Writing Gordon Lightfoot: The Man, the Music, and the World in 1972
(McClelland & Stewart)
What the judges said:
What do you do if you are writing a biography and your subject won't participate? When the famously private Lightfoot refused to speak to him, author/musician Bidini forged ahead, creating a book less about the iconic musician and more about the week leading up to the 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival on Centre Island (attended that year by Lightfoot, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, and Joni Mitchell). Writing Gordon Lightfoot provides a glimpse of Toronto that week within the context of all that was going on in the rest of the world, including a total eclipse of the sun, the Fischer/Spassky chess match, the building of the '72 Canadian hockey team, and a jailbreak from Millhaven. Bidini's interspersed "letters to Gord" speculate about what was happening in Lightfoot's life from the perspective of a fellow musician – and an obvious fan. Unique, fresh, and funny, Writing Gordon Lightfoot is a cross‑section of one week in the '70s of Lightfoot's life and of life in Toronto.
July, 1972. As musicians across Canada prepare for the nation's biggest folk festival, held on Toronto Island, a series of events unfold that will transform the country politically, psychologically – and musically. As Bidini explores the remarkable week leading up to Mariposa, he also explores the life and times of one of the most enigmatic figures in Canadian music: Gordon Lightfoot, the reigning king of folk at the height of his career. Through a series of letters, Bidini addresses Lightfoot directly, questioning him, imagining his life, and weaving together a fascinating, highly original look at a musician at the top of his game. By the end of the week, the country is on the verge of massive change and the '72 Mariposa folk fest – complete with surprise appearances by Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and yes, Lightfoot – is on its way to becoming legendary.
Dave Bidini is the only person to have been nominated for a Gemini, Genie and Juno as well CBC's Canada Reads. A founding member of Rheostatics, Canada's most loved independent band, he has written 10 books, among them Baseballissimo, On a Cold Road, and Tropic of Hockey. Bidini has written two plays and made three films, including "The Hockey Nomad," named Best Sports Documentary in 2003. He writes a Saturday column for the National Post and his most recent book is Writing Gordon Lightfoot.
Excerpt from Writing Gordon Lightfoot: The Man, the Music, and the World in 1972
Hey, Gord. Or Gordon. Or Mr. Lightfoot. No, I’m going to call you Gord, and I hope that’s okay. You don’t know me, but I know you. We all know you. You’re in our heads. You’re in the walls of our hearts. Your melodies hang and swerve over the great open skies and soupy lakes and long highways and your lyrics are printed in old history and geography and humanities textbooks that get passed down from grade to grade to grade. When people say “Lightfoot,” it’s like saying “Muskoka” or “Gretzky” or “Trudeau.” I dunno. “Lightfoot.”
Your name says as much as these things, maybe more. Gord, I am writing this book even though you won’t talk to me. It’s a long story, but this is a long book, so here goes. You won’t talk to me because of a song that my old band covered, a version of your nautical epic, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Back in 1989, we contacted your late manager, Barry Harvey – a good guy; at least he was to us – to ask for approval, and he gave us his blessing. But then he said that he probably wouldn’t play our version of the song for you. What he actually said was, “If I play it for him, it’ll just piss him off.”
A few months later, something else happened, which is maybe the real reason why you won’t talk to me. You see, after coming home from a tour of Ireland – an ill-fated tour; we broke up there, only to re-form and record your song, though you probably wish we’d stayed broken up – a music writer asked about our rendition. Because I was young and dumb and feeling disappointed that you – one of my heroes – refused to recognize our interpretation of what is surely one of Canada’s most famous, and best, songs, I punked out. I told him that, “well, everyone knows that it’s based on an old Irish melody. It’s not his, not really.” What I didn’t tell the writer was that a guy in a bar in Cork had told me this, nor did I tell him that there were several beers involved – in Cork, Gord, this is a given. Later on, when Barry Harvey read what I’d said, he asked me to recant my statement. I might have just grunted and hung up the phone. Barry asked again and again, and, having grown a little older and less punked-out, I said I would, but then the story appeared on the Internet (the goddamned Internet). Barry was gentlemanly about the whole thing, but he said that I’d upset you, which is what I’d wanted to do, at least in the beginning, but not anymore. You were mad and I don’t begrudge you that feeling. After all, the same guy who’d desecrated your song had called you a phony, even if he hadn’t really meant it (Cork plus beer plus being rejected by one’s hero plus an encounter with a drunken storyteller equals impetuous rant. It’s a weak defence, I know, but it’s all I’ve got). I tried taking the story down, then forgot about it. Barry called a third time, then a fourth time, asking nicely. Then he passed away. And now I am writing a book about you. And you won’t talk to me.
Last year, when my publisher asked if I wanted to do this book, I explained the situation. He said, “Do it anyway,” and so we proceeded to figure out a way to create a book without the contribution of its central figure, which is you. At first, I thought about using stories that other people had told about you, but the biographical holes were too great (turns out you’re a bit of a mystery, Gord, although it’s not like you don’t know that). Then, as I started to look back through your life, I came across an event that I remembered reading about years ago in a Peter Goddard-edited seventies Toronto pop magazine called Touch. The event was Mariposa ’72. Because it was a great event – maybe one of the most important in Canadian musical and cultural history – I was given a starting point from which to talk about your life, without actually talking to you. I also thought it might be a way of telling the story of Canada. But I tried not to think too much about it. Instead, I just sat down and started writing.