By Dave Babbitt – Special to the Sydenham Current
I have mentioned before that I am not taken by the concept of celebrity. The fact that someone is particularly good at what they do, whether they are a sports figure, musician, actor, etc., does not allow me to hold them in higher esteem than the great people I get to rub elbows with on a daily basis.
However, I cannot let the passing of Gordon Lightfoot go unmentioned, as he was not just important to me, but also to our entire nation.
I believe that there are two categories of people: those who are Gordon Lightfoot fans and those who will be but just don’t know it yet.
Was he a flawed human being? Absolutely, just like me. He was married three times, admitted his unfaithfulness, wrote a few nasty songs about love gone wrong (take THAT, Taylor Swift. You did not originate the craft!), and struggled with alcoholism. But he certainly mellowed as he aged and owned up to his poor choices.
However, I can separate that from Gordon Lightfoot the musician. My teen years were in the seventies when Gordon’s career really took off, and I have been a fan ever since.
I have been an avid concert-goer for many years, and I have been to more Gordon Lightfoot concerts than any other. When news of his passing spread on the evening of May 1st, I felt the world got a little smaller.
Gordon was never flashy. I wouldn’t call him the greatest entertainer I have ever seen, he wasn’t a guitar shredder, and he never unleashed his band to dazzle the crowd. But at the same time, I have never attended concerts that have transported me more, spoke to me more, were more enjoyable, or could soothe away the problems of daily life better than Gordon Lightfoot’s.
While I have heard some say that they don’t like attending concerts that are note-for-note reproductions of studio albums, Gordon’s concerts were exactly that: faithful reproductions of his studio work because he could. He was extremely faithful to his backing band and paid them a retainer salary even when he wasn’t touring, providing a consistent sound year after year after year.
The band always knew exactly where they belonged in the mix and filled the holes perfectly.
I will forever recall the first time I saw Gordon in concert, which was in his concert “home,” Toronto’s Massey Hall. It was the antithesis of most modern-day concerts. The incredibly gentle sound level forced me to listen carefully, the audience was still, and no one made a sound except for the applause at the end of every song. He held the audience in the palm of his hand for the entire evening.
It is well-known to fans that he would always arrive early at each venue and reportedly spent a couple of hours tuning his guitars. Yes, I said hours. He was that fussy.
Gordon has been hailed far and wide as one of the finest songwriters and storytellers, but why would anyone listen to me? It is when one’s peers sing their praises that a statement like that becomes more meaningful. Find the quotes of artists such as Neil Young, John Prine, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan, and you will get a sense of how his skills were revered.
In terms of songwriting, his lyrics were often deep yet accessible. His guitar playing was always exquisite, and his voice was as soothing and unique as a snowflake.
As Canadians, we are so used to hearing hit songs that mention famous places around the world. Hearing Gordon Lightfoot sing about Canadian places such as Christian Island, being Alberta Bound, building the trans-Canada railway, or singing about winter endeared us to him.
Gordon became a revered international star, but he did it without leaving Canada like so many of our artists have done.
Among the flood of tributes that have been popping up on YouTube, I think that everyone should take the time to watch the one by Rick Beato. It will make you a prouder Canadian.
Gordon was still touring into his 80s and was, in fact, due to tour again this year at the age of 84. When word got out that his 2023 tour dates had been canceled, my friend Wayne and I were suspicious that something serious was wrong with his health. Unfortunately, that was the case. Gordon had cheated death before but couldn’t do it one more time.
Since his passing, I have dug out all my Gordon Lightfoot CDs that were in storage (who listens to CDs anymore?) and have been binge-listening to his work again. How could anyone ever tire of “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Sundown,” the “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” “Song for a Winter’s Night,” or “Don Quixote”? The list goes on and on.
And what man doesn’t think of his wife whenever they hear the song “Beautiful”?
In watching video clips and reading about Gordon, he gave credit to Ian and Sylvia for his career and said that he looked at the late Ian Tyson as a father figure. Coincidentally, with Ian Tyson’s recent passing, I had the idea to pay tribute to him at our upcoming Wallaceburg Concert Band concert on May 27th. This will be good, so don’t miss it!
Unfortunately, we don’t have time to pay tribute to Gordon Lightfoot at this concert, and I’m not sure a concert band can do justice to his music, but I’ll start the search. Maybe I’ll have to try my hand at arranging something down the line.
RIP Gordon. At least we still have your recordings.