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November 10, 1996

Canada's most famous folk singer still an intense artist
Gordon Lighfoot: The way I feel...
By JEAN SONMOR -- Toronto Sun

"I'm scared." Gord Lightfoot's restless blue eyes flit across his listener's face and settle on some object in the middle distance. He's talking about his concerts next week in Kitchener and then from Nov. 14 to 17 at Massey Hall.

He takes a quick puff of a cigarette before continuing. "I've got four or five brand new tunes (from a new record he's making) and I'm afraid that, rather than arousing a standing ovation, they'll receive a quiet sitting ovation ... The fans will let us know. They never get overzealous. They're brand new songs but if they don't like them they'll just sit there. That's happened many times."

While Lightfoot talks he's busy dumping coffee into an old peculator coffee pot. He's done this before; no need to measure.

Suddenly he turns to his wife Liz who sits quietly across the room. "You know, darling, I think this is the last cigarette."

She smiles and reassures him there are more in the fridge.

"Oh Great!" he says and then explains how he'd love to quit but "I get so nervous sometimes, I have to."

This is one excited Canadian icon.

The revered singer/songwriter who surely by now has enough megahits to feel confident, fidgets in his kitchen, spills the sugar, drinks from two cups of coffee and occasionally forgets what he was about to say.

The air in the large kitchen crackles with intensity. We're at a critical juncture in the artist's life and, as always, Lightfoot takes nothing for granted. The frequent eruptions of laughter are loud and welcome.

He's watching himself give this interview and he keeps up a running commentary on how he's delivering his lines. He talks about the band and the crew being like a sports team bent on winning at the music game. Asked who the opposition is, he answers: "Yourself, you're your own opposition." and then adds ,"He said with great passion."

Talking about scaling back from his annual spring concerts to one every 18 months he explains: "We had to keep the audience guessing. The competition was keen in those days and we thought we were laying it on a little thick."

Then he glances my way and winks, "He says with a great grin of gusto."

Gord Lightfoot will be 58 next Sunday, Nov. 17, but he has more energy and exuberance than anybody in this kitchen and that includes Ivory, his four-month-old Hungarian sheep dog.

Of all the things you might have expected to find in Lightfoot the romantic balladeer, the reformed carouser and womanizer, the father of toddlers, the environmentalist, manic artist was not one of them. Even in appearance the handsome troubadour has changed into a wiry intense presence with deeply etched facial lines, glittering eyes and a sinewy body.

Part of the energy is, of course, the shyness that has dogged him since he was a child with a gifted singing voice and a mother who was convinced he should be heard. He was always caught between his love of music and desire to perform and the inevitable tension a shy kid feels in the spotlight. He's never outgrown it.

Some of his happiest moments in show business, he says, were when he was 20 years old and on Country Hoedown with Gordie Tapp and Tommy Hunter. It didn't matter to him that he had to squaredance as well as sing back-up vocals. "I was so happy in that job. I was very shy. They were all very funny and all I had to do was just watch them."

But there's much more to it than just the tension of shyness. His mind is moving at such a clip that the conversation lurches around unexpected corners and rarely connects in a straight line. Ask about his shyness for example and you find yourself talking about arrogance.

"I've asked myself many times if the shyness is really arrogance. One of my worst fears is that, in my unconscious, I'm one of the most arrogant people who ever lived and I don't even know it. If I am, I'm sorry for every faux pas."

The idea quickly gives way to a discussion of some of the geniuses in the music business like David Foster with whom he wrote Anything for Love. "We worked on it for four days. I learned more in that four days ..."

But whatever he learned of studio process from Foster didn't speed up his own writing. He can spend as much as eight months on one song, he says, painstakingly writing down each part and smoothing it gently so it's easy for his band to play and has an interesting dimension.

He loves the work. "I spend all my spare time writing."

On the new album, due out in early 1997, he'll have a tune called On Yonge Street that took him five months to work out even though the idea bounced into his head instantly one afternoon as he walked downtown.

Like everything else in his life, the songwriting is vastly different from the almost instant songs of his youth like Early Morning Rain which was written in a few hours.

The centre of Lightfoot's new world is a small, exceedingly pretty green-eyed blonde woman named Elizabeth. They've been married for seven years and have two children Miles, 7, and Meredith, 2 1/2.

Elizabeth was a young talent agent's assistant when she met the megastar. "I could see she was beautiful but when I found out she was nice too then I really got interested," says Lightfoot.

Before that, he had been through a number of tempestuous relationships and was telling interviewers that he believed he was better off alone. Before his career was properly launched he married a beautiful Swedish blonde and had two children. But the joys of domesticity couldn't compare to the excitement of the stardom that quickly came his way. Later there were other women, one of whom bore him another child, who is now a teenager. He even had a passionate three-year affair with a Hamilton woman named Cathy Smith. She later went on to Los Angeles and American entertainers. She was convicted in 1985 of giving a fatal drug overdose to John Belushi.

"I was sometimes crazy with jealousy," he once told an interviewer about that relationship.

The history is certainly no more crowded than that of most music stars. But Lightfoot's connections with women all seemed to be fraught with great pain and jealousy, according to Lightfoot's biographer, Maynard Collins. And the feelings he evoked were lasting. Each of the women is quoted in the book saying she still cares about the singer.

Part of the reason for the difficulties seems to have been alcohol which, by the early '80s, had become a problem for Lightfoot. A problem he believed was affecting not only his personal life but his career.

In 1972 as Lightfoot's career was taking off, he was stricken with Bell's Palsy, a troubling facial paralysis. The medications he took to get over that, combined with the alcohol that was a staple of the world he lived in, put him on a self-destructive course that claimed many a musician of his generation.

But not Lightfoot. Inordinately strong willed and determined, he is almost unique in that he managed to stop drinking cold turkey without fancy treatment centres or support groups. All he did was take up a rigorous exercise regimen. That was 1982 and he hasn't looked back. In fact, he's as fanatical as ever about his workouts. He knows for example that he's done 104 sessions so far this year and that he may come close to his record 130.

"One of the main reasons I gave up drinking was that my writing had slowed to a crawl," he says.

He'd always managed to dry out before making a record or going on tour by taking a canoe trip into the wilderness. "In 15 years I went on 10 canoe trips through northern Canada. The longest was 33 days and the shortest was nine days. We didn't finish - we were supposed to stay 45 days but we knew we wouldn't make it. We'd taken too much food and we almost swamped the canoe in Great Slave Lake."

He refers to those trips where they took no alcohol and no firearms as "boot camp," a kind of "psychic masochism" that was good for his music. Sundown, the biggest record he ever made, was done after walking out of the bush and into the studio.

"I won't do that ever again," he says. "The most ungallant thing you can do is leave your wife for three or four weeks and go off into the bush."

Besides he doesn't need to dry out any more or chase away any demons. His life with Liz is exceptionally tranquil and orderly. They live in the same turreted mansion he bought 21 years ago at the height of his bachelorhood and fame. The house still has the ambience of a bachelor's pad with a large pool table in the dining room and dark stuffed furniture.

Toys dominate the family room off the kitchen but even there the look is dark wood and masculinity. This must be one of the few Rosedale mansions that the city's decorators haven't done a number on.

In fact, he endured 10 years of construction as all his neighbors updated and renovated. Some twice. During a couple of periods of bulldozer activity, he had to get up at 3 a.m. so he could work in peace.

"I'm not interested in owning expensive properties" Lightfoot says, explaining about the small cottage they rent on Lake of Bays.

When he bought the Rosedale house, he didn't know Cardinal Carter lived in a virtual palace down the street or that this would become one of the toniest addresses in the city. "You wouldn't believe how much I paid for this 21 years ago," he says with a chuckle.

His approach to life is so modest that for two years he rode the bus and subway to his fitness club. "I felt so guilty. I was working for Dr. David Suzuki trying to save the Stein Valley in B.C. and he asked why I was driving halfway across the city so I could run my butt off at the club. Nobody bothered me (on the TTC) but sometimes I got so lonely I wished they would.

"I love my family. I want to spend my time with them," he says when asked about his current passions.

Where once it was car racing, sailing or even saving the environment, now the focus is much narrower: A quiet Rosedale street between two ravines and the downtown Cambridge Club where he exercises.

He doesn't take exotic vacations or tour in Europe. When someone proposed a 28-city Russian tour he reacted with horror. "I don't think I could do that," he says. "They tell me Duke Ellington did 32 cities. He's a better man than I am. I love Canada. I want to stay here.

"I'm like an artist who wants to keep on painting and to do that, to keep performing, I have to keep writing new material. I'm trying to grow with my audience."

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