Writing Gordon Lightfoot is nominated for the 2012 Toronto Book Award.

McClelland & Stewart, 2011

Many readers will say that they never read a book just because it has been nominated for an award.

There are just as many people who rarely read but will, occasionally, pick up a Giller Prize winning novel or something with a bright and shiny badge on it that suggests it’s a recipient of something else bright and shiny.

Somewhere, between those groups, I’m sitting on a park bench with a copy of this book, with its long and sprawly subtitle, thinking that I might just read a few pages and set it aside.

Award lists pull my reading into unexpected directions and widen my reading world. And The Man, The Music, and the World in 1972 sounds as though there is something for every reader herein.

This is Dave Bidini’s tenth book and he wrote it against the advice of his agent and his wife, who believed that the fact that Gordon Lightfoot wouldn’t speak to him would interfere with the work’s success.

Nonetheless, Dave Bidini pressed forward, inspired by materials unearthed in the Toronto Reference Library’s archives.

While researching the 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival, a turning point in Canadian music, he found a confluence of events in the seven days leading up to the festival.

From July 10 to July 17, the Canada-Russia hockey teams were announced, the largest jailbreak in Canadian history erupted, The Rolling Stone were on an unforgettable tour and playing Maple Leaf Gardens, Pioneer 10 began its journey towards Jupiter, the Bobby Fischer – Boris Spassky chess summit began, and there was an eclipse of the sun.

The work is divided into seven sections, each divided again into one part historical musings and the other part a letter written by the author to Gordon Lightfoot.

Reading these historical sections is a lot like buying a record used to be:

some sections are truly fascinating (the songs that made you want to buy the album),

some are not as interesting, but still good, and they fall between two other sections that are interesting  (so it’s easier to allow the string of songs to play straight through than it is to get up and adjust the needle on the player),

and some you simply endure (or skip, if you were getting up to get a drink anyhow, and had to pass the record player on your way).

And, of course, what appeals to one reader (or listener) might well bore the next.

(I actually wouldn’t have predicted it, but found the parts about the Trudeaus really interesting, along with individuals’ fragmented reminiscences of the songwriter, whereas I found the parts about the evolving character of the music festival less interesting.)

Nineteen seventy-two “was the end of a country defined only by the power of the land and the beginning of an urban renaissance. It was the end of Newfoundland’s premier, Joey Smallwood, and the beginning of any local politician other than him. It was the end of Canada feeling inferior for being large and young and beautiful and the beginning of a time when, as we moved our lands from our eyes, we found that being large and young and beautiful wasn’t such a bad thing.” (117-8)

The letters to Gordon Lightfoot are written in a different style. Not only do they address him directly, but they do so as though there have been a few rounds of drinks between each chapter.

“First came your perfectly economical and true songs of love and pain. Then, a seven-minute panorama of a country. Oh, man.” (226)

The tone is jocular but there is a consistent undertone of respect. Whether or not it was always the case, the reader has a sense that Dave Bidini truly values this singer-songwriter’s contribution to Canadian culture.

“Your music tapped into the very essense of the Canadian soul at a time when Canadians were just trying to figure out who they were and what they were about. You gave your people a voice. You gave them a musical hero.” (172)

It sounds reverential at times, but in the context of the work (even if you haven’t lived in or around this time), it makes sense.

“Everyone talks about how you provided a cultural bridge: how you bridged town to city, country music to folk, folk to pop, old to new, square to hip, Canadian music to hit radio, and, later, the sixties sound to the seventies.” (172)

In an interview with Shelagh Rogers, available via archived podcast of The Next Chapter. April 18, 2011, Dave Bidini explains the way he views the evolving relationship between rock ‘n’ roll and Canlit:

“Canlit needed some rock’n’roll, wanted to drive the flaming van into the old brick building that houses so many of the great works. Rock’n’roll loosens up Canlit and Canlit validates Canadian rock’n’roll. “They’re cousins that don’t see each other a lot, so when they do get together, you know, something new and different and interesting and warm really is created out of it.”

Dave Bidini’s book about Gordon Lightfoot is different and interesting, and something warm really is created.

I wasn’t of an age to sit and watch his first performance of “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy”, which was commissioned in 1967, but his records were playing in the background when I was growing up. (You can see half a minute of his first public performance of this work on CBC Archives: check it out.)

Writing Gordon Lightfoot almost makes me wish that I was a few years older, so that I could have lived these years for myself.