In Gratitude for Gordon Lightfoot
Note: I wrote the following piece a few years back as a syndicated offering for publications for senior citizens. With Gordon Lightfoot’s death yesterday, I’d like to share my thoughts with readers of A Napper’s Companion. I don’t believe that this appreciation has appeared on the blog, but with over 300 posts and counting, I’m not about to check.
“Wrinkles here and there seem unimportant compared to the Gestalt of the whole person I have become . . . . Somewhere in The Poet and the Donkey Andy speaks for me when he says, ‘Do not deprive me of my age. I have earned it.’” (Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton)
As Gordon Lightfoot sings “If You Could Read My Mind,” I’m tearing up. The Canadian troubadour wrote the song in 1969, but this performance is from 2014. The years have been rough on Gord. In 2002 he suffered a ruptured abdominal aortic aneurism and spent six weeks in a coma. He followed this trauma up with a stroke in 2006 that paralyzed two fingers on his right hand. There’s more, but you get the idea.
So it’s a sinewy Lightfoot I’m appreciating on the YouTube platform. His hair is longer than it was in his prime. He is plenty wrinkled—happens to the best of us. Most of all, his voice is raspy, hardly any oomph left. Some folks find idols playing their songs of yesteryear depressing. Not me. I’ll take old performers over their younger versions any day. Art boils down to matters of taste. Still, only a fool would argue that Lightfoot’s smooth baritone of decades past isn’t superior to his breathless efforts at present. Sentimental soul that I am, though, I’m not necessarily moved by technical mastery. Sometimes the stories that accompany music hit notes the years can’t hope to silence.
To continue giving concerts these days, Lightfoot works out faithfully when not on the road. Actually, an accident in the gym in 2019 led to an interruption in one of his tours. There’s no staff on the bass or treble clef for the idea that an artist would train his body to coax out the stamina to extend a career, but I can hear such love for his craft just the same.
I can also pick up minor differences in well-loved lyrics. If you listen to old versions of “If You Could Read My Mind,” you’ll hear, “If you read between the lines you’ll see that I’m just trying understand the feelings that ‘you’ lack.” Today he changes that last “you” to “we.” Why? In this song about a failing marriage, Lightfoot’s daughter commented long ago that he must have lacked feelings, too, and he yielded to her wisdom. That tiny revision, whether rendered in a silky or husky tone, adds authentic heartbreak to an already sad song. It’s as if the singer’s offspring harmonizes for one honest note.
So give me the now 82-year-old golden Gord over his smooth-skinned predecessor. And while we’re at it, I’ll take the 75-year-old Don McLean over his 1971 version. The unavoidable fact is, the great one who gave us “American Pie” and “Vincent” (a.k.a. “Starry Starry Night”) has puffed out cheeks and a torso as generous as mine. More to the point, his throat strains to keep the notes true. Just as Lightfoot rasps, McLean slides off key and occasionally begins a phrase with a clunker. There’s simply no evading these observations.
Ah, but what’s a singer to do when his soul still has more to share, though his present vintage may be an acquired taste? McLean makes brilliant moves, and I’ve made the acquisition. In performing “Vincent,” for example, he slows way down and turns each warble into what British scholar Jeremy Begbie calls a “passing note”–that is, making a mistake work for you rather than against you. For this American icon, when a word in the lyrics won’t hold steady, he compounds the sin with some vibrato. Or maybe he’ll let a measure trail off into a quiet moan. The artist turns his flaws into mortal grace—amazing!
McLean isn’t trying to fool anybody. No, he’s doing something much more profound and artistically vulnerable. He’s inviting us to travel with him, to consider that his singing may have actually ripened with age. Voices don’t last forever, and neither do we. “So let’s keep on listening,” he seems to say, “as the melody wrinkles, fades and finally goes silent.”
The last thing I’d want to do is deprive Gordon Lightfoot and Don McLean of their age. They’ve earned it. What’s more, if we can receive their talent—and that of others who do their best work as they near the horizon—we can be nourished and taught by their earnings, which have nothing to do with money. We needed them years back, and we need them just as much now.
“We needed them years back, and we need them just as much now.” How true. I’ve been listening to Gordon Lightfoot day and night, since I heard the sad news.
John, I’m having a difficult day with the loss of Gordon Lightfoot. He brings back, of all things, my father’s form of musical influence on me. Thanks for writing about him.
Hi, Loretta. Yes, I’m noticing with aging that saying goodbye to people and things I hold dear seems like a daily occurrence. Alas. Hope you and the gang down south are well.
“We needed them years back, and we need them just as much now.” How true. I’ve been listening to Gordon Lightfoot ever since I heard the sad news.
Yeah, I did a bit of listening myself yesterday. Part of the sting for me is this: the world is plenty sad right now, and Gordon Lightfoot’s music had a warmth about it and the man himself became more endearing to me with the passing of years. I hope all is well with you and your writing. John
the story of his changing “you” to “we” is wonderful. that “you” always stuck in my throat when i used to sing it to myself a lot after my own long partnership shattered long ago. his songs should never have been so widely popular, by which i mean it’s almost amazing that they were, given their depth. and he was unique; you couldn’t mistake him for anyone else ever.