PRAVIN GORDHAN's famous remark about connecting of the dots is often applicable when trying to decode musical giants. The connections don't always lead to clarification but one remains amazed by the overall picture that emerges.
A prime example of this is Gordon Lightfoot, recently deceased. He was a silent giant in a realm where people often make noise about themselves; essentially a modest storyteller, a wordsmith who could toil for days, even weeks, to find just the right words for a lyric. And he could write the sheet music for every instrument he wanted to use. If You Could Read My Mind, a song described by critic Rick Beato as “perfect," is his anthem.
Lightfoot was a fitness enthusiast who visited the gym six days a week. His beautiful baritone voice suggests a pious, virtuous person, and the structures of his folk songs suggest he was conservative and old-fashioned. Bob Dylan considered him his mentor and said every Lightfoot song creates in him the desire that it should never end.
When reading Lightfoot, Nicholas Jennings' clever biography of the artist, it becomes apparent that his intense desire for privacy masks a complex life, something quite different from “timeless songs about trains and sunken boats, rivers and highways, lovers and loneliness", as Jennings puts it. Wasn't he the man who invited the entire touring company of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue to his house for the most Bacchanalian party of the 1970s after a concert on November 30, 1975, in Montreal?
Lightfoot was married three times and had six children. His most notorious relationship with a woman was with Cathy Smith, a legendary figure in the entertainment world. Lightfoot wrote Sundown and Rainy Day People about her, and during concerts he would introduce the songs with remarks about his jealous streak. Smith was a drug addict. After their relationship she became the drug supplier who administered the 11 fatal speedball injections (heroin and cocaine) to John Belushi.
Lightfoot was also no stranger to drug use, as one reads in Jennings' biography. His struggles with alcohol in the late 1970s were widely reported but he regained his sobriety and never allowed the media back into his social life. He perfected the art of keeping his party life and work life separate. You don't talk about the former (not even to those in your inner circle). You sing about your inner life but not about how you relax.
Stumbling path to fame
Not all artists are fortunate enough to hide their stumbling path to fame from others. Mary Gauthier (pronounced Go-Shay) was a discarded child adopted by an alcoholic and his wife from New Orleans. She met her biological mother only once in her adult life.
As a child, she realised she was gay, and by the age of 12 she was well on her way to alcoholism. She surrendered herself to drinking and drugs and by 15 she was a veteran of rehab centres and halfway houses. She spent her 18th birthday in jail. Alcohol thwarted her attempts to study philosophy at Louisiana State University.
Gauthier turned to the restaurant industry and on July 12, 1990, the opening night of her restaurant, Dixie Kitchen, she was arrested for drunk driving. She has been sober since and has chanelled all her experiences into her lyrics. In this regard, she is the equal of Lightfoot – a master at crafting lyrics that evoke complete life stories within a few verses.
In addition to concerts, she focuses on classes for aspiring songwriters, the main theme of her book Saved by a Song. She is one of the most acclaimed singer-songwriters of our time and an advocate for women who were traumatised in their youth.
Melody Gardot, an astonishingly talented jazz singer, was the victim of a different kind of trauma. She was 18 when she was hit by a car while riding her bicycle in Philadelphia. She suffered head, back and pelvic injuries. After a year in hospital, she still experienced physical pain, became sensitive to light and struggled with her memory.
Her doctor addressed her brain issues by teaching her to hum, then encouraged her to start singing again and eventually to write songs. Her career as a jazz singer took off slowly because she is also sensitive to loud sounds, hence the subdued tone of her music. The injuries from her accident are visible when she is on stage and she performs with a cane in her hand.
Susannah McCorkle was one of the generation of singers who made a breakthrough in the 1950s. I like to mention McCorkle's name in the company of Lightfoot, Gauthier and Gardot because singing was her way of escaping her tumultuous life. She suffered from clinical depression and often had to interrupt her concerts to regain her balance. She always ended with The Waters of March, a beautiful song with a sombre ending.
McCorkle was married twice, survived breast cancer, and in the 1980s and 90s she was the resident singer at the Algonquin Hotel in New York. When the hotel terminated her contract in 2001, she ended her life by jumping from her apartment balcony. She was 55.
I offer two playlists with this article – one about Gordon Lightfoot, the other a collection of the best music by Mary Gauthier, Melody Gardot and Susannah McCorkle.
Once you've heard The Waters of March, it embeds itself permanently in the inner recesses of your skull, where Mary Gauthier's Mercy Now and Melody Gardot's Sweet Memory already twirl alongside so many Lightfoot songs.
I have nothing but admiration for these people.
Mary Gauthier, Melody Gardot, Susannah McCorkle:
♦ VWB ♦
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