Letter to Gordon Lightfoot No. 9

Hey Gord. How’s it going? Still good, I hope. I see you’re playing a lot this summer and that’s awesome. As one gets older, one understands more and more the impossibility of age and the struggles of trying to keep moving through the pain and ennui and sore shoulders and gammy legs and busted hips to keep playing, to say nothing of the emotional poison that can gather and feed on itself, making things appear way worse than they are. The artist in twilight has to keep looking for the sun, which means staring past the stuff that throws itself into view with more and more density: lives, people, legacies, relationship, illness, the world, fate, and the coming of the end. You’ve done that, Gord. You’ve done it huge. You still won’t talk to me and you probably still don’t like me, but I’m way past all of that. At least I tell myself that I am.

I was thinking of you Gord because I was thinking of Ireland, which passed a same-sex marriage bill yesterday. I’ve spent a bunch of my life in Ireland, and, knowing it as a place where the traditional and the progressive have always alligator-wrestled in the middle of the street, it’s a huge victory for the poets, players, freaks, musicians, teachers, and lovers. It was in Ireland that a drunk first suggested to me that your song, “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” was borrowed from an old Irish hymn, and it was this suggestion that got me in trouble with you. I’m pretty sure you read what I wrote about this whole episode, but I’m gonna reprint it here for those readers who didn’t. It comes from my book titled “Writing Gordon Lightfoot.” It’ll continue the letter right after this passage:

Gord, I am writing this book even though you won’t talk to me. It’s a long story, but this is a long book, so here goes. You won’t talk to me because of a song that my old band covered, a version of your  nautical epic “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.” Back in 1989, we contacted your late manager, Barry Harvey—a good guy; at least he was to us—to ask for your approval, and he gave us his blessings. But then he said that he probably wouldn’t play our version of the song for you. What he actually said was, “If I play it for him, it’ll just piss him off.” A few months later, something else happened, which is maybe the real reason why you won’t talk to me. You see, after coming home from a tour of Ireland—an ill-fated tour; we broke up there, only to reform and record your song, though you probably wish we’d stayed broken up—a music writer asked about our rendition of your song. Because I was young and dumb and feeling disappointed that you—one of my heroes—refused to recognize our interpretation of what is surely one of Canada’s most famous, and best, songs, I punked out. I told him that “well, everyone knows that it’s based on an old Irish melody. It’s not his, not really.” What I didn’t tell the writer was that a guy in a bar in Cork had told me this, nor did I tell him that there were several beers involved—in Cork, Gord, this is a given. Later on, when Barry Harvey read what I’d said, he asked me to recant my statement. I might have just grunted and hung up the phone. Barry asked again and again, and, having grown a little older and less punked-out, I said I would, but then the story appeared on the internet (the goddamned internet). Barry was gentlemanly about the whole thing, but he said that I’d upset you, which is what I’d wanted to do, at least in the beginning, but not anymore. You were mad and I don’t begrudge you that feeling. After all, the same guy who’d desecrated your song had called you a phony, even if he hadn’t really meant it (Cork plus beer plus being rejected by one’s hero plus an encounter with a drunken storyteller equals impetuous rant. It’s a weak defence, I know, but it’s all I’ve got). I tried taking the story down, then forgot about it. Barry called a third time, then a fourth time, asking nicely. Then he passed away. And now I am writing a book about you. And you won’t talk to me.

I guess that the reason I wanted to revisit this event, and write to you again, was to say that, Hell, if Ireland– Orange and Green Ireland; thousands-of-years-old Ireland– can legalize gay marriage, then we sure as Christ can talk to each other, no? I mean, this book came out four years ago; we’re both four years older; and I’ve done my best to reach out here and in other places to try and get you to acknowledge me and my book and my affection towards the beauty and genius and the importance if your songs. Just a few days ago, I loaded “Black Day in July” into the jukebox: A8. When it comes on, the garage rattles and the floor creaks. It carves through the air and I think you should come here, wriggle down the small passageway between the two houses, crank a Junction craft ale, and have a listen. The door is open, Gord. I’m here. Got a quarter?

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