Writing Canada’s Hidden Hero

As the former frontman of
beloved Canadian indie rockers the Rheostatics and acclaimed author of a series
of non-fiction books, Dave Bidini is something close to a connoisseur's icon of
Canuck culture. Fitting, then, that he takes on one of Can-Rock's most
intriguing stars in his new Writing
Gordon Lightfoot
. Using Toronto's 1972 Mariposa folk festival-which Bob
Dylan
, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Lightfoot all attended-as a jumping-off
point, Bidini explores his enigmatic subject's music and cultural influence.

Look, I know that for most
music fans, Lightfoot is maybe best-known-if he's known at all-as one of these
'70s sensitive singer-songwriter types who shows up on cheap compilations. But
for Canadians-as Bidini deftly argues-he's something more, closer to a
foundational figure. I called Bidini at his home in Toronto to discuss.

For non-Canadians, Lightfoot is generally remembered, I
think, as neither a star nor a cult hero. Would about him appealed to you as a
subject?
His life hasn't been
overwritten, I suppose. There was one book about him maybe 25 years ago but
that's it. He's elusive. He very rarely goes on the record to talk about his
life. And subjects that you have to really work to get your head around are often
the most interesting ones.

For those who don't know, can you put Lightfoot in a
cultural context?
I think he's a living
artifact. He'd take exception to that, but he's one of the few performers who
can connect the old Canada
with the new Canada.
Musicians, especially the who have come up in the last ten years, can listen to
him and get a sense of what Canadian music was like in the early '60s and get a
sense of what this music was like when it was being born. It's a common ground.
You can talk to your grandfather about him. He's one of the building blocks.
He's very deeply rooted in terms of Canadians understanding themselves.

But what is distinctly Canadian about his music? When you think about his early music, especially the first
Lightfoot album (1966's Lightfoot!),
every Canadian musician of the time was aspiring to be the Beatles or Frank
Sinatra
. They were writing about this faux-big city life that didn't actually
exist in Canada.
Gord sang about his backyard, nature, growing up in [the Ontario
town of] Orillia.
By talking about something that was so local and regional and dear to him he
was able to tap into the universal. That wool-sweatered acoustic guitar
sound-looking back and not knowing the context it might seem trite now, but it
was revolutionary at the time.

What was his relationship with Bob Dylan? He went on before Dylan at his famous Newport concert in 1964 when he went
electric. But the most interesting thing was that Dylan's going electric had no
influence at all on Gord. After Dylan, every folksinger wanted to go electric.
But Gord didn't. I was fascinated by the resolute and stubborn nature of his
art. He refused to be bent one way or another. I think staying on that one
track made him more respected. He stuck to his guns.

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