There he stands. Looking strikingly like the man, the musician, I’ve always known.
Strange meeting him here,
in a toy shop,
if, in fact, this is
the folk troubadour wandering through my living room record collection back home.
with calm eyes and posture.
It can’t be him.
It doesn’t matter now.
It’s so special to meet this man, whoever he is.
He says nothing.
He looks at me like he knows me.
Like he cares.
People – customers – don’t do that. How strange.
But I do know him,
from lyrics sung about heartbreak,
truth, and celebration.
if it is Jackson Browne,
he knows how gratefully I embraced each of those.
The real Jackson Browne
has too many fans to know such things.
This man –
short in height
with beard rubble protruding from a compassionate face –
wears cool, casual clothes,
(freezing images of his stormy life on the rock and roll road, the megastar I expected to see).
There’s no less appropriate moment
to meet a soulful artist
than on a market showplace sales floor.
I almost want to apologize, but then,
because we understand each other,
I know he is with me.
But so quickly,
he is gone,
whoever he was,
lost in a customer crowd,
and out the door.
Yes, I did meet Jackson Browne today.
I know this man.
He looked at me like he knew me.
Like he cared.
Just like he cares about his songs
and his connection to the domain of people.
From spoken lyric
to radio station
to wavelengths through space
across to me – on Earth, in my town, my world, this shop – and my little transistor of senses.
So light a journey, so weighty his peaceful, universal words.
Three houses. Fifty years apart. Two people. One great musician. Come inside.
Gordon Lightfoot, songwriter of such hits as “If You Could Read My Mind,” “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” and “Sundown,” writes songs in total isolation and composes in big batches. Solitude is a must, part of his music methodology.
Owning two houses these days, he writes, practices the guitar and plays songs in one house while his wife and family live in the other. Isolation, Lightfoot’s key to creativity, must also be a killer. “Gee, honey, if only you could read my mind. Be back at sundown.” But it’s who Canadian-born Gordon Lightfoot seems to be, and has been from the start of his career. Liner notes from his second album, The Way I Feel, reveal him working alone for a week in a room of producer John Court’s house, perfecting the album’s material. The persistence produced a great collection of songs. But his very first album, Lightfoot!, released in January of 1966 – fifty years ago this month – is what interests me most.
The house I grew up in in Silver Spring, Maryland, was nowhere near Canada, no den of folk music, but – from time to time – entertained greatness. I’d already been educated by Bob Dylan and the Beatles from songs I heard over my family’s various transistor radios. Listening to Lightfoot!, a vinyl treasure brought into the house by my older sister and brothers, I’d never heard such personal ache set to music and lyrics, at least as our old living room Motorola stereo set could produce.
A moody kid, I related to the yearning voice in Lightfoot’s songs, as if he called out from a place of wilderness, the same place I felt somehow akin to despite living in suburban Maryland all my life. There was something that connected the two of us.
Where the long river flows It flows by my window Where the tall timber grows It grows ’round my door Where the mountains meet the sky And the white clouds fly Where the long river flows by my window
*[From “Long River”]
Listen to that song! Listen to all of them. I really want to play music like this. I love Lightfoot’s voice, precise guitar picking and great songwriting. Mom paid big money last year in hopes I’d learn guitar and piano, but I flopped both times, opportunities lost. I still play guitar in my room, dreaming I’ll be good some day. I ache – is playing music pleasure or pain?
Now here I am with my hat in my hand Standing on the broad highway will you give a ride To a lonesome boy who missed the train last night I went in town for one last round and I gambled my ticket away And the big steel rail won’t carry me home to the one I love
*[From “Steel Rail Blues”]
In a Orilla, Ontario, grocery store one day, Lightfoot’s mother heard him singing to himself. So moved by his melodic spontaneity, she encouraged him with music in school and church. By twelve, he excelled in voice, choir and piano, even going on to a regular gig in a barbershop quartet.
I’m gonna buy me two wings of silver Yes ‘n Lord to fly me home I’m gonna buy me two wings of silver Yes ‘n Lord to fly me home And when I get my silvery wings Then an angel choir will sing I’m gonna get me two wings of silver to get me home *[From “Rich Man’s Spiritual”]
I’m no good. Maybe I should quit. It’s frustrating having to figure out keys and chords, not to mention what key Lightfoot is singing in. Winter is bleak and grey. Alone in my room, light has abandoned me.
Oh gal don’t you say goodbye Now that I need you by my side Love me now or be on your way If you go be gone to stay
*[From “Oh Linda”]
Bob Dylan, frontrunner of the early sixties Folk Revival, inspired Lightfoot. As a result, his songwriting became more personal. In a Toronto club one night, he played the mournful ballad, “Early Morning Rain.” Folk group Ian & Sylvia heard him play it and became the first big group to record a Lightfoot song.
Out on runway number nine, big seven-o-seven set to go But I’m stuck here in the grass where the cold wind blows Now the liquor tasted good and the women all were fast Well now there she goes my friend, well she’s rolling down at last
*[From “Early Mornin’ Rain”]
Our house has come alive! No one ever agrees on anything, but all the sudden all four of us kids think Gordon Lightfoot is cool. Time to celebrate. I can even hear rejoice in Lightfoot’s voice.
Gonna buy me a long white robe Yes ‘n Lord to help me home I’m gonna buy me a long white robe Yes ‘n Lord to get me home And when I get my heavenly gown And I lay my burden down I’m gonna get me a long white robe to get me home
*[From “Rich Man’s Spiritual”]
Putting the Lightfoot! album together wasn’t all merriment. The New York City recording studio was sterile and unwelcoming – lonely – despite human companionship of an unmoved assistant engineer who assisted in recording the album by misspelling names of Lightfoot’s songs.
Here in this cold room lyin’ Don’t want to see no one but you Lord I wish I could be dyin’ To forget you
*[From “Ribbon of Darkness”]
I can’t read a lick of music, but what feels so good is how I can play any song on guitar by ear. And my finger pickings sound just like what I hear Lightfoot doing. I’m actually pretty good. But I also spend a lot of time getting to be pretty good. Over and over. Day after day. Kinda alone.
The way I feel is like a robin Whose babes have flown to come no more Like a tall oak tree alone and cryin’ When the birds have flown and the nest is bare
*[From “The Way I Feel”]
Two albums later, with a folk following of his own, Lightfoot has a band family to support in addition to his own back home. Responsibility is high. Pressure mounts. And the Folk Revival is dying. Rock and roll is taking over. Lightfoot must reinvent himself without going that way. There’s still room for ballads and romanticism without sentimentality, isn’t there? Boom, his fourth album, Sit Down Young Stranger, goes gold in 1970.
Oh may the light of freedom shine For all the world to see And peace and joy to all mankind Through all the years to be For soon the leaves will die And the long hard wind will blow May this world find a resting place Where peaceful waters flow
*[From “Peaceful Waters”]
A song comes to my mind. I like writing songs. Each breathes its own air. It’s the boss. It leads me, I do not lead it. I must listen, listen carefully in the cold silence, for which direction I must go. Song – is king.
I can’t say I’ll always do The things you want me to I’m not saying I’ll be true but I’ll try
*[From “I’m Not Sayin’”]
Suddenly, there’s regular Lightfoot gigs on weekly TV shows, Midnight Special and Don Kirchner’s Rock Concert. But then a diagnosis of Bells Palsy, drugs and alcohol abuse in the 70’s and 80’s, a 2002 abdominal hemorrhage that left him in a coma for five weeks, and a small stroke in 2004.
This old airport’s got me down, it’s no earthly good to me ‘Cause I’m stuck here on the ground, as cold and drunk as I can be You can’t jump a jet plane like you can a freight train So I’d best be on my way in the early mornin’ rain
*[From “Early Mornin’ Rain”]
In an 2008 interview with Matt Fink of American Songwriter magazine, Lightfoot said all his marriages were doomed to fail due to his need for isolation to write. Yet, as of today, he’s compiled 20 albums, 16 Juno awards (Canadian Grammys), Canadian Music Hall of Fame membership, and has had many of his songs sung by an impressive list of great musicians. Was all the work, the grind – the isolation – worth it?
I have to get out of the house. It’s time to go fishing.
As I drive through the beautiful forests in Bandelier National Monument on my way to fish near Jemez Springs, New Mexico, I slide the Lightfoot! song collection into my CD player.
Sixteen miles to seven lakes way up among the pines In some hidden valley where the twirlin’ river twines Where the fish swim up and down and the sparklin’ waters falls Where the thunder rolls and the lonely puma calls
*[From “Sixteen Miles (To Seven Lakes)”]
A tear comes to my eye.
Isolation isn’t so bad, at least when shared with Gordon Lightfoot.
I’m shaking, and so sorry I’d paid any attention to this sudden urge.
On a lark, I’d checked the Yellow Pages for churches in my area. No way I’d find a Lutheran church this close to Mexico, right? But there it was, listed under Santa Fe. Curious, I headed out to see it.
What crazy urge had led me to believe I’d find a New England style-looking Lutheran church in New Mexico? This church was a brown box with cross on top. Yearning still, I walked inside the house of worship, hoping to rekindle a childhood memory of Christmas Eve’s past.
Forget dark ambience, all-wood vaulted ceiling, stained glass windows, and stubby pew pencils Lutherans were famous for providing congregations. The interior here was white-walled sterility.
Even the program was different. On the first page, the opening hymn had been scrapped, replaced by a song from some guy named “Paul Stookey.”
I sat to think a second. Could this be the same Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame? The famous Peter, Paul and Mary characters not in the Bible, ones I’d been forced to study in catechism class? Was there a cover charge at the door tonight I didn’t know about?
Sure enough, five minutes later, “Paul Stookey” stood before the congregation and sang. He looked like Stookey, sang like Stookey, thus, had to be Stookey. An actual celebrity was here among us, and he was Lutheran. I didn’t know Lutherans were allowed to become celebrities.
The wooden pew I sat in, the only truly authentic element I could spot from my boyhood church recollections, warmed me to the church’s modern thing going on. Completely scrapped hymns. Hip musicians. Hip songs. Relaxed dress code. Brighter ambiance. Bring it on.
Then the minister took over. Standing at the pulpit, he pumped out the day’s Bible reading, the Gospel, the Epistle – “Oh, brother on high,” this, “Oh, brother on high,” that. Trapped, I left his tiring, pious world for a far loftier one by humming “Leaving on a Jet Plane” for fifteen minutes straight.
After the minister left the podium, the congregation stood. All hands enveloped open hymnals while open mouths poured out the song’s first line, O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie ….
Tingles went up the back of my head. My chest constricted, as if the pews were grabbing hold of me and wouldn’t let go.
Above your deep and dreamless sleep / The silent stars go by. / Yet in thy dark streets shineth / The everlasting light. / The hopes and fears of all the years / Are met in thee tonight.
Images poured in. Our Christmas tree. The dark Christmas Eve sky and all its stars. Siblings Don, Doug and Cathy opening presents beside me on the basement floor. Mom looking happy. Dad acting happy. Eggnog overflowing. All other days of the year forgotten for this one moment. As various reflections on Mom and Dad lingered, I realized how much I missed my parents, and how much I loved them, or desperately tried to.
My eyes welled from hearing the tune. I couldn’t let people see me cry. I must not let them see my cry.
I bit my lip. I stared at the walls. I breathed deeply. I reviewed the upcoming Sunday NFL schedule. I toured the inside of my bank.
It was the bank tour that did it. I needed every image of cold teller cubicles and financial offices to block my feelings. I’d won, although wondered why a tender melody should cause such turbulence.
Tired, wounded from fatigue, I hoped to rest during the sermon. But the minister pounded his “Oh, brother” message over and over again.
I shot back with multiple rounds of “If I Had a Hammer.” Unfortunately, humming “Hammer” was tiring, too. Wrecked, exhausted, I closed my eyes.
Go forward, go hide. Go fight, go rest. Go feel, go numb. Mom, Dad. Then, now. Block, release. Religion, self-determination.
I opened my eyes. It dawned on me the fire of religion had drawn out just about every conceivable emotion in me during childhood. Living in our suppressed family household, had religion been a good thing to experience after all? Even now? Something from religion had to have been good for me, right?
A book cracked. The man next to me opened his hymnal to Hymn number 646. “Silent Night.” The “Silent Night.” I grabbed hold of the pew like I’d never let go.
Silent night, holy night. All is calm, all is bright.
Just two lines, and I surrendered the fight.
I give in to all of what “Silent Night” meant to me. Its timeless melody put my body at total rest, mind at ease, and eyes in a place to shed their load, and, for one moment, blended all the good I’d ever known about church into one experience of blessed musical sounds, not to mention a little revisionist’s history. It’s as if someone from the back row had been saying, “It’s the music, brother – it’s music!”
This was a personal essay based on an episode in my memoir, “Maybe Boomer.”
I have no idea what I did to celebrate my birthday as a young teen in 1967. It doesn’t matter. I’m celebrating now. Or will this Thursday. It marks not only my birthday but a special anniversary date.
On the evening of January 22, 1967, Simon and Garfunkel played in Philharmonic Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City. Growing up in the DC area, I was unaware the concert was happening.
However, by that year of my life, I’d already learned to play the guitar, mostly from figuring out – all by ear – the chords and finger pickings of most Simon and Garfunkel songs. Their compositions inspired me to caress music, to play it with my own two hands, even harmonize vocals with other musicians. By the time I turned twenty-one, I not only knew all the songs from their five studio albums, but recognized myself as a committed musician.
How great it must have been to see and hear Simon and Garfunkel perform live, especially that night. They’d just completed their third album and were honing their folk/rock oeuvre at a time when performers, audience and excitement truly harmonized.
As I listen to the CD of that concert now (released in 2002), the banter between Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel was sparse but sincere, often humorous. During songs, the audience remained deadly silent, that is, until culminating every song with lively applause. The stage was lined with seats in front and behind the singers (I learned later), creating a sort of intimate theater in the round effect. So many people, such close proximity, yet still so silent: one could hear the slightest off note from Art Garfunkel, or drop of a guitar pick by Simon at any moment, neither of which occurred during a full two hour performance. From this concert and hundreds like it to follow, along with two more extremely successful albums, Simon and Garfunkel were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Not too long ago, just before they received their 2012 Grammy award, I attended an Arcade Fire concert. Like the Simon and Garfunkel event, their music performance had roughly the same size audience. And, as Simon and Garfunkel have been known for, Arcade Fire relies on ensemble singing and harmony. But times have-a-changed.
The audience I was with stood the entire night. They looked up at a six-foot high stage for hours. The speaker towers blew away any semblance of nuance. To me, the concert was one long loud note with interchangeable beats in the background as the only element to provide variety.
One raving Arcade Fire fan introduced himself to me not face to face, but butt to face, from behind, that is, from overhead, as he was passed to the front row by scores of outstretched arms of frenzied fans. Suddenly finding myself in the center of a mosh pit, it was a concert I’ll never forget! But, as a musical event, it’s one I’d like to mostly leave behind from memory.
Simon and Garfunkel vs. Arcade Fire – an unfair comparison of concerts for sure. All I can say is one blew me away; the other seduced me in.
On June 1, 1967, The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. Later that month, the Monterey Pop Festival occurred. In December, The Graduate was released, complete with Simon and Garfunkel’s signature song and smash hit, “Mrs. Robinson.” And with Woodstock two years later, pop music was evolving very quickly, and the Folk Revival of the Sixties was pretty much dead. Perhaps with it, innocence.
Even Paul Simon knew it was inevitable. In many ways, he speaks for me, too, in his words from “Leaves That Are Green:”
I was twenty-one years when I wrote this song. I’m twenty-three now but I won’t be for long. Time hurries on. And the leaves that are green turn to brown, And they wither with the wind, And they crumble in your hand.
Once my heart was filled with the love of a girl. I held her close, but she faded in the night, Like a poem I meant to write. And the leaves that are green turn to brown. And they wither with the wind, And they crumble in your hand.
I threw a pebble in a brook And watched the ripples run away. And they never made a sound. And the leaves that are green turn to brown. And they wither with the wind, And they crumble in your hand.
Hello, Hello, Hello, Hello. Good-bye, Good-bye, Good-bye, Good-bye. That’s all there is. And the leaves that are green turn to brown.
November 23rd, 1970. On that day, Cat Stevens released his second album, Tea for the Tillerman. Yes, it was that long ago.
As I young teen sowing his primitive social and musical oats, I was a sponge. As I listen to the album now, drops from my musical memory bank bring back each song from this magical – often confusing – album, and with them, the angst and joy of those times.
Forty-four years ago today, sometime in the afternoon, I heard the album for the first time. Those hours resonate as if experienced today.
“Where Do the Children Play?”
Instantly, I like this song. And it’s easy to play, basically all written around a D chord – my favorite one. Could I, would I, might I try to play it for friends? I bet they’d be impressed. But I’d only do it if they sang the lyrics. Playing the song is one thing; singing the damned thing is another.
“Hard Headed Woman”
I return the phonograph needle to the beginning of “Hard Headed Woman” three more before I get my fill. What beautiful violins. I’ve never heard classical music like this in a rock album. I’m so in the moment listening to “Woman,” although I don’t really know what he means by “hard headed.” I love how he yells out “I know!” in the line “I know … many fine feathered friends, but their friendliness depends on how you do.” I can yell it, too, but that’s about my only vocal contribution.
Of course, everyone’s already heard this on the radio a million times. Because of “Wild World,” however, people will know who I’m talking about when I mention how great “the new Cat Stevens album is.”
Oh, God, the sad piano, and more violins – the violins. Now this is the kind of woman I know, a sad girl “with eyes like windows, tricklin’ rain.” It’s like Cat Stevens is speaking for her, for me. But the song doesn’t really work on guitar. It’s a piano song. I don’t have a piano. A man needs his guitar. Without one, I am sad. Bad sad.
“Miles From Nowhere”
Cat groans boisterously “Miles from nowhere!” And my own “nowhere” groan is pretty good, too. It’s great to sing out like this. And the chords are easy so I can strum loud like an electric guitar. “Miles from nowhere / not a soul in sight / but it’s alright / I have my freedom / I can make my own rules / The ones that I choose.” My once unflappable folk roots seem miles from nowhere, too.
“But I Might Die Tonight”
I’m confused. It seems the words are knocking having a good job, getting ahead and all that. I mean, if Dad didn’t have a good job, wouldn’t our family be in poverty? And the song’s too short. I don’t get it.
These lyrics are weird: “How does a flower grow?” “Longer boats?” “Mary dropped her pants by the sand and met a parson come and take her hand.” So far, Side 2 has taken me aback but, as usual, I don’t really care about lyrics. It’s the music that moves me. The guitar hook that sails from the beginning of “Boats” through to the end has landed me in musical bliss.
More strange lyrics, but, for some reason, I relate. Is it because I like to paint and he paints, too, like he did to create the scene on the album cover? His colors and subjects – “Brown-haired dogmouse,” “Yellow delanie,” and “Red-legged chicken” – are they all “emptying into white,” as if onto a blank white canvas? Or is Cat Stevens on drugs? It’s still a good song though.
“On the Road to Find Out”
Yes! I’ve figured out how to play the opening guitar riff. It’s hard up that high on the last two strings, but I get it. Yes, I am Cat Stevens now! And I’m playing the song out in the woods of College Park (Maryland), simulating the woodland world depicted on the back photo of the album jacket. “On the Road to Find Out” is hard for me to sing but, being way out here, no one can hear that.
“Father and Son”
Dad’s not like the father portrayed in this song. He’s not the compassionate “I was once like you are now …” kind of father. But he’s never made me feel like yelling, “From the moment I could talk I was ordered to listen [to you, Dad]” either. For this reason, even though it seems to be all my friend’s favorite song from the album, “Father and Son” has never been mine.
“Tea for the Tillerman”
Tea for the tillerman? What’s that? And this song is too short and too out there for me to get into. I can’t believe it’s the title song to the album.
Some songs on Tea for the Tillerman are not me. So why does the album grab me so hard? Why? The songs go round and round in my head. I can’t let them go. I can’t let the album go.
That was then. This is hindsight. Little did I know at the time how Cat Stevens’ album would speak for me, free me, both musically and personally. After inhaling his collection of tunes, I no longer felt miles from nowhere. Even if I inhaled life indirectly, I at least lived more. And from that place of experience, I moved on, matured, and learned life is a celebration – banquet, if you will – of love, people, events and beauty (and that “Tea for the Tillerman” is, after all, a good song, one all about life).
“Tea for the Tillerman”
Bring tea for the tillerman, Steak for the sun,
Wine for the woman who made the rain come
Seagulls sing your hearts away, ‘cause while
sinners sin the children play, Oh lord how they play
and play, For that happy day
Quote of the day: Each loss has its compensation. — H. Butterworth
For years, I’ve created playlist after playlist of songs on my iPod based on consistent mood and sound level so I might experience a c-o-n-t-r-o-l-l-e-d and p-r-e-d-i-c-t-a-b-l-e g-r-o-o-v-e when listening to music while driving. Suddenly, however, I seem to have lost that desire – I’ve been programming the iPod to play whatever it wants from the 850 songs on my music catalogue by hitting “Shuffle Songs.”
Wow. I’m on the edge of my seat now, wondering what song will be played next. What was wrong with this concept in the first place?
Shuffle songs. Shuffle events. Shuffle expectations. And enjoy not knowing what comes next.