Gordon Lightfoot biography methodically recounts a life spent hard at work

Author and journalist Nicholas Jennings offers a well-researched but conventional textbook account of the Canadian folk superstar's career


LIGHTFOOT by Nicholas Jennings (Viking Canada), 336 pages, $36. Rating: NNN


Telling the story of a performer who for much of his life did not want his story told can’t be easy.

Although Canadian musician, composer and, yes, superstar Gordon Lightfoot has been making music since the 60s and granting interviews during that time, the 78-year-old has always been shy when it comes to revealing too much, preferring to let his music be the window into his world.

But in the last few years, there’s been a softening Canadian author and journalist Nicholas Jennings was invited into Lightfoot’s home and given a great deal of access to the troubadour’s history. The result is an extremely well-researched but staid account of a life spent hard at work.

In keeping with Lightfoot’s tendency to stay out of the spotlight – except when onstage – this book delves into the musician’s romantic and family relationships and alcohol abuse in a measured, detailed manner – and is better for it. This is not the debauched mythologizing found in Mötley Crüe’s The Dirt so much a paean to Lightfoot’s Protestant work ethic.

Pages are spent discussing his songwriting, unwavering loyalty, perfectionism and selfless generosity to the people and causes close to his heart. To read this book is to come away with a greater understanding of how a young choirboy from Orillia became one of Canada’s most revered songwriters and performers, and beloved among music fans around the world and across genres.

Lightfoot proceeds chronologically after an introduction recounting the nights Bob Dylan brought his Rolling Thunder Review to Toronto in 1975. The intro says a great deal about both songwriters and their relationship as artists and competitors. The chronology, from a sketch of the town of Lightfoot’s birth to his triumphant return to the UK after a 35-year absence, is a strength if you’re using this biography like a textbook to learn what happened in a given year.

But this structure is also the book’s greatest weakness.

For one, Jennings doesn’t really give us an overarching narrative. Themes of nature, love and lust, family, and shyness come up, but rather than create a through line, each chapter reads more like a self-contained article.

Lightfoot’s bandmates, family members and business associates are frequently reintroduced. At under 300 pages (minus the notes, discography and bibliography), the reader likely won’t forget these oft-quoted key players in the subject’s life from one chapter to the next, and it feels like this should have been corrected during editing.

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Lightfoot by Nicholas Jennings

Jennings also raises some interesting points – Lightfoot’s influence on younger musicians, the importance of nature to his lyrics and well-being, how his pragmatic approach to songwriting is as far removed from any romantic ideas of the muse as you can get – that deserve further exploration.

Even the story of Lightfoot’s relationship with the families of the men killed in the Edmund Fitzgerald shipwreck of 1975 – the inspiration for one of his best-known songs – could be given more space if not told within the confines of chronology.

Jennings’s description of how Lightfoot rewrote The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald’s lyrics when he learned new facts that proved no human was at fault for the tragedy is one of the book’s most resonant moments and shows Lightfoot’s dedication not just to these families, but to truth and honour.

There are some revelatory moments, including the time he took an axe to piles of reissued early recordings rather than have anyone else buy them and think he was making old-fashioned music.

And it’s striking to see how much a man once seen as the strong, silent, masculine type has grown: when his daughter Ingrid brought up how macho he sounded on one of his earliest, biggest hits, For Lovin’ Me, he stopped playing it, recognizing that “it’s as chauvinistic as hell.”

But rather than anecdotes about his trips to the health club in the Sheraton Centre or the number of concerts he played in a given year (which would be better suited to the appendices), more light could have been shed on his need for control, and his ability to change with the times and stand up for his beliefs.

Jennings wrote the liner notes for Lightfoot’s 1999 retrospective box set, Songbook, and he cites that as the origin of this book. The painstaking attention to certain details (the colour and material of Lightfoot’s canoe, the name of his favourite Toronto restaurant, the location of various buildings) likely speaks to the care taken to produce context for such a bounty of songs.

Unfortunately, within a biography – especially one that will likely be the definitive work about Lightfoot – these facts would have been more pleasurable to read outside a constraining chronology.

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