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