I used to think of Canada as America Lite, the less problematic but ultimately less interesting version of these here not-so United States. Maybe I had it wrong. Maybe Canada is just America fully evolved, politically and emotionally, without the dysfunction, resentment, and rage. I mean, I know they’ve got their own past and their own problems, but they seem mild in comparison to the seething cauldron of “What the fuck?” we currently live in down here.
No less an authority than Geddy Lee of Rush calls singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot Canada’s “poet laureate” in Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind, the new documentary, which is currently streaming for free for Amazon Prime subscribers (also available for rent). At other points in the film he’s cast as the country’s answer to Bob Dylan. I’m not sure that I, let alone Lightfoot himself, would agree. They’re innately very different artists. Besides, Lightfoot’s music and career speaks for itself. He’s sold millions of records in the U.S and Canada and his songs have been covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to Barbara Streisand to Elvis Presley.
Now 81 years old (80 when it was filmed), If You Could Read My Mind finds Lightfoot looking back on his career with pride, gratitude and regret. It’s fascinating to see how the good looking, brawny, curly haired ’70s celebrity has transformed into a sinewy, straight haired but still pretty good looking old man. “I’ll never write another song like that as long as I live,” he says while watching an old performance of him singing the song “(That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me,” a hit in Waylon Jennings in 1966. He’s ashamed of the sentiment, the broken hearts and broken marriages that inspired it. After another few bars, he says with a chuckle, “OK, I hate this fucking song so let’s move on.”
If You Could Read My Mind jumps around in time, while focusing on Lightfoot’s biggest hits and career highlights. It starts with him cruising his old stomping grounds in Toronto, professing his admiration for the city’s current favorite son Drake. As a young man, he worked a straight bank job before quitting to sing in the chorus of a Canadian country music variety show. Early on, he knew his songwriter was the key to his success. He rejected an early recording contract as part of a duo with singer Terry Whalen where he’d have to split songwriting royalties. “Terry didn’t write any songs so I didn’t wait to have to give Terry 50% of every song that I wrote for the rest of my career,” he says. Good idea.
Lightfoot began playing folk clubs and coffee houses in Toronto’s Yorkville area, hobnobbing with Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens. Other artists were inspired by his songwriting, which “screamed Canada,” according to The Guess Who’s Burton Cummings. Lightfoot says he initially patterned himself on Dylan, trying to merge folk, country and pop with poetic lyrics. The admiration went both ways, with Dylan calling Lightfoot one of his favorite songwriters. The two would later become friends.
Halfway through, we hear about Lightfoot’s early life in a small town in Ontario. Not happy to just play music, he wanted to learn to read and write and compose, later studying music in Hollywood. Seeking new inspiration, he explored alternate guitar tunings and put songs together piece by piece, “First the chord progression, then the melody and then the words.” His fellow musicians and backing band speak with admiration about his abilities as a musician, one who writes his own sheet music and is a perfectionist in the recording studio.
Though Lightfoot’s personal life seems tame by Ozzy Osbourne standards, he speaks plainly about affairs and drinking problems which alternately inspired and derailed him. As his days in the Top 10 became a thing of the past, Lightfoot found solace in the bottle but gave it up in the early ’80s at the urging of his record company. He got fit and slimmed down, becoming an avid canoeist in the Canadian wilderness where he found new inspiration. In 1986, Dylan inducted him into the Candaian Music Hall of Fame.
The film ends with footage of Lightfoot performing live, his voice weaker than in its prime yet still able to muster the same nuance and melody. Like one of his perfectly crafted folk-pop songs, If You Could Read My Mind is enjoyable and interesting, even if it lacks the drama of a more troubled or complicated artist. After this past year, however, I’ve had all the drama I can stand.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.
Where to stream Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind
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