Gordon Lightfoot, a folksinger and a preeminent cultural figure up here in Canada, last week suffered the unkindest death of all, which is the widespread assumption by his audience and countrymen that he had died. The phony news of his expiration was spread via Internet-borne rumors. Ersatz-death, where is thy dignity?
A couple of idiots who get paid by large news organizations to know better reported the baseless gossip as fact on their newspaper and TV websites, and somehow managed to get Rompin’ Ronnie Hawkins, the merry old rockabilly character, to confirm the faux-report. The Hawk is like a current-day Gabby Hayes, the kind of fellow whose opinion you might seek if you were looking for an incoherent response along lines of, “Dad-gum the dasted durn ding-dong!” His confirmation, if that’s what it was, of his friend’s death made the tragedy true, but only for as long as it took Lightfoot to receive word that he had croaked. (I use ‘croak’ here in a colloquial sense, to mean ‘died’. I did not intend to draw attention to the singer’s long-diminished vocal prowess, but we’ll need to raise this unfortunate aspect in due course.)
Lightfoot claimed to be just leaving his mid-town Toronto office when he learned of his death. Artists in other places work out of garrets, but I love that folksingers in Canada have mid-town offices. “Miss Stitt! Take some dictation: ‘Sundown, you better take care, comma, if I find you been creepin’ round my back stairs.’ Make two copies, and then get me Cisco Houston on line four.”
As it happily turned out, Lightfoot wasn’t deceased in the slightest, to paraphrase Michael Palin’s landmark dead-parrot sketch. The singer was as vital — and outwardly amused by the incident — as you would expect from any plucky septuagenarian stroke-victim with a precarious medical chart.
Critics of the newspaper industry are making much out of how the incompetents at Global News obliviously circulated the misinformation, because, you know, the only thing lower than an employee of those olde-timey media corporations is a self-described Internet-based critic of same. These blogospheric nudniks would use the undead Lightfoot to make a point about how the New Media are cleaning the clocks of the old, but this is like the naturopath celebrating when the oncology surgeon fails to fully remove someone’s tumor. Call it unseemly. The lesson to be gleaned is that all you consumers of news and information should paste a warning sticker that reads ‘caveat-freaking-emptor’ to your I-pads.
The main thing is that Lightoot is okay. I took in a Jimmy Buffett concert back in November -– uneasily stuck in the middle of 16,000 or so rabid, exceedingly moist and garrulous parrotheads –- and, from the stage, Mr. Buffett announced between songs that he’d rather be attending the Gordon Lightfoot gig that was taking place across town, but, sadly, he “had to work.” It seemed like an unguarded comment to offer to your paying audience, but give Jimmy full marks for honesty.
Taking his point, when we got home, my wife found a pair of decent seats for the final night in Lightfoot’s annual series of shows here in his hometown of Toronto. He draws a far smaller and less raucous audience than Buffett, and the crowd was rapt to a fault, which is understandable with the man’s grandchildren in attendance. There was a striking contrast in the styles of ‘70s singer-songwriters, I must observe: Buffett onstage barefoot in what looked like bathing trunks; Lightfoot, post-aneurysm surgery, post-mild stroke, wearing the atavistic costume of a geriatric elevator-operator in a budget-friendly mid-Manhattan tourist hotel. He looked too much like Seymour Cassel in “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
Lightfoot, who underwent a tracheotomy a few years back, seems to have appropriated the recent phrasing and vocal approach of his chum Bob Dylan, making the most of his new rasp, and using muted whispers to a powerful effect. When the 71-year-old crooner, absent his baritone, sang my favourite of his songs, “The Watchman’s Gone,” well, you have to know it was an emotional moment:
“If you find me feedin’ daisies/Please turn my face up to the sky
And leave me be/Watchin’ the moon roll by
Whatever I was/You know it was all because
I’ve been on the town/Washin’ the bullshit down.”
That is telling them. Those incandescent lyrics, written when Lightfoot was 36, half his current age, foresaw the defiance of a man late in his life still able to sum up the grit and the vocabulary to tell the big cruel world to go screw itself. Hank Snow may be dead; Wilf Carter is gone, but Lightfoot and Lenny Cohen and Stompin’ Tom Connors are all still around to tell you what it is you need to know: Keep moving on, folks. Love calls you by your name, on a Sudbury Saturday night.
Lightfoot earns last word, this time, a perquisite of genius. “You’d better take care,/Knowing the watchman’s always there.”