Sunday, February 9, 2014


Any writer who's ever been frustrated by an inaccessible interview subject ought to appreciate the unique and daring workaround Dave Bidini finds in his gonzo biography of Canadian folk balladeer Gordon Lightfoot.

WRITING GORDON LIGHTFOOT has Bidini -- himself a Canadian musician -- writing about Lightfoot by writing to him, in a series of direct and slashingly revealing letters. These are interspersed with chapters detailing Toronto's 1972 Mariposa folk festival in which Lightfoot met Bob Dylan, and other goings-on that week in Canada and in the world (the Fisher-Spassky chess match in Iceland; the largest jailbreak in Canadian history; controversy over Bobby Hull's flight to the WHA; the solar eclipse mentioned in "You're So Vain" etc etc etc). His stuff on the jailbreak and hockey is often hilarious and serves to flesh out a sketch of the cultural landscape of the time.

The heart of the book are the letters, through which we learn that Lightfoot is not just famously private but may or may not be harboring resentment over remarks the writer himself had made in the past. Lightfoot is a huge figure in Canada, basically the first pop star to sing about Canada, but maybe also, a bit of an asshole, particularly in 1972. Telling that story while ostensibly addressing said asshole directly I found to be just astonishingly daring as a writer and one conclusion you could draw is that it takes one to know one. But as said above it's also very funny, and softens a bit as Bidini sort of takes in what he's done. I give it two lightfeet up.

Years ago, driving from Toronto to Montreal and back we tuned in a public-radio station doing a countdown of the most important Canadian songs of all time. As I recall it, Lightfoot's "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" topped the list: I don't know if I'd ever heard it before then. Like many of my classmates in fifth grade, I owned a copy of his "Edmund Fitzgerald" on 45 -- what I didn't understand then was that it was true story, almost to the detail. The one that still gets me today though is "Sundown," a gorgeous song with vicious lyrics detailing a volatile relationship and substance abuse. Also a true story.

1 comment:

  1. We were talking about this review on the way to work today.

    We had a neighbor who lived behind us who knows the whole sordid tale behind "Sundown," how Gordon was bitter about this girl who drove the singer from Little Feat over the edge. She's not crazy, but she can talk about it like it happened yesterday, with real emotion.

    There's a tiny sliver of a generation, for whom this light but insistent subgenre of folk-rock-pop crossover is relevant and visceral.