They did call for a license and we said 'sure'. I gave the go-ahead. They sent me about 40 minutes on a demo tape with several different versions (he laughs). They really worked on it."
"I was very happy about that. It gave us a shot in the arm."
EG: Let's talk about the boxed set. How does it feel to have your work, 35 years of your career, compiled in such a way on 4 CDs?
GL: "When I first heard about it I had a few trepidations about it. They wanted to get into the unpublished stuff. My feeling has always been that we made a decision at that time not use a certain piece of material; and I always said if its not good enough then it would not be on the album. (But) in reviewing it I took a more lighthearted approach."
"They had already gone to the archives at Warner Brothers. They asked me what I could uncover here (at his home and office) and I did. They presented me with a tentative list of choices and gave me a chance to listen to my entire catalog. The entire thing took about five days. I made notes, scribbled down things. The only comment I had was it was pretty representative and that a lot of thought went into it."
(About Rhino executive and Songbook co-producer Thane)
GL: "We must have been on the telephone 30 or 40 times with Thane Tierney."
"I had stuff stored here at the office. And I had stuff in a storage company. I found three (lost tapes) out there. "Always On The Bright Side" "Why Should I Feel Blue" and another one I can't remember. They were on quarter inch reel to reel tape."
EG: You said you hadn't listened to some of your early material in many years. What was your reaction to it today?
GL: "It was a good thing to do. It gave me a chance to get through this stuff. I got into it over a five-day stretch. It's the first time I ever listened (to the entire catalog) in order right through. While I was doing that I was writing stuff down, taking notes. It sounded okay. I would have taken off the original Canadian Railroad Trilogy (from the box set) because we've done much better later on. (But) it was a first attempt and it still came out pretty good."
(About the first release of "Forgive me Lord")
GL: "We got a really good take on it, and I figured I'd slide it in now."
EG: What was the hardest thing for you in putting the collection together? There are so many wonderful songs.
GL: "I'd like it to have been more ethereal. I'd have gone a little bit deeper into it (the catalog). (He mentions "She's Not The Same".) I always loved it and I found a place for it on the album."
EG: One song not represented is Echoes of Heroes, which I've read someone call a turning point in your songwriting. Why wasn't it included?
GL: "I don't believe I'll ever be interested in putting that one out. I wrote much better protest songs. I wouldn't put that out."
EG: Going over your career have you rethought who your biggest influences are. We know you love Dylan. Still? Who else?
GL: "Of course Dylan. Maybe Tim Hardin. I always liked him. There's also Kristofferson. Even Bob Neuwirth. Rambling Jack Elliott, Bob Gibson, Ian Tyson."
EG: You've written songs in every style. folk, pop, country, and had success in all of them. How do you decide what genre a song will be in? Is there any style easier to write in for you?
GL: "I still like to write country tunes (which) lends itself to the Travis style of playing."
(Regarding how to decide which style to write in)
GL: "It just happens. I like good medium tempos. I like the songs to move along."
EG: You haven't written a topical ballad in a while like Black Day In July or Wreck. Any reason why?
GL: "Black Day in July was written in 1967- 68 during the first Tet offensive. A lot of protest songs came out of that period and I wrote a few myself. It was something a lot of people were doing back then, like Phil Ochs."
EG: Has your songwriting routine and process changed at all from the 1970s and 80s compared to A Painter Passing Through?
GL: "Family life causes you to plan your schedule more carefully. (He laughs) I'm 60 years old now; I don't crank them out the way I used to do it, son. It takes a lot longer. I find it really helps about hundred times a year to get up 3, 4 or 5 AM to get away from the noise. Once I get moved and get my own space together, I will have the time to write some more."
EG: Many people say that you have made a significant contribution to popular music, and many artists have been influenced by you: Dylan, Jimmy Buffet and Dan Fogelberg. What do you think has been your contribution to the world of songwriting?
GL: "I think the most important thing I've done, is to do the song about the ship, about the Fitzgerald. It means so much to so many people. Even the Woody Guthrie line I used, 'It's been good to know ya.' I'd be the first to admit it, that I borrowed it from him. I'm just so happy it means so much to so many people."
EG: With regards to Dylan, last year you sang his Ring Them Bells in concert and the same week he sang I'm Not Supposed To Care. Both of you paid tribute to the other. Did you plan that?
GL: "It's accidental. None of it is planned."
EG: Dylan's been touring with colleagues in recent years, like this summer with Paul Simon. Any chance of seeing a Dylan/Lightfoot tour?
GL: "It's possible with Dylan. They want to team people up. Sure, we're thinking about doing that next summer. I don't know if it will be Dylan, but I can tell you one thing for sure. I can let him close." (laughs)
EG: Do you use the Internet for songwriting at all?
GL: "No, I haven't got a machine here (at home)."
"I know that people are getting us help." (apparently referring to Lightfoot web sites.)
EG: Any plans to put out the four albums left on CDs?
GL: "(Thane's) mentioned he would like to put them out, perhaps next year. He wants to put out a rarities collection also. We're doing one project at a time. They want to put all the rarities together at one point. It's not a bad listen at all. In a couple of years" (he expects to address it.)
EG: What have you learned now at 60 about approaching your music?
GL: "You gotta realize its fun. It's got to be fun to a certain degree."
Eric J. Greenberg is an award-winning newspaper reporter in New York City who can't decide on his favorite Lightfoot moment.
This interview is copyrighted by Eric J. Greenberg and Valerie L. Shainin. Any publication or reproduction is strictly prohibited unless permission is obtained from the copyright holders.
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