Here, according to Toronto troubadour Gordon Lightfoot, is what it’s like to wake up from a coma:
“It’s like you’ve been lying in a great big box—and suddenly, the box is turned over. My eardrums were crashing, like a cupboard fell over in my head and all the plates and cups shattered at once.” Lightfoot paused to take a sip of tea. “Two days later, I was thinking of music again.”
Lightfoot says the six-week coma itself remains a blank, but a rather pleasant one: “No visions, no worries.” It followed an acute abdominal aneurysm that nearly killed him; he was in and out of the hospital for a year and a half.
And the moment he was out, he started recording again.
“I wasn’t sure if I would ever get my voice back,” he says now, six years after his illness. “Or my fingers. I practiced guitar for hours and hours every day.
“And now I’m doing 60 shows a year.”
He’s nearly 70, but he’s recaptured the life he’s led since he was a teenager—the life of the working musician.
Born in Orillia, Ontario, Lightfoot stands at the center of the Canadian music folk-rock renaissance, a pantheon that takes in Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, Ian and Sylvia and Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson and k.d. lang. Many of them have covered each other’s music (Lightfoot considers lang’s rendition of “Hallelujah” the best version of Cohen’s often-recorded song); most of them have covered Lightfoot’s.
And so has everybody else. If he hadn’t had the dreamy, potent voice and the Byronic Viking looks that first made him a star on the coffeehouse scene in the 1960s, Lightfoot could still have had a major music career strictly as a songwriter.
In fact, his songs were popular before he was. The folk music trio Peter, Paul & Mary, then at the height of their popularity, had a hit with “Early Mornin’ Rain”; Marty Robbins took “Ribbon of Darkness” to the top of the country charts; Barbra Streisand discovered sophisticated possibilities in Lightfoot’s touching ballad of heartbreak, “If You Could Read My Mind.”
“I never heard a cover I didn’t like,” Lightfoot says of them (and the many, many others). “I feel deeply honored when somebody else wants to sing my songs.”
“If You Could Read My Mind” marked Lightfoot’s U.S. breakout as a performer, 38 years ago. The 1970s also brought him three more major successes as a singer/songwriter: “Sundown,” “Carefree Highway” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” a song inspired by a real-life maritime disaster on Lake Superior.
At the same time, Lightfoot was leading the full-speed-ahead musician’s life, drinking heavily and drifting from one relationship to the next. His six children, ranging in age from their teens to their 40s, have four different mothers. Lightfoot speaks warmly of his late first wife, “a Swede named Rita. She was my muse—the best muse of all. But the marriage only lasted seven years.
“I couldn’t hold on. I had albums to make, I had songs to sing, I had things to do.”
He had drinks to drink, too, until he “just stopped” in 1982, helped by a physician and his sister. He said he leads a pretty quiet life now, living alone but enjoying, and valuing, the company of his family (five of his children also live in Toronto) and longtime friends, like the musicians he’s performed with for years. Most of them have reunited for the tour.
“Everybody wanted to do this,” he said. “Put all of our families together, and there are 30 or 40 people involved (in the tour schedule), but we’re all feeling good. There’s been a lot of trauma, but right now I’m happy. I’m in charge.”