Dave Bidini

John Cullen.

Writing Gordon Lightfoot

  • The Man, the Music and the World in 1972
  • By Dave Bidini
  • McClelland & Stewart, 264 pages, $29.99

'Writers live for this sort of thing: an untold story."

So says Dave Bidini, launching into what he'd planned as an intimate biography of Gordon Lightfoot, Canada's great songwriter. Lightfoot – as private as he is esteemed – barred the door. The writer pressed on anyway. The results are fascinating. Bidini, first-known as a member of the Rheostatics, brings the bravado of the rock musician to his writing.

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He is also a demon researcher. Studying Lightfoot, digging into archives, poring over microfiche and staring at a photo of two often-saturnine music stars, Lightfoot and Bob Dylan, grinning arm-in-arm, Bidini felt the spark of discovery. He would write about the week that photo was taken – an extraordinary few days in changing times – July 10 to 16, 1972.

The week begins with a total eclipse of the sun. (Yes, the one from that Carly Simon song.) In Ontario, fear spreads near Kingston as 14 men disappear into the countryside in a daring jailbreak from Millhaven. Nearby, the elegant prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, mucks about at country fairs, trying to prop up his sagging popularity. In Toronto, coach Harry Sinden frets at the prospect of facing a hugely underrated Russian hockey team in the soon-to-be-famous '72 Summit without Canada's two greatest players, the Bobbys Hull and Orr. Long-haired Toronto awaits the arrival of the Rolling Stones' notorious "S.T.P. Tour" for two head-bending weekend concerts at Maple Leaf Gardens.

In far-off Reykjavik, a 20-game chess showdown turns international incident as bad-boy American Bobby Fischer acts up against the Soviets' stoic grandmaster, Boris Spassky. Millions of miles distant, NASA's Pioneer 10 passes Mars on its way to Jupiter. And, out on the peaceful Toronto Islands, volunteers erect snow fences to mark the grounds of the imminent Mariposa Folk Festival which will, Bidini writes, witness the "unexpected confluence of the greatest songwriters of their age."

The weeklong unfolding of these events (and others) propels the careening narrative of Writing Gordon Lightfoot. As for the great Lightfoot, his presence – or the presence of his legend – paces this history-in-a-hurry. In six heartfelt letters to "Gord," Bidini chews over a lifetime of Lightfoot lore and pleads for the ear of a fellow musician, the great Canadian bard.

In truth, Bidini, author of 10 books, from On a Cold Road (Canadian rock bands criss-crossing their immense, chilly country) to Tropic of Hockey (our national game in places like Transylvania and Dubai), is writing about himself and the things that fascinate him. His pages vibrate with that commitment.

As the week progresses, the reader rockets from event to event, even era-to-era. (1969's Toronto Pop Festival, with a petrified John Lennon onstage for his first performance as an "ex-Beatle," is seen as a prelude "benchmark event" to the 1972 Mariposa gathering of Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Lightfoot himself.)

Though he comments on much of Lightfoot's early life, the "Gord" most talked about and written to in Bidini's account is far from the gracious elder statesman still performing today. He's "Lightfoot 72": difficult, hard-drinking, pained by fame and change, afflicted with Bell's Palsy and partnered with the dark Cathy Evelyn Smith (convicted in the drug-overdose death of John Belushi).

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Much of what the author mulls over are second-hand stories, rumours and episodes from Smith's Chasing the Dragon (1984), or from Maynard Collins's detailed but somewhat mean-spirited 1988 book, Lightfoot: If You Could Read His Mind.

The result is entertaining, but unreliable biography. Recollections from a host of voices including Bruce Cockburn, Geddy Lee, Dan Hill and seventies stars David Bradstreet and Brent Titcomb brighten the pages. At book's end, Dylan leaves Toronto Island, a festival stage denied him by cautious Mariposa organizers; Lightfoot sits unnoticed at a picnic table, playing for a few friends and fans.

The world moves on, but "the week that was" is memorable. With this colourful, high-energy writer at the wheel, it's a great ride.

Peter Feniak, a Toronto-based journalist and consultant, was granted a rare hour-long interview with Gordon Lightfoot in September, 2010.

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