From acclaimed musician and author Dave Bidini comes a brilliantly original look at a folk-rock legend and the momentous week in 1972 that culminated in the Mariposa Folk Festival.
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.
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McClelland & Stewart
October 18, 2011
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Excerpt from Writing Gordon Lightfoot by Dave Bidini
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.
Gord, I know you know all of this, but, at this point, I should tell the readers a few things. Okay. Readers: the 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival (the sixteenth year of the event) was unlike any that came before it. It took place on a small isthmus at the bottom of Toronto, on Centre Island, now the site of a popular kids' amusement park. At the time, Mariposa was one of the most progressive festivals of its kind - only the Newport Folk Festival and a similar event in Philadelphia had better reputations - bringing attention to marginalized folk, blues, and traditional music. It steered clear of emerging chart music - pop and rock and even folk-rock - instead scheduling time for forgotten blues masters, Inuit throat singers, and local tubthumpers (Gord, I do not mean to disparage local folksingers by calling them "tub-thumpers," but it's kind of what they were. Still, I know that a lot of them are your friends, and I don't need to piss you off any more than you already are). In 1971, excitement over the event resulted in ticketless fans swimming across the harbour to get to the island, further dissuading organizers from booking big-name talent for fear that the grassroots festival would lose its way. Such was their monastic commitment to a toned-down event that, in 1972, evening performances were cancelled, in keeping with the philosophy established by artistic director Estelle Klein, who, in 1972, was out of the country, holidaying in Greece and taking a break from the festival.