GORDON LIGHTFOOT at Massey Hall (178 Victoria), Wednesday to Saturday (November 14 to 17), 8 pm. $45-$85. RTH, TM. See listing.
Gordon Lightfoot has always been dichotomous. For example, the staple of AM radio in the 70s and 80s tends to write lyrics that contrast sharply with his warm voice and mellifluous guitars, like Sundown's menacing "You better take care" chorus or his depiction of Lake Superior never giving up its dead in The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.
Despite chart-topping pop success and being covered by an array of musicians - from Bob Dylan and Elvis Presley to Scott Walker and Mary Margaret O'Hara - he's still often categorized as a folksinger. And while the first 20 years of his performing life were whisky-soaked and turbulent, he has always maintained an intense work ethic, including playing annual multi-night concerts at Massey Hall.
It's easy to feel comfortable with the Orillia-born-and-raised singer who turns 74 on November 17. Dressed in jeans and a sweater and sitting on a couch in the foyer of his Bridle Path home, he's relaxed, and his dark eyes glint whenever something strikes him as funny.
He speaks candidly, revealing his legendary perfectionism when he says, "I do not have a tuning crew. I do not have extra guitars standing offstage, because I like to tune my own instruments."
But while he takes pride in having a tight, perfectly tuned band, he speaks of songwriting the way any worker would speak of being on the job.
"After a while it became more structured because it had to," Lightfoot says. "I began relying on ideas that I'd perhaps worked on earlier but hadn't worked out, so I'd take them to fulfilment. Remember, I was always under contract. I was under contract to record companies for 33 years, and I had a band and two families by then and, boy, I had to do it.
"I'd be writing the next one when another was out. It was tough. Alcohol helped a lot. Sometimes I smoked a little. That helped a bit. Sometimes took a few bennies. But mostly, fulfill the contract, pay the bills, get the work done and try and make it nice. Try and make it nice and know that at least part of what you're doing is going to be good enough for you to get up and sing in front of a crowd."
Many of Lightfoot's songs have become Canadian institutions: If You Could Read My Mind, The Circle Is Small, Cotton Jenny, among others. They've endured, though at the time Lightfoot was striving for chart success.
"I knew it with Sundown. I knew that song was going to be a hit when I wrote it."
Released in 1974, Sundown went to #1 on the Billboard chart and was a worldwide success. Although a fair amount has been written about the woman and events that inspired it, when asked about it Lightfoot offers a less specific but still revealing explanation.
"It's about unrequited love," he says. "I've been there several times now. I've had a turnover in romance. I've been lucky that way and I've suffered the consequences. It's the emotional trauma, the emotional stress that relationships cause. I remember times when I would be so emotionally overwrought about a relationship that I was afraid to go onstage."
Romantic entanglements and the Irish coffee he says fuelled him during that time were a volatile combination.
"Heading toward the end of the 70s, early 80s, I started to do irrational things. I got into a confrontation with a fan in the Dominion Theatre in London and walked offstage. The news made it back to head office in Los Angeles, to Mo Ostin, the president of Reprise Records.
"At the same time that my relationship with my fourth child's mother broke up, I stopped drinking. It all happened at once, in 1982. Warner Brothers renewed my contract to record four more albums right then. There was a question whether they should."
In the past, Lightfoot had turned to substances to help him fulfill his contracts, but after 1982 he did it sober, and, in 2002, while enduring an abdominal hemorrhage that left him in a coma.
"I made those four more albums, plus one more [2004's Harmony] during the illness. I had some guitar and vocal demos sitting in reserve. Maybe 18 songs. Don't ask me about the eight I didn't use. They probably wound up in the garbage."