Nicholas Jennings introduces his biography of Gordon Lightfoot with a seven-page story about Bob Dylan and his Rolling Thunder Revue tour, which in late November, 1975, rolled into Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens. The scene was wild and it was mobile. A postconcert party happened at Lightfoot's Rosedale mansion, where a leather jacket was thrown into a fire, filling the house with thick black smoke.
"Bobby was a very enthusiastic partier," recalls Ramblin' Jack Elliott, a folk-music legend and raconteur, referring to Dylan. "Dylan was into drinking carrot juice at the time," adds Ronnie Hawkins, a rock-music myth-maker. Partier or carrot-juice enthusiast – who can recall? It was the seventies. Truth and leather jackets, lost in smoke.
The story continues. Lightfoot and Dylan, mutual admirers, were alone upstairs trading songs. The conversation between them was not vibrant. A lion meets a tiger. Wariness and confusion.
They were "too guarded, or maybe competitive," author Jennings suggests.
The reason for the Dylan-Lightfoot stage-setting isn't instantly apparent. Which is okay. What isn't okay is that the reason to link the two great artists never does fully present itself. Although Jennings will thread the theme throughout his book, he never does tie a knot on it. The best he comes up with is "For Lightfoot, as for Dylan, it was about the song."
That seems like a cop out – thin soup.
Lightfoot is an informative, highly readable book, but it has to be seen as a minor disappointment. In the acknowledgments, Jennings, a long-time music critic for Maclean's and the author of the essential Before the Gold Rush: Flashbacks to the Dawn of the Canadian Sound, writes of his extensive interviews over the course of a dozen years with the musician. The book jacket hails the author's "unprecedented access" to his subject. Yet the access results in not enough revelation.
The book was originally intended to be a memoir, as told to an excellent music journalist by an iconic Canadian songwriter. Such was Lightfoot's reticence, however, that a personal story became a well-researched chronicle, with some Lightfoot-told passages but also with plenty of third-party accounts, some facilitated by microfilm diggings.
The tone is respectful; the detail is great and never pedantically presented. All sorts of album-and-concert-review quotes. Lightfoot fans should rejoice and accept the fine info on their man.
The Rolling Thunder yarn spun, Jennings takes the reader back to Lake Couchiching – the idyllic, edge-of-wilderness spot near Orillia, Ont., where the boy Lightfoot fished for rock bass and searched for wild mushrooms. We get an account from Lightfoot of an incident involving ice fishing and a near drowning with his cousin. "It was such a close call," Lightfoot remembers. "I'm still amazed we survived."
To Jennings's mind, young Lightfoot's escape from peril was indicative of "the kind of dogged determination that would carry him out of Orillia and into international stardom, seeing through all the ups and downs of a large, messy, wonderful and sometimes troubled life."
With Lightfoot, we get snapshots of mid-century Canadiana. The man who would grow up to tunefully offer history lessons on shipwrecks and railways and who as an adult would sing some of the greatest brooding relationship songs ever poured out of a whisky bottle – "Pickin' up the pieces of my sweet shattered dream" – started out as performer in barbershop quartets as a schoolboy.
Apparently a cappella haircutting was all the rage. Fans paid money to see and hear the genre at great venues such as Toronto's Massey Hall. That they did so with no irony whatsoever can perhaps be attributed to a psychic-trauma hangover from the Second World War.
Lightfoot moved on from bow-tie balladry to folk music and, eventually, top-10 troubadouring. Jennings offers an invaluable if unexciting portrait of a superstar: Driven, oft-depressed, a one-time alcoholic, a lover and loser of women, a father who missed his children, a rugged outdoorsman, a hit-maker and Massey Hall filler, a man of great loyalty, a do-the-right-thing dude, a perfectionist, a performer who lives for the stage and a survivor (of a near fatal ruptured abdominal aortic aneurysm in 2002 and otherwise).
I've met Lightfoot. I like him. Jennings does, too, and so will the reader (if the reader is any right kind of human – and the fact they are reading this particular newspaper is a persuasive argument that they are).
At one point, a snippet of an interview with Lightfoot in 1991 by CBC Radio's Peter Gzowski illustrates the frustrating reticence of the former. "The world is clamouring to rap with you, and you insist you don't have anything to say," Gzowski said.
"That is precisely correct," the shy Sundown singer answered.
And, so, Lightfoot, who owes us nothing but words, voice and melody, frustrates us (and probably Jennings, too). Read between the lines – that's the great songwriter's answer and our recourse.
Dylan offered us a deal: "I'll let you be in my dreams if I can be in yours." It was no bargain. But he offered. Lightfoot? Not so much. If we could read his mind, we wouldn't need a contextual memoir. One that, despite Jennings's great effort, we still need.
Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail.