Vinay Menon: Gordon Lightfoot was our most enduring and endearing genius


I never met Gordon Lightfoot but considered him a childhood friend.

It was this way for generations of Canadians. Mr. Lightfoot, who died Monday at 84, didn’t just make music. His songs transcended the studio to magically connect us to one another, to our great country, to our past, to our hopes and heartbreaks.

Bob Dylan said it best: “I can’t think of any Gordon Lightfoot song I don’t like. Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”

Me too. But trying to reverse-engineer this alchemy is a fool’s errand.

You could flag Lightfoot’s exquisite songwriting. Or the bottomless well from which he could conjure earworms. His ability to play with tempo was paranormal. As a lyricist, he was a poet laureate. Listening to “Talking in Your Sleep” is like reading a Raymond Carver short story. “If You Could Read My Mind” is the most haunting breakup ballad you will ever hear. Even the fading pause to turbocharge the chorus in “Daylight Katy” is an act of sheer genius. In silence, he remained in total control.

Gordon Lightfoot was our most enduring and endearing genius.

It’s why there are tears in my eyes right now. Canada didn’t just lose a troubadour who helped score the soundtrack to our lives. Canada lost a bit of Canada this week.

I have a flashbulb memory of sitting on the floor cross-legged in my childhood bedroom and listening to “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.” For a kid with a funny name who didn’t look like many others in school, Lightfoot became a history teacher, a giver of lore, an emotional healer, a code-breaker to what it meant to be Canadian.

He was a guardian angel on an album cover.

He could make you tap your toes and see the light when life was darkest.

Lightfoot didn’t just write songs — he provided free rides we could take when the mood struck. If you’ve ever driven across this country while blasting “Carefree Highway,” “Sundown” or “Summer Side of Life,” it’s like Gordon was riding shotgun, a familiar voice bending your ear to help your cynical eyes absorb the beautiful sights.

Gordon Lightfoot made Canada cool.

That he did this for decades while giving a cold shoulder to fame was yet another great reason to admire this great man. Until the end, Lightfoot never lost touch with the small-town boy who wasn’t even sure music could earn him a living. He just couldn’t help himself. Music, like eating or sleeping, was a biological imperative.

How lucky we were to bask in this unifying force of talent.

I suspect that’s why millions of Canadians also have flashbulb memories in which a Gordon Lightfoot song is playing in the background. From first kisses to last goodbyes, from triumphs to kicks in the face, he was always just one play away. His microphone was a national PA system. His guitar was an oracle. And his music — folk, rockabilly, s–tkicker, call it what you want — was most incredible for, as Dylan put it, the lack of clunkers in the sonic mix. Orchestral flourishes, cowbells, triangles, sliding guitars, it didn’t matter. Gordon Lightfoot could have recorded an album in which he banged on pots and pans and it would have instantly resonated on the national stage.

The intro whistling on “Ribbon of Darkness” is captivating. The melancholy of “Rainy Day People” is somehow uplifting. Even the synths and drum machine effects on “Anything for Love” work because of his instinctive grasp of chord changes, key signature and the power of lucid lyrics to burrow deep into our connective tissue.

I have no clue about Lightfoot’s political leanings or where he stood on the big issues. Luckily, he was too busy making music. But listening to his catalogue always felt like you were in the presence of a childhood friend, a wise observer of human existence who had maybe seen and felt too much but was willing to be a tour guide in 4/4 time.

There are columns I dread writing. This is one of them. My heart is too close to the subject. Just as with the passing of Gord Downie and Leonard Cohen, it hurts too much to try to put the loss into words. I can’t find the spigot to turn off the tears.

Thank you, Gordon Lightfoot. Thank you for sharing your remarkable gift with a country that needed you more than you could ever possibly know. Thank you for the songs that bridged time and distance to bring us together. Thank you for the gorgeous melodies, harmonies and arrangements. Thank you for the artistic purity. Thank you for “Early Morning Rain” and “Song for a Winter’s Night.” Thank you for turning music into a great equalizer for anyone from any walk of life. Thank you for “The Circle Is Small,” “Me and Bobby McGee” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”

Thank you for always reminding us of what it means to be Canadian.


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