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Hey Dave Bidini, Gordon Lightfoot's just not that into you

Dave Bidini

John Cullen

I'm sorry, and you are?

Dave Bidini was at an authors festival in Banff, Alta. He was chuffed to have been invited, but pretty soon it became clear that none of the other 40 writers there had any idea about his work, which has been mostly in the sports, travel and music milieus.

"They just wouldn't read a book about Chinese hockey, or baseball in Italy, or music in Africa," Bidini explained recently, referring to what he calls the greater literati. "It just didn't seem to penetrate their radar."

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The lead-in to a cover story in this month's Quill & Quire magazine poses a question: Would Bidini's 10th and latest book, Writing Gordon Lightfoot: The Man, the Music, and the World in 1972, "bring him the literary laurels he desires?"

It's a good question – and one that the article, oddly, doesn't really address. So, over coffee at Bar Italia on Toronto's College Street strip, I ask the author-musician about his missing recognition.

"Desire is a little too strong a word," explains Bidini, a likable fellow with an earthy, hard look somewhere between a fruit vendor and a vintage gumshoe. "Every time I write a book, I think, 'This is going to be a huge bestseller and it's going to win all the awards.' But then, just the achievement of completing it and it being true to the vision with which it started seem to soak up all those aspirations."

It was Bidini's need for acknowledgment that inspired the epistolary Writing Gordon Lightfoot. Rebuffed in his efforts to speak to the Canadian folk icon for a planned biography of sorts, Bidini constructed his book uniquely: Each chapter begins as a fan letter from Bidini, who poses questions to his real-life hero, eventually creating a biographical arc.

The book's first missive addresses the possible reason Lightfoot wasn't interested in participating in the project: Years ago, after Bidini's former band, the Rheostatics, recorded a version of Lightfoot's The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, Bidini was informed by Lightfoot's manager, the late Barry Harvey, that the Sundown singer wouldn't be interested in listening to the Rheostatics' cover. Upset that Lightfoot couldn't be bothered to hear his band's homage, Bidini spouted off to a journalist that the song's melody was lifted from a traditional Irish folk song.

Bidini has ever since been on the outs with the Lightfoot camp.

Writing Gordon Lightfoot's imaginary letters are intercut with another narrative – one that traces the real but fantastical happenings that took place during the second week of July, 1972: the announcement of the Canada-Soviet Union hockey super series; a major jailbreak at Millhaven prison near Kingston; the beginning of the Boris Spassky-Bobby Fischer chess summit; the final leg of the journey of Pioneer 10 toward Jupiter; a total eclipse of the sun; and a storied edition of the Mariposa Folk Festival, that year attended by Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Lightfoot.

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Before speaking to Bidini, I had asked Bernie Fiedler, a long-time friend and booker of Lightfoot, if the folk singer would ever look at the new book. "He doesn't read any of them," Fiedler replied, referring to the 1984 autobiography of Cathy Smith (Lightfoot's drug-addled former girlfriend, who was later found responsible for John Belushi's death) and a panned 1988 biography from Maynard Collins. "He's not interested."

Bidini says it ultimately doesn't matter, but acknowledges that he would rather Lightfoot hate the book than ignore it outright. "Listen, I'd love it if he came for dinner every Friday, but I'm not delusional," he says. "I would like him to read it, though, because I find it to be a friendly book in a lot of ways. And maybe he should be grateful that it's written by a fellow musician, one who's been to a lot of places he's been to, emotionally and geographically."

So, another snub from Lightfoot, the musician whom Bidini most admires.

As for the greater literati, there's not much more Bidini can do to gain their recognition, either. "There's a critical resistance to my work," he contends, "not from all corners, but sports and rock 'n' roll are often viewed downwardly."

Does he foresee some prizes, at least, this time out? "It doesn't define who I am, but an award would be nice," he allows. "That said, that the book exists is enough, and that I can stand behind it and be proud of it."

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About the Author

Brad Wheeler is an arts reporter with The Globe and Mail. More

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