When I was a teenager I worked at Burger King. Every Saturday myself and a buddy of mine would close the place down and for a good year straight we would bring in a boombox and play this CD. Gord’s music isn’t really in my wheelhouse normally; I don’t listen to much like Lightfoot, but I love his music anyway. Maybe there was a bit of irony in us listening to this stuff at first but even after a year of playing it week in and week out I don’t think we ever got sick of it (the managers, on the other hand…well, one liked it, and I suspect the others found it either terrible or depressing). Lightfoot really had it all on these songs – the voice, the technique, the lyrics, and the melodies, everything so ridiculously spot on. What a talent this guy was; I can say without a doubt that this disc changed my life. Looking back at the tracklisting I don’t have too much memory of the songs after “Race Among the Ruins”, as we were usually finished closing by then.
As it turns out, I was lucky to discover it in the first place. I think sometime in 2002 or 2003 there was a hidden camera show imported from the UK called Trigger Happy TV that I really liked. I thought the music on it was pretty ace, particularly one sad little piece that would play during the suicidal street-artist sketches. I found it stuck in my head over and over and one day I took to the old ‘net to find out what it was. The answer was “If You Could Read My Mind” by Gordon Lightfoot and without Youtube or a connection faster than 56K I just had to take their word for it. I bought Complete Greatest Hits and skipped to track 7, but was disappointed to find that this wasn’t the song from the TV show. What happened was when Comedy Central brought the original series over, they either couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the licensing fee for the soundtrack, and thus hired a group of studio musicians to do instrumental “sound-alikes” of all the tunes that appeared in the show. So the song that I really liked was in fact something that probably isn’t available anywhere; from memory I can recall it had a trumpet and these sweeping strings which made it sound more grandiose than “If You Could Read My Mind”.
Still, it was difficult to be too disappointed. For one it had “Sundown” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, two songs that I liked but had no clue of the origins of. The former was played on the BK satellite radio all the time in the dining area so I heard it repeatedly. I assumed it was something way more modern. I also searched in vain for “Into the Light” by Billy Joel – not a real song but just what I assumed back then “Steppin’ Out” by Joe Jackson was. Trouble is, it was just quiet enough out there that you couldn’t make out the lyrics.
I don’t listen to this anymore these days, as I’ve amassed all his albums one way or another. He was popular enough that you can get most of his albums on vinyl for a buck or two, and his first four albums are available on The United Artists Collection, which you can buy for $10. They’re the kind of albums where there’s a story behind each song, as not only does Gordon have a way with words but he seems like the kind of guy who’s seen some shit. It’s worth noting that his first solo album, titled Lightfoot!, was released in 1966, when Gord was 27 years old – nearly the same age I am now. That’s fairly old to be beginning a singer/songwriter career in the 60’s without any prior success, but that level of maturity is paramount to his work. If you analyze his early hits – “Early Mornin’ Rain”, about drifting around, being blackout drunk, “For Lovin’ Me”, chastising the women expecting him to stick around, or “Go-Go Round”, the story of a groupie having her heart shattered – clearly the man has made some bad decisions. Thus the continuing themes of regret and remembrance; there’s little sweetness in any of his songs. There’s another side to Lightfoot that’s a bit more educational – he has two songs about shipwrecks, but of course “Edmund Fitzgerald” is the big one, six-and-a-half minutes long but still a radio staple, despite the fact that its very nature makes it impossible to edit. “Canadian Railroad Trilogy” is heard much less often, but I sometimes think it’s the greatest folk song ever written; it’s like an epic in itself, speeding up and slowing down much like the trains themselves, until it hits a peak a buddy of mine has called “maximum Gord overdrive”. Both of these songs are economical; despite their lengths, they read like novels. They do in six minutes what would take a documentary an entire hour, and are much more entertaining besides.
Gord’s work has also meant a lot to me personally. I’ve had two friends who also liked his music a lot. The guy from Burger King is someone I haven’t seen in a decade; the other died suddenly and unexpectedly a few months ago. So a song like “Race Among the Ruins”, with that line: “When you wake up to the promise of your dream world comin’ true/with one less friend to call on, was it someone that I knew?” – that really means something to me. Both myself and my friend from BK pursued our lives and I think we both pretty much succeeded, but who knows what he’s up to now. My other friend never got that chance.
I do still listen to his music regularly – it’s been my go-to when I’m feeling down. After my friend died I listened to it non-stop and it all took on a new life. I don’t know why being sad makes you want to listen to sad music but it just seems to work. It’s hard to pick one particular album that I like – when compiling a “Top 50” list I chose Sit Down, Young Stranger because I think it’s song-for-song the best, but it’s tough to talk about Lightfoot in terms of albums, as he’s not really much of an album guy. Compilations are fine, and for that I think the more Gord the better, so I would recommend the 88-track Songbook over Complete Greatest Hits, but even with 88 songs it misses some that I would consider essential (“The Watchman’s Out”). As mentioned above, you can probably get all his albums up to Summertime Dream for about twenty bucks and if you ask me they’re all gems in their own right. After that I think his work began to get a little saturated and overproduced; compare the 1978 version of “The Circle is Small” that appears here versus the original and you can see what I mean. I’m glad that he found success but I think too much of it probably affected his songwriting negatively. You picture Gordon more as travelling troubadour, hopping trains and getting blackout drunk on bad whiskey more than the type of person that fame and success would allow him to become. This is not to say he didn’t produce some great songs later on in his career and I’m guessing that his later albums could use a few more spins by yours truly. But he didn’t quite have those prickly edges that made his decade-long run so appealing nor were the songs as good, and I don’t think he really had a hit after “Edmund Fitzgerald”, though the liner notes here indicate that a few later songs did in fact wind up charting.
So why this album, why now? I was in a coffee shop/sandwich place and they were playing it; and hearing the songs in that order brought back a whole lot of memories. It’s strange how hearing songs in a particular sequence can bring back something as specific as say, the pattern of the plastic trays that held the Whopper buns. Well, we did put the boombox on those trays, so maybe it’s not that strange. I bought a pound of coffee on the way out and told the owner I liked his choice of music, which prompted a long rant about how Lightfoot was some kind of underappreciated genius and how he ought to be viewed on the same level as Dylan and Springsteen and all that. Hey, no arguments here, though I don’t know if “underappreciated” is the word I’d use for a guy who, according to this set, charted at least 20 songs. But not a lot of people see him on that level, particularly not anyone my age. Maybe he just never had that classic album – he’s got like 10 great ones, but none of them are much more than just a bunch of really great folk songs in a row.
With that in mind – I’m not usually one to recommend a compilation, but if you don’t want to track down an actual album (does anyone even see them outside of the $1 section in the record store these days?) and always wanted to own “Edmund Fitzgerald” anyway, this is a pretty good purchase. I took a flyer on it thinking I might’ve liked only one song (and that song wasn’t even on it) and wound up with something that’s stuck with me for over a decade.