A national treasure in his native Canada, singer-songwriter Gordon Lightfoot’s recognition with a new generation of American music fans could be summed with his repeated name drop in Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why” as an ironic text message code word for the high school kids.
They too come to respect the honey-voiced singer of folk-pop classics like “If You Could Read My Mind,” “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” “Sundown” and “Carefree Highway.” The five-time Grammy-nominated song poet gets his film due with the documentary “Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind.”
“If You Could Read My Mind” charts Lightfoot’s early days as an angel-voiced choir boy in small-town Orillia, Ontario, before he headed to the big city Toronto to find his singing fortunes. Lightfoot quit his banking job for his first professional gig with The Singin’ Swingin’ Eight on the Canadian TV show “Country Hoedown,” which required a nightly square dance.
“I got myself a payday that lasted 2½ years,” Lightfoot tells USA TODAY, giving himself high marks for the background vocals. “but I was not a dancer.”
Contemporary and friend Bob Dylan, who presented Lightfoot with his career Canadian Juno Award, summed up Lightfoot’s obsessively crafted songs, saying that when he heard one, he wanted “it to last forever.” Dylan has covered many Lightfoot songs, including “Early Morning Rain.” The love ballad “If You Could Read My Mind” was covered by disparate voices including Viola Wills, Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand, Olivia Newton-John, Neil Young and Herb Alpert The Tijuana Brass (to name a few).
The young Lightfoot almost crashed his car in joy when he heard Elvis Presley’s cover of “Early Morning Rain.”
“I wasn’t even aware he had done the song,” Lightfoot says. One legend who didn’t perform a Lightfoot song: Frank Sinatra – who threw down the song sheets for “If You Could Read My Mind” in the studio, saying, “I can’t sing this.”
“I always thought that was very funny,” Lightfoot says.
A gregarious host, Lightfoot’s house parties were legendary, with Joni Mitchell and Dylan pulling out their guitars for late night jam sessions. But as his global fame took off, Lightfoot’s drinking spun out of control. By the time he appeared in his first movie with Bruce Dern, 1982’s “Harry Tracy, Desperado,” it had gone too far.
“I was at the height of my drinking and I look terrible,” Lightfoot says in the documentary. He was warned by his record company to give it up.
“It was time to pack it in.” he says in the documentary about that time in his life. “I don’t know how I made it through.”
Lightfoot quit cold turkey and threw his energy into pursuits such as canoeing and sailing the Great Lakes.
The three-times-married Lightfoot has evolved to the point that he can’t listen to 1967’s “For Lovin’ Me,” an early hit with dismissive lyrics.
“It was an embarrassment to my wife at the time,” he says now of first wife, Brita Olaisson (they divorced in 1973).
At the peak of his fame, Lightfoot had an infamously mercurial affair with singer Cathy Smith, who heavily influenced his moody hit “Sundown,” filled with suspicion and infidelity.
“It was one of those relationships where a feeling of danger comes in,” Lightfoot says in the documentary. Years later, Smith spent 15 months in prison after injecting John Belushi with a powerful mixture of cocaine and heroin that killed the comedian in 1982.
Smith is featured in archival footage speaking coldly about Lightfoot: “I took off the edges what I could use, and left behind the rest, and he couldn’t hurt me,” she said.
The singer was immediately inspired by the tragic Edmund Fitzgerald, the heavily laden ship that sank in a Lake Superior hurricane in November 1975. In the studio weeks later, he started playing “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” with his band and recorded a raw version in the first take. The ballad went on to be a major hit a year after the disaster and an enduring tribute to the 29 dead crew members.
Lightfoot, 81, has endured and will continue to perform with his band when the pandemic allows.
“I notice I’m slowing down,” he says. “But we’ve got lots of toe-tappers in our show, and I’ve got a really great orchestra and we love to play. Because we’re good at it.”