Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Loyalty, Mastery, Mystery: Nicholas Jennings’s Lightfoot

Gordon Lightfoot in 1976.

I was eager to read Nicholas Jennings’s Lightfoot (Viking; 328 pp.), the first biography of the Canadian singer-songwriter, for what are probably typical reasons. I’ve loved Gordon Lightfoot’s music, much of it, for most of my life; and we tend to want to know more about people who impress us, especially if a certain mystery attaches to them and to the sources of their achievement. Lightfoot has never been self-revealing in obvious ways, in either his lyrics or (to the degree that one has even registered them) his public statements. His best music transfixes partly because it comes across as effortless, contented, and fully formed, with no show of raw nerves or violent ambivalence à la Dylan or Lennon. Placid yet strong, it maintains just the right emotional distance. Surely Lightfoot’s unique gift is driven by at least a few tangible, knowable secrets; surely having a sense of the man will only deepen the music. But having read the Jennings book, I question whether Gordon Lightfoot’s art – his in particular – can benefit in any way from a biographical context. I wonder if even a better book than this would likewise cut against what makes his music alluring. And I suspect that there’s a reason we’ve been able to love that music so well for so long while knowing so little about the man who made it.  

The very best to be said for Lightfoot is that it preserves some of that mystery, in spite of its reason for existing. Though it has plenty of facts, some of them personal and painful, the book doesn’t feel very revealing. It’s clear that Jennings, a Toronto music journalist and author of two previous histories of Canadian music, understands his job in specific terms: he wants to write a biography that will be approved by its subject – who, after all, has afforded him many hours of interview access, along with entrée to family members and associates. (The typographical tactic of putting Lightfoot’s quotes in italicized blocks, separate from the main text, emphasizes the sense of servitude.) It isn’t for Jennings to express personal opinions about Lightfoot’s work – none that go against consensus, at any rate. His job is to dutifully chronicle his subject, making mostly appreciative remarks along the way. The importance of personal loyalty to Lightfoot is frequently noted, and Jennings seeks to uphold that value.

But the entailments of loyalty are antithetical to the literary demands of biography. In any life story of an artist, there must be some free agency, wild hair, third rail of perception that belongs to the author alone – some hunch as to the artist’s inner life and outer projection that would surprise, maybe even outrage the artist. Lightfoot instead settles for loyalty, duty, and the external view. It traces the musician’s progress from rural Ontario to Toronto in the early sixties, a place and time when both folk and rock ‘n’ roll scenes were bursting; from the spare, haunting albums of 1966-70 to the blockbuster LPs of the seventies, distilled as smoothly as whiskey and spiked with Top 40 hits; and, in the final stretch, from commercial has-been to Canadian institution. If the well went dry after the late seventies, and if Lightfoot has hung on essentially as a noble nostalgia act, who cares? There’s a long journey here, and music of real majesty. In fact it’s impossible, even when frustrated or bored with Jennings’s book, to not want to put on some Lightfoot – whether early beauties like Did She Mention My Name? or Back Here on Earth (both 1968); the late-summer afternoon vibe of Sundown (1974); or even the last gasp of Endless Wire (1978), an album of strong songs fighting for breath beneath oil slicks of faux-country production. All feature the Lightfoot voice, supple as leather, and songs that can make you weep, less from sentiment than from objective appreciation of a songwriting style at its peak of perfection: “Ribbon of Darkness,” “Did She Mention My Name,” “The Circle is Small,” “Bitter Green,” “Affair on 8th Avenue,” “If You Could Read My Mind,” “10 Degrees and Getting Colder,” “Saturday Clothes,” “Summer Side of Life,” “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway,” “Rainy Day People,” “I’m Not Supposed to Care.”

Beyond its idolatrous conception, Jennings’s book is done in by lifeless, clichéd writing. “Lightfoot was learning tons, absorbing ideas at every turn” is typical of the prose at its most excited, as is the use of “breezy” and “cheery” in successive sentences. Lightfoot splits from an early musical partner, or a later romantic one, and in each case agonies are referred to without being felt by a reader; again and again, the chance to bring a breathing, present-tense Lightfoot up close to us is blown. In the manner of an annotated calendar, one thing simply follows another: there are no through-lines or themes, beyond the indubitable facts that stuff happened in June, and then more stuff in July. The writing at its worst is pure puff: “It’s hard to imagine a more humble or self-effacing superstar,” Jennings writes, straight-faced. In full fawn, he conceives this howler: “Billy Davis Jr. and Marilyn McCoo sang portions of all the compositions nominated for Song of the Year, with Davis offering the first two lines of ‘The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.’ Never have the words ‘Gitche Gumee’ sounded more soulful.”

Nor is there much interesting in other musicians’ impressions of Lightfoot: “He was super nice and a real pleasure to work with” is characteristic. You seldom feel you’re reading real talk; most of the quotes from contemporaries, functionaries, and sidemen, drawn from Jennings’s own interviews, are fulsomely favorable, and as canned as banquet testimonials. Even when recalling Lightfoot’s drunken tantrums and diva moments, people don’t speak vividly, because Jennings processes every voice into a consistent and flavorless verbal cheese spread. Lightfoot is devoid of drama, and not only in the limited sense of effectively rendering passages of conflict and crisis. The book has none of the momentum of a writer discovering his subject as he goes, coming to critical comprehensions, seeing past the bullshit and breaking through to the riches. Is it the biographer’s job to insert drama in a subject’s life, to create it where it doesn’t exist? Certainly not. Is it the biographer’s job to cultivate, through language, arrangement, selection, and perspective, the drama inherent in actual events? I would say it is, though others may differ. But what we can all agree on is that it is never the biographer’s job to write a dull book.

Nicholas Jennings. (Photo: Mark Hamilton)
And yet despite Jennings’s shapeless, undifferentiated recitation of Lightfoot tours, charity work, and canoe trips, a simulacrum of the individual – tightly wound, self-centered, “a troubled man who liked to play it safe” – cannot help but come together. Lightfoot struggled for decades with alcoholism and infidelity; a typical male chauvinist (self-described), he needed the security of a domestic relationship, but violated it routinely on the road. Terrified of entrapment, he spent years purchasing new mansions in and around Toronto, rationalizing it as a pursuit of “creative space,” but really fearing the prison of four familiar walls. He has evidently never related well to live audiences via the between-song jokes and chatter fans expect; he seems to fully exist only as a musician. Particularly in the early chapters, Jennings conveys some interesting facts (Lightfoot’s job copying scores for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, using “ink on onionskin transparencies”) and factoids (a long-ago gig on the CBC dance show Music Hop, hosted by a young Alex Trebek). Here and there, a Lightfoot comment will pierce the soft prose like a pin, or a good line of lyric: “I came face to face with my mortality at age ten . . . and I’ve been depressed ever since.” And Jennings has just enough humor to note this indicator of Lightfoot’s decline in the registry of hip: “To clear the house after a concert by punk rockers X, staff at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles once played Lightfoot’s music over the sound system, emptying the venue in record time.” (In fairness, if the artists’ audiences were reversed, the record would be tied, if not broken.)

One thing Jennings tries to do is provide a factual basis for songs which, even more than most performers’, resist being so explained – and which, because of their delicacy, might buckle beneath the weight if they were. Song after song, we’re compulsorily informed, is “about” something specific: a fishing trip, a love affair, a spot where Lightfoot spent time as a child. “The Mountains and Maryann,” a gorgeous early ballad, is not about a traveler, a lover, and the natural world – the stuff of balladry since the middle ages – but about the singer’s tryst with “a Calgary schoolteacher, whom he’d met while touring Alberta in 1967 on his cross-Canada tour.” A factual explanation, even one as limited as this, is like an electric fan blowing away the little clouds of obscurity that shelter much of Lightfoot’s best work. In a way, Jennings is caught in a bind not of his own making. Isn’t it incumbent upon musical biography to tell when and how the artist’s muse has been triggered by life? Isn’t that inherent to the form? If so, that suggests to me that the form may be wrong for Lightfoot, or for fans who enjoy him in ways similar to mine. Apart from obvious exceptions – “Canadian Railroad Trilogy, or the shipwrecks that inspired “Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Ballad of Yarmouth Castle” – real-life reference points don’t help us to feel Lightfoot’s art more deeply. They only breach the fine veil of his illusion with the flat, irrelevant light of fact.

Not every aspect of Lightfoot’s songwriting knack was terribly mysterious, delicate, or precious: in both his skilled construction and his sometimes empty facility, you could hear the best and worst of Tin Pan Alley. But so much of that knack seemed to carry on from the English and Scottish balladeers – those whose lyrics, collected by scholar Francis Child in the mid-nineteenth century, mutated into Appalachian and Southern folk songs; accumulated quietly in an unpublished songbook of the rural imagination; and then reemerged, courtesy of Harry Smith, John Jacob Niles, and others, to fill the late-fifties folk revival with ancestral spirits. Unlike his contemporaries (with Sandy Denny a vital exception), Lightfoot wrote songs that could themselves have been part of that heritage: songs that could have been around for centuries. Especially on his early albums, many had the feel of having been penned in a preindustrial world: they were full of hills, lakes, towers, ships, lovers, and ghosts, whether they mentioned any of those things or not. They didn’t need to be validated by autobiography, in fact they opposed it: they were beautiful partly because they were impersonal, or felt that way. That’s one reason Lightfoot stood out even in an era rich with singularly talented singer-songwriters: his songs came not from a tortured soul or social conscience but from a kind of mist – the mist of other songs, older traditions, of balladry itself. That’s a source few modern songwriters have tapped so completely or confidently as Gordon Lightfoot; and it’s a source that Nicholas Jennings’s book, in its loyalty and banality, leaves unexplored, untouched – and, thankfully, unspoiled.

Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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