The Hamilton Spectator
NEED TO KNOW: GORDON LIGHTFOOT at Hamilton Place, Sunday, November 10 (1998) at 8:00 p.m. Tickets are $32, $29 and $26 and available at the Hamilton Place and Copps Coliseum box offices, or by calling TicketMaster at 645-5000
When Gordon Lightfoot performs at Hamilton Place this Sunday, it will eerily coincide with one of the great disasters in Canadian history.
November 10, 1975, was the date the ore carrier Edmund Fitzgerald sank, claimed by Lake Superior’s stormy waters. The Orillia native immortalized the event in what has become one of his most enduring epics, “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.”
Yet it may surprise you to learn that the song wasn’t inspired so much by the tragedy or the loss of 29 lives, but the length of a magazine article.
“I knew about the disaster and I knew Newsweek covered it in an article dated November 20, 1975. Ten days after they gave it a column and a half, I felt it needed more,” says Lightfoot, who celebrates his 59th birthday November 17.
“At that time, I had a boat myself,” he explains from his Toronto home. “I had one up in Georgian Bay. Hell, I had two of ’em! But they ate into my writing time so badly, that I gave them up. I’m interested in boats, especially Great Lake boats — ever since I saw one being launched in Midland at age 5.
“Anyhow, I was working at my house in my study. I had a melody, a chord progression, and the Fitzgerald was bouncing around in my mind. It all felt into place.”
Lightfoot says it took him only three days from start to finish to write and record “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald.” While he was recording it, he received an unexpected endorsement from another Canadian music icon.
“Stompin’ Tom (Connors) walked in in the middle of my session and said, ‘That’s a hit, boys!’ We said, ‘Stompin’ Tom, we sure hope so.’ That was five months before anybody else knew.'”
The song topped all Canadian charts and peaked at #2 on Billboard.
“Stompin’ Tom was all over that one,” he laughs.
Although they’re few and far between, Lightfoot has carved a reputation for writing national epics, most notably “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”
“‘Canadian Railroad Trilogy’? That one worked out really well,” he says. “Do you know Bob Jarvis, who was a producer at the old CBC? He made me write it. I told him I’d need about three days and a book from the CBC library on Van Horne, who was the engineer of the railroad.”
Lightfoot concedes that these days, he’s writing anything but epics.
“I’m not getting heavy,” he says. “I’m just writing stuff that really works.”
When can listeners hear the new stuff? Soon. Although this is Lightfoot’s first visit to Hamilton Place in a few years, he’s been spending a lot of his time in the Steel City lately, working on his first album since 1993’s Waiting For You.
“Yeah, we’re recording with Bob Doidge over at Grant Avenue,” says a chipper Lightfoot from his Toronto residence.
“We discovered that studio a couple years ago, and it’s a good relax place to work. Heck, even the drive over there is good and relaxing.”
“We’ve taken maybe 18 trips now. Bob’s a very knowledgeable producer and engineer.”
With over 200 songs in his stable, including such legendary hits as “Early Mornin’ Rain,” “Black Day In July” and “If You Could Read My Mind,” Lightfoot says he’s gunning for quality on his 18th album. He offers that as the reason for the four-year length between albums.
“It’s taken that long,” says the Juno Hall Of Famer and Order Of Canada recipient.
“I’m capable of playing 80 or 90 dates a year, but I want to concentrate more on recording and make a meaningful record at this time. For us to make it, we have to ensure it gets on the radio. Without radio, there’s no exposure, and we’ve got bills to pay.”
Lightfoot figures he’s far enough along that the record should be out in the Spring.
“We’re just trying to tidy up our low end,” says Lightfoot. “There are lots of toe-tappers. We play a certain type of backbeat music. We’re working 12 songs, and nine of which are mine. We found three others over the past few years. I’m required by contract to have ten, so the fact I have 12 means I’m ahead of the game. It’s gonna be interesting, and ethereal.”
With a music career that’s approaching its 40th year, Lightfoot likens himself to a veteran athlete.
“I feel like a hockey player who is trying to shine in my final time,” he says.
“Except I can keep on trucking for quite a long time. The years will take their toll, as with most people, but I’m happy to still be cooking, and working at a really pure level. We’re all playing well, exercising, practicing. There’s a lot of energy there. We love to play.”
If that’s the case, then what does Lightfoot consider to be his personal equivalent to the Stanley Cup?
“My Stanley Cup?” he laughs. “I’ll tell you — if you promise to keep it in the confines of the trophy aspect — to finish the career with an album that outsold the last one by one copy. Not because I want to set the world on fire. I’m 58! I’m happy and grateful that I’m still playing the guitar, singing and writing, still paying the bills and supporting my six kids.”