If you could read Gordon Lightfoot’s mind, you’d discover an 80-year-old tale of singing and writing hits like “Sundown” and “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” near death experiences, lost loves and the lasting romance he found with his wife of four years, Kim Hasse.
His gentle voice and powerful music has earned him four Grammy noms, 13 Juno [Canadian Grammy] awards and a place in the Songwriters Hall of Fame. Bob Dylan, who inducted Gordon into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, said, “Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.” And at the rate Gordon is going, it just might: He’s now embarking on a North American tour and writing a new album. What else does he hope to accomplish?
“The biggest thing is looking after my six kids, five grandkids and a great grandchild that’s on the way — he’s in the hangar!” Gordon laughs in an exclusive interview with Closer. “My motto is: Don’t stop now.”
Your tour starts March 4 in Sacramento, California. What keeps you going?
When I’m getting the kind of response that I get from my crowd. I had no idea that I’d still be performing at the age of 80. I actually didn’t know I had it in me!
If we could read your mind now, what tale would your thoughts tell?
OK … right now I’m thinking about the arrangements I’m writing for my orchestra. The one I’m working on now is “Easy Flo.”
What’s the song about?
It’s about my new wife. Florence is not her name, but it’s still about her. You can think of it as “easy flow.” She’s like that.
Did anything inspire this new album? It’ll be your first one since 2004.
You come to a realization that there’s enough material inside of you that you know you’re going to be able to do it. I’ve got a full tank here! I hope to make it by the end of the year. It’s like writing a novel.
Especially your songs — they’re very literary and filled with imagery.
I try to make them that way. My gift, for whatever it’s worth, is to make all the songs different — different topics, keys, tempos.
Your 1976 hit “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” was based on a real-life shipwreck from the year before. Why did you write about that?
Around that time, there was a five-year period where I had two different sailboats, and I sailed into Lake Huron, which was part of that whole [passageway for] freighters in the Great Lakes. One evening when I heard about it in the news, I had a melody and some chords, and all of a sudden I had a story. Then I got newspapers that were misspelling it as Edmond. It’s Edmund. That’s probably what got me going.
How did writing it affect your life?
I became involved with the Mariners’ Church of Detroit, where Reverend Ingalls rang the bell 29 times [for each lost person]. I got to meet hundreds of people there. Every few years I go to the church, and I’ve even played the song there.
I read that your 1970 song “If You Could Read My Mind” was inspired by your first marriage to Brita Olaisson from 1963–’73.
It was kind of an unrequited love tune, partly to do with life’s roller coaster. Marriages that don’t succeed, unfortunately — I guess it relates to that.
How did your relationship change after you became famous with that song?
We married shortly after I turned 24. By 1970, we had two babies. My wife came here from Sweden to work for a business machine corporation, and she was very hip, very helpful and a great mother. But I had to leave after seven years, had to separate and divorce.
So it was due to the fame and touring?
[Quietly] Yeah, just, you know, one too many women I guess. Just one too many women.
You overcame a drinking problem?
That ended in 1982 and I was totally dry until 2005, when I had a glass of wine. Apparently what was acting as fuel for all those years began putting me to sleep! So I did not become an alcoholic again.
How did you quit?
Every week I’d have to report to a doctor, and he’d ask me if I had a drink. I fell off the wagon after six weeks. When I told him, he wrote me a prescription for Antabuse, which makes you vomit. I said, “Please don’t! I promise I won’t do it again.”
What made you have that glass of wine in 2005?
I went through about two-and-a-half years where I couldn’t work at all [starting] in 2002, due to an aortic aneurism that very nearly killed me. It took me about 19 months to recover and then another nine months before I made it back onstage. So in 2005, I had the glass of wine. At this point I will occasionally have a beer or wine. Never the bottle of alcohol a day like I used to do.
You also got emphysema. How are you?
I gave up smoking. I started when I was 15 years old. It was ruining my voice and I knew it … I will occasionally indulge in some of the other stuff — it’s legal in Canada. I’m not without sin. [Laughs]
In December you celebrated your fourth anniversary with your third wife, Kim. How did you find love so late in life?
When I was 69, I had been separated from my [second] wife. I was playing in Tampa [Fla.] and a group of people came from LA. We were introduced — she has a wonderful personality and works in the film industry. I fell for her.
How’s everything with your kids, Fred, Ingrid, Galen, Eric, Miles and Meredith?
Oh, it’s great! My oldest boy, Fred, is 56, and my youngest girl, Meredith Moon, is 23 — she’s an entertainer, too. My youngest grandkid is around 4 and the oldest is around 30.
Anything you wish you’d done but didn’t?
In 1978, they wanted me to do a movie of “Edmund Fitzgerald”; they’d gotten a well-known actor to play the captain and wanted me to play a deckhand. But I had come from a canoe trip and was already back into booze.
In 2012 you said, “I feel I’m on borrowed time.” Do you still feel that way?
It sounds like something a guy would say if he were 73, but here I am, still walking around, so I must withdraw that thought! Now that I’m making another album, my 21st, I feel like a different person. I got the old push back! [Laughs]
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