“It’s a pecking order, and I’m further down the pecking order than Bob Dylan,” says legendary Canadian singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot, when asked about competition among the iconic songwriters of our time. “It’s not about egos. With Dylan, it was a learning experience. I’d watch him.”
On Dec. 1, 1975, Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue tour rolled into Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens – and, later, up to an after-show party thrown by Lightfoot at the mansion he once owned in Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood. In Martin Scorsese’s documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, there’s a clip of Joni Mitchell playing a new song of hers, Coyote, alongside Dylan and Roger McGuinn. Lightfoot hovers in the background. Photographs from that night show Lightfoot and Dylan playing together as well.
“It was a fun time,” Lightfoot says, recalling an era when his home was party central for fellow musicians. “It became a tradition. My house was in the middle of the city – it was easy to find and easy to get there.”
Dylan and Lightfoot’s Rosedale summit is the stuff of legend, but lesser known is the meeting of the troubadours backstage at what was then named the O’Keefe Centre, before a Dylan concert in the summer of 1990. Lightfoot played Dylan’s Ring Them Bells in the green room, in front of the man who wrote the song.
“We were getting ready to record it, and I wanted Bob to hear it,” Lightfoot says.
Presumably Lightfoot passed the audition. Ring Them Bells ended up on his 1993 album, Waiting for You.
While Dylan’s busy concert slate is often referred to as the “never-ending tour,” Lightfoot, at 82, maintains a steady schedule of 60 to 70 shows a year himself – or at least he did before COVID lockdowns. The Sundown singer played three theatre shows in the United States in July, and was set for eight more this month until he broke his wrist in a fall last week.
“It will take eight weeks to heal,’ says Lightfoot, who underwent surgery to repair the fracture. “But I’ll be fine for Massey Hall in November.”
The three Massey shows, scheduled for Nov. 25-27, are set to be the first concerts at the historic venue since it closed for extensive renovations in 2018. Lightfoot closed the hall with a performance that year, on Canada Day.
From his Toronto home, he spoke with The Globe and Mail about rock-star party etiquette, the therapy of live music and better songwriting through stimulants.
One for the money, but more for the show: “It comes up in conversation that I should be charging more for my tickets, and earning more from my concerts. But I feel the value is correct. I don’t feel I’m selling myself short. It’s not about the money. I love the work – I’m happy to still be performing. Summoning up the energy to do this and being prepared is part of the game with me.”
Party, to a point: “I enjoyed throwing parties after my concerts in Toronto. I had the energy. I’d hire some catering to help. You had to trust the people who came to your house. Half of them, you didn’t know who they were. But we had no incidents. I never had anything broken or anything stolen or anybody insulted. The parties would wind down at two or three in the morning so I could get some sleep, because most of the time I was heading into work again the next night. We’d play seven or eight or nine nights at Massey Hall.”
Performance-enhancing drugs: “Alcohol was a fuel for songwriting. Smoking and drinking and coffee, that’s what it was like when I was making albums. Sometimes pot would be involved. It would open up your thinking a little bit more. When you are under contract to companies, which I was, it’s surprising how you’ll knuckle down and get to work. Ian Tyson and Joni Mitchell and the whole bunch, we were under contract to record companies. We were expected to produce material. So, alcohol and cigarettes – well, okay. It spurred me on. Eventually, I had to give up both of them.”
This is what you get for writing (That’s What You Get) For Lovin’ Me: “That song was the one I regret the most. I really don’t know what I was thinking when I did that one. The things you write can affect the people close to you. You’re with someone, and perhaps they think a song is about someone else, before they came along. Usually, you write the song, and the assignment to who it’s about comes afterward. A songwriter has no control over that. I mean, I’m just writing rhymes.”