TORONTO – Whether victimized by an aortic aneurysm or careless newspaper editors, Gordon Lightfoot has danced with death plenty of times before.
So it’s more disarming than surprising to hear the 73-year-old Canadian songwriting legend speak so casually about his own mortality on a sunny spring afternoon at his home in north Toronto.
So thoroughly have such concerns permeated Lightfoot’s life that even something as simple as his new live disc “All Live” seems inextricably bound to some grim concerns. Initially, the album was intended for post-humous release â€” in Lightfoot’s own words, it was to come out “after (he was) pushing up daisies.”
But it’s coming out on Tuesday instead, only because his longtime guitarist Terry Clements died last year and Lightfoot didn’t want any confusion over who was behind the recording’s ethereal lead guitar.
Sadness seems to have motivated Lightfoot. He’s had enough close calls for a lifetime, and is now determined to make the most of the life he has left.
“I’m fully prepared to go whenever I’m taken,” said Lightfoot calmly. “I’ve been almost dead a couple times, once almost for real…. I have more incentive to continue now because I feel I’m on borrowed time, in terms of age.
“I’ve got lots of shining examples of people out there who can keep up the pace. And I’d like to be one of those people.”
But before Lightfoot can move forward, he wanted to look back.
“All Live” consists of 19 recordings handpicked by Lightfoot, all recorded within the warm confines of Toronto’s legendary Massey Hall, all captured between 1998 and 2001.
It’s easy to understand why Lightfoot felt that was the optimal period from which to draw. Less than a year later, he suffered that aforementioned aneurysm and went on to endure a coma, more surgery and a rehabilitation period that he says stretched for two and a half years.
He says that health scare took “some of the starch” out of his voice, while another ailment in 2006 â€” a transient ischemic attack, or minor stroke, that hit Lightfoot onstage â€” affected his ability to play his guitar for a time. He dismisses the seriousness of this second incident now.
“That little stroke I had up north was nothing,” he remarked with a degree of defiance.
“I fought my way back in seven or eight months.”
Yet he does acknowledge that even that event came perilously close to forever impairing his speech.
These health problems left Lightfoot drained but also driven. He didn’t want to stop performing, nor did he want his performances to be compromised by his declining health. So he decided to work even harder to maintain a state of perpetual stage-readiness.
“I feel very fortunate that I’ve been able to maintain (for) this long, and part of it was a desire to get out there and get in front of the crowd,” said Lightfoot, clad in a navy blue T-shirt, a black zip-up sweater and corduroy pants hanging over a bright pair of Nike sneakers.
“The first responsibility is family and the very next thing in line is the music, you know?”
Lightfoot has said many times that he doesn’t plan on recording albums of new music, so it’s his live performances that are the focus now.
He performed more than 60 shows across North America last year and he has dozens more dates scheduled through the summer and fall, including June shows in Montreal and cities across Ontario.
Lightfoot’s life is all structure and routine now, a strict regimen designed to help him stay physically ready for the demanding touring lifestyle that he, well, demands.
For instance? The thin but sinewy Lightfoot works out six days a week. He always drives himself and parks under Toronto’s City Hall. He always passes the same cluster of down-on-their-luck types, always readies five- or 10-dollar bills to distribute to their outstretched hands. He misses the gym only on Fridays when he rehearses, or when he drives his youngest son to taekwondo.
He only gives himself a break while travelling, but…
“The very last thing I must do before I leave town is go to the (gym) and the very first thing I must do when I get back to Toronto is (go) right back into the gym,” he said.
“I started doing it because I wanted to stay physically up for the kind of work that I do because I have to get up larger than life, when the moment of truth arrives. And I only want to do one thing: I want to do the best job that I can possibly do.
“And that’s all I want to do, is to do a great job onstage. Because I love the work.”
That mantra â€” “I love the work” â€” is one that Lightfoot repeats over and over during this wide-ranging conversation, and he takes a similarly intense approach with other elements of his work life.
In his charmingly cluttered study, biographies of Mozart, Lance Armstrong and Bob Dylan mingle with backstage passes for Ozzy Osbourne and Rush gigs, bits of guitar gear, and enough pieces of outdated audio equipment to fill a pawn shop. Piles of VHS tapes and burned CDs chronicling Lightfoot’s live performances allow him to study and smooth out any wrinkles.
He also says he’s taken on some of the duties of steering his career by managing his own office in midtown Toronto now, and he dutifully takes up the task of spinning each disc he’s sent by up-and-coming musical outfits as he cruises in his car.
Even when he sits down to watch a hockey game, Lightfoot does so with his guitar in hand, practising.
“At my age, I’m happy to have a routine,” Lightfoot said. “Where I am now, my energy now is totally committed to doing my job.”
Where Lightfoot once had the reputation for being an inscrutable and tough interview, he’s warm and surprisingly open over the course of this chat at his home. (Located in one of Toronto’s wealthiest neighbourhoods, Lightfoot’s impressive property is probably the only house on its meticulously manicured block with a rickety lawn chair positioned out front, where Lightfoot sits to sneak the odd cigarette).
Part of the reason for his bright mood is a new relationship, about which Lightfoot speaks with the ebullient enthusiasm of a man (or giddy teen) a quarter his age.
He divorced his second wife, Elizabeth Moon, in 2011 after a separation that Lightfoot said lasted nine years. He says their arrangement now is amicable â€” “more water under the bridge” â€” and they live apart but care for their two kids (aged 17 and 22) together.
Lightfoot met his new squeeze back in 2008. She works in the film industry in L.A., but Lightfoot says they visit often. He whispers that she’s a couple of decades younger than him, but as he says it, it’s Lightfoot that shines with a youthful glow.
“It’s actually quite surprising, I never thought I’d have a girlfriend again for as long as I’ve lived,” he said.
“I didn’t know I was open to it. I really did not. She opened me to it. She introduced herself to me, that’s how it happened. I didn’t even know she liked me, I knew her for a long time.
“I’m 74 years old,” he adds, tacking on an extra year for good measure. “So don’t give up hope guys, wherever you are.”
He’s similarly honest when quizzed about his past. Life on the road, now seemingly so rejuvenating, once threatened to ruin him.
“When my first marriage broke up, it took me years to get over it,” recalled Lightfoot, who divorced Brita Ingegerd Olaisson in 1973.
“I had a good wife and two great kids, but the business just ate me up. The women ate me up. I wasn’t able to resist. I can now, but not then. And then it was alcohol, and there’s no greater catalyst to getting into further (trouble) than drinking.”
During his second marriage, he said he instituted a rule on the road that no one was allowed in his hotel room. But still there were problems.
“My first problems in my second marriage started about two months after we got married, a couple random incriminating-looking fan letters got into my wife’s hands. And that was almost the death knell of the marriage, right then and there.”
Now? Well, like much in his life, things are different.
“I just don’t indulge now,” he said. “I’m too smart for that.”
Given the apparent ease and clarity with which Lightfoot looks back on his life and career, it would seem that a memoir would be a logical next step for the “If You Could Read My Mind” songwriter.
But he’s just not sure how the story would end.
“It’s not over yet,” said Lightfoot, smiling.
“I’m just wondering who’s going to win. Is it going to be the Grim Reaper or my story?”