Wire from the Bunker: Gordon Lightfoot RIP
I was pretty late in terms of appreciating Gordon Lightfoot’s music so I suppose it makes some sort of sense that I am tardily acknowledging his passing back in May of this year. See, as a misguided youth, I had fallen deep deep under the sway of Mssrs Costello, Strummer, and Parker and, somehow, thought that Lightfoot was a wimp undeserving of my pretend punkish attention. Reading Lester Bangs’ “James Taylor Marked For Death” piece in Cream certainly didn’t help: I associated Lightfoot with the same socal Lenny Waronker string laden productions that characterized and arguably sunk so much of 70s singer-songwriter fare, including that of ole Sweet Baby James.
Sure, I worshipped Dylan but he was a different kind of singer-songwriter. There was a certain edge to his voice and songs that set him apart. This is probably apocryphal but legend has it that at a party in London in 1978, Sid Vicious called Dylan “Bob Dildo” to his face and then pulled a knife on him. Dylan – apparently quite the boxing gym rat – put up his dukes and easily backed the Pistol down. You get my point.
But, boy, was I wrong about Lightfoot! I should have known better as Bob himself had covered him and once said of his Canadian counterpart’s songs that, when he listened to them, his overriding wish was that they would go on forever. High praise. But the truth is that I didn’t get Gord until sometime in the nineties and I really owe it to two sources who were hitting me really hard at the time: Tony Rice and Go To Blazes who I’ve written about at length here https://phawker.com/2021/02/10/wire-from-the-bunker-tony-rice-rip/ and here https://phawker.com/2020/06/10/wire-from-the-bunker-meet-go-to-blazes/. See below for a taste of the Rice and GTB covers that set me straight.
In any case, once I got into the ‘foot, I got deep into him (as I do). There was a great used record store in Ardmore called Plastic Fantastic and, in a matter of months, I procured almost the entire Lightfoot catalogue. I was soon checking out Gord at the old Valley Forge Music Fair. Even on that silly spinning stage, he was undeniable: tough and sweet at the same time, a rare combination. Later, I saw Gord at the Keswick and, by that time, his impossibly deep sound was somewhat diminished. Still, when they announced before the show that there were free tickets to an upcoming Lightfoot performance in AC taped beneath several seats in the auditorium, I nearly knocked over a geriatric as I checked under several neighboring seats. Alas, I didn’t find the prize but my enthusiasm was genuine.
I am delighted to announce that GTB’s guitarist, Tom Heyman, will be joining John Train at our final Fall Happy Hour this coming Friday. Tom’s new album 24th Street Blues is a doozy and he himself has called it Maximum Lightfoot.
So to celebrate Tom’s appearance and in acknowledgement of the great Gordon Lightfoot, I offer up the following >>>
Early Morning Rain: Gord’s signature tune – well, one of them! – which Dylan himself recorded. To be sure, it was included on the Columbia revenge collection (titled simply “Dylan”) – you know, the one with the psychedelic Milton Glaser painting on the front --that was issued when Bob defected to David Geffen’s Asylum label (that only lasted for two records tho). Early Morning Rain has got to be in there with Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind or Ian Tyson’s Four Strong Winds. Its wondrous melody delivered with Gord’s signature 12-string strum and deep burr of a voice may even surpass Bob and Ian’s early work. Astonishing stuff. And check out those flared jeans that Gord was rockin’ back then.
Sundown: John Train has been playing this one much to our “crowd’s” delight for many years. “Sundown you better take care // if I find you’ve been creeping ‘round my back stairs.” No shit, Gord! I can’t believe I thought this guy was a wuss: he’s the ultimate badass. By the way, I’d recommend the Sundown lp as a great place to start in terms of Lightfoot’s 70s output. The man really never made a duff record but Sundown’s collection of songs is one of his best.
Cold on the Shoulder: Performed by Tony Rice. I went through a heavy bluegrass thing in the 90s and Tony Rice was my main man.
He actually did an entire album of Lightfoot covers and a pretty good argument can be made that he was Gord’s finest interpreter – Gord himself apparently thought so. Lightfoot’s songs are so strong that they lend themselves to almost any interpretation but there does seem to be something special when bluegrassers dig into his catalogue. It’s hard to believe that four of these players – all legends – are now gone: Rice himself, legendary fiddler Vassar Clements, the inimitable John Hartford, and bassman extraordinaire Roy Huskey, Jr. Thank goodness Jerry Douglas – Slo-Mo’s hero – is still kicking around. Check out his solo on this performance. Lord have mercy!
The Watchman’s Gone: One of the coolest things about Go To Blazes was their great taste in covers and their ability to make them their own. Their “… and other Crimes” album (recently reissued on vinyl) may just be my favorite thing they did: cut live in the studio direct to two-track, it’s a loose, rocking affair that delivers on every count: songs and performance alike. Their take on Gord’s Watchman is respectful but also kicks the stakes up a bit, largely based on singer Ted Warren’s high keening vocal as well as Joe Flood’s fiddle providing the goop that holds the whole thing together.
For Loving Me: One of Gord’s earliest compositions, I understand that in later years he declined to perform it based on what some perceived to be its misogynist sentiment. Probably true. Well, the boys in Blazes don’t seem especially concerned with that here. If Lightfoot’s delivery sounded arch, GTB sounds unhinged … in a good way!
Anyway, that’s what you get for listening to me prattle on. Rest in Peace, Gordon.
Upcoming Wires: Jimmy Buffett (RIP), Lee Clayton (RIP), and Tom Russell (alive).