Gordie and Me

I just learned that Gordon Lightfoot has died, and I cannot keep the tears from streaming down my cheek.

In 1972, when I was at UCSB for my sophomore year in college, there was a local folk group who called themselves “The Storyville Players.” My friends and I saw them one night at an Isla Vista club, IV being the UCSB student ghetto. I’m still not sure how they let us in, we were only 19. Maybe it was a dry club, or a coffee house, or they didn’t care. No matter, I did not have any alcohol but was intoxicated by the music, and especially the harmonies they sung. At one point the female lead singer exuded that they were going to LA soon to hear their hero, Gordon Lightfoot. Lightfoot was a solo singer-songwriter, yet they sang his songs with mesmerizing harmony. It was a life-changing moment. As soon as my meager funds permitted, I bought the latest Gordon Lightfoot album – Alberta Bound. It spoke to my Canadian roots – Lightfoot was then based in Toronto, and that is where I was born. I wore that album out.

Carol and I met in 1974. We found out that we had much in common. A strange sense of humor (an early date was going to Blazing Saddles, and she did not give me the boot) and Gordon Lightfoot. We both had “If You Could Read My Mind” in our respective record collections.

We became serious the summer of 1974, when Lightfoot’s Sundown became the number 1 song, and we bought his album by the same name. We wore that album out, got engaged in September, and married in December.  Our first musical purchase as a young married couple was his Carefree Highway. 

Life happened, and we started to raise our family. Our kids no doubt got tired of my playing his music, but they were too young to say “hey dad, can you give it a rest.” Over time, Lightfoot became part of their lives as well.

Traveling through western Canada with the kids on one of many road trips, as we approached the place where the golden spike was struck, I played the Canadian Railroad Trilogy. Tim writes “Impossible to think about our great family road trips and not think about Gordo. Thank you, Dad, for bringing him into our lives.”

Older, my kids once told me they thought when they were young that I was Gordon Lightfoot. I kind of looked like him – a bit of a stretch I know, but I did have the moustache, and I knew all the words, the melodies, and the harmonies of all his songs. They just assumed I was him. But they grew out of it.

Finally, I was able to see him perform at Harrah’s in Reno. He came out, and it was obvious he was well lubricated. He flubbed a lot, and even forgot some of the words to his legendary “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” I was devastated. But then I got to thinking that someone who wrote the ballads he penned could not have had a choir boy life. It made sense. His must have been a hard life. Only later did I find out that he got his musical start singing in a church choir!

Later still I found out that it was during this period in his life when he had taken up with the woman who had given John Belushi his fatal dose of drugs.

The next time I saw Gord, he proudly announced that he was sober. His eyes were bright, he was clearly enjoying himself, and he remembered all of the words to the Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, and every other song he sang.

My son took up the guitar, and I suppose it is not going too far to say that Gordie was one of his musical heroes as well. I took him to see Gord in San Luis Obispo one time. The show started at 8pm and to kill some time before the show began we grabbed a hot dog somewhere. We got to the show safely at 7:55pm – and I was devastated to find out the show had started at 7:30. Tim was accommodating way beyond what a young man of his years should have been to his father who had not bothered to double check the start time. We bonded anyway. It was a memorable time.

My kids grew up, and in time we took them and their spouses to Las Vegas to see Lightfoot in person at The Orleans. I got everyone seated, and then, quite spontaneously, told them “OK kids, I’ve got to take care of something for a bit, but I’ll see you right after the performance” and winked. They laughed, but there was only one Gordon Lightfoot, and it was not me. I sat down, and we enjoyed the show.

Much later, Carol and I saw him when he was much older – and showed it. He had become gaunt, and wasn’t able to hit his high notes. Yet the audience was understanding, and loved him. 

Carol and I last saw him in Phoenix a few years ago. At the end of the show, I turned to her and said “I don’t think I need to see him again. I would rather remember him when he was younger, and he could hit all the notes…and I could too.”

Gordon Lightfoot had a near death experience a number of years ago, and yet he came through it and after an extended period of recuperation started touring again. He didn’t need the money. Singing was what he did. It was who he was. Without his audiences, he may not have had a reason to live. So he toured.

But even his audiences could not keep him alive forever, and today he died. 

And I still cannot keep the tears from streaming down.

16 thoughts on “Gordie and Me

  1. Beautiful connection of artist to family history, Ken. Your piece is likely to inspire more tears.

    I saw Lightfoot in 1973ish in Berkeley. Was never a huge fan but understand those who were.

    I’m in Vienna, a long way from home, but your story took me there this morning. Thanks man.



  2. Thank you for the wonderful story. My late Dad would exclaim, “My man, Gordon!” whenever one of his songs came on the radio. We played his hits today. Wishing you and Carol the best.


  3. Yup! His songs were the background sounds of my growing up years! I loved that he loved Canada and his songs reflected that!


  4. Lovely tribute and the telling of your Lightfoot experience. Thanks for that. I only saw him once, when he was young, but always loved all of his music. As you say, he grew feeble and gaunt, and still had to perform. We will miss him, but we have his music. All the best to you from fellow Lightfoot lovers! Jean& Harvey


  5. Thanks for this post, Ken.  I enjoyed reading it and getting a peek into your past from the 60’s.  ~Dolly Friesen


  6. G’day Ken – As always, a marvellous piece. Canadian radio and tv has featured GL front and centre all day with many people touching base and leaving tributes.
    Again – thank you


  7. Some might say he was one of the greats, but to us, he was The Great. I still make my children listen to Canadian Railroad Trilogy whenever we take a car trip.


  8. Aw, Ken, Lightfoot was a key part of your life for many many years. Worth the tears, I’d say. I enjoyed your recounting of your key life events that included him.


  9. Thank you for sharing your story. A great man many of us loved to listen to. No one I know could better describe “ time with a great man, singer, artist ❤️


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