Imagine, if you will, that you’re alone in an elevator, and just before the doors close, someone squeezes in to join you, and it just happens to be the president of your company. The elevator begins the slowest ascent to the top that you’ve ever known. And no one else gets on.
The two of you fidget uncomfortably, but you know that in your bottom-rung position, there’s no way you’re going to initiate a conversation. The president knows that, too, so he tries to find something to discuss. Unfortunately, the only thing he knows about you is that you were in the sack race at the company picnic last summer.
“So… that was you at the sack race, wasn’t it?”
“Nice job. That was a nice day for a picnic, too. I… really thought you showed a lot of energy in that race.”
“It was a good sack, too.”
“I saw a sack like that once… do you do a lot of sack racing?”
At about this point, you’re considering how feasible it is to “remember” that you had something to do on the very next floor, and escape. Failing that, perhaps you can simply pretend to faint. Perhaps he’ll leave to get help, or else he’ll just ignore you as you lie on the floor. Either way, it’s preferable to what’s going on right now.
That’s not the most common story to prelude my experience at a folk music concert, but welcome to my evening with Gordon Lightfoot.
Before I go any further: I love Gordon Lightfoot. He’s written some incredible songs about love and nature, and also time. In fact, I’d even suggest that’s one of his defining characteristics -- his songs are about centuries. “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy” goes back to the days before human civilization. “Don Quixote” is timeless, purposefully using terms that could exist in almost any era, and using a title that alludes to a man who thinks he lives in a different time himself. Even his most well-known creation, “If You Could Read My Mind”, mentions ghosts and castles while talking about movies and drugstores.
He talks about time within a single life, as well -- his songs are full of reminisicence, even the ones he wrote in the early days. Needless to say, when he played in Medicine Hat, each of his 73 years lent an extra layer of meaning to those lyrics. He’s a treasure, a legend, and an icon. Ever since I heard he was coming, I’d known I was going to see him… but that’s not the same thing as knowing it’s going to be a good time.
After the first few numbers, I was still getting used to the difference between his recordings and his current countenance, when there was a small pause in the set.
“Medicine Hat,” he said. “I’ve never played Medicine Hat before… always wanted to. But I did see Kalan Porter play once, in Toronto, with Sass Jordan’s orchestra. He did a cover of one of Neil Young’s songs… Neil Young. Now there’s a legendary singer…”
For those unaware, Kalan Porter is a Medicine Hat native who won Canadian Idol one season.
For those unaware, there used to be a show called Canadian Idol. It was exactly what you’d think. And while there have been a few successes to come from American Idol, that’s partly because the market is so much larger, and because the American entertainment industry is so committed to producing stars from the American Idol program. Canadian Idol winners enjoy neither of those advantages… the best chance they get is basically one tribute concert in Toronto, with Sass Jordan’s band backing them up.
It’s safe to say that the audience knew this, as the applause grew slightly tense. Mister Lightfoot kept on going, though, about this concert, and Neil Young, until he concluded by saying, “The last I heard, he was trying to get a recording contract in the States. It fell through… but I’m sure we haven’t heard the last from that young man.”
He was trying to be polite, and for that, the audience was appreciative. In fact, it was a nice bonding moment…
“So, yep. Kalan Porter. He’s from Medicine Hat.”
… and then we realised that was the *only* thing he knew about the city he was in. And we started wondering if we could get off on a different floor, somehow.
After his next set, the conversation continued.
“I’ve never played Medicine Hat before… always wanted to. I… love the work, you know?”
And with that, he started another set. After that song, someone shouted out from the crowd, “We love you, Gordon!”
He smiled graciously. “I love the work.”
The concert continued like this, and I spent the rest of the evening wincing whenever the music stopped, wondering what sort of rambling, dickety-six wisdom we’d hear this time.
But as awkward as it may have been, none of his words came from a hard heart. Honestly, that might have made it more awkward. But I don’t want to return his good faith with scorn, so I -- in an act of arrogance not seen since Icarus seared his wings -- shall try to guess what Gordon Lightfoot might have been trying to say.
I think the Edmund Fitzgerald just spun in its grave as I said that. But please, let me try.
* * * * *
I’ve never played here before, but I love the work.
When I was starting in Ontario, the west was just as easily on the other side of the world. That was one of its attractions, of course, knowing that such a vast land somehow connects us all. But as much as I’d like to have explored those connections, my work kept me in the east. And when I finally became popular enough to warrant a trip to Calgary, that meant I was popular enough to warrant a trip to Winnipeg the day before, and Vancouver the day after. And so, I was on the road, pulled through town after town without the chance of stopping. I've sung about carefree highways, but a destination can turn a journey into a trap if you’re not careful. Despite all the songs about the open road, those roads are closed more often than you’d think.
And now, here I am, with the freedom of not being obligated to visit only the largest audiences. I don’t know how much I’ll learn about every stop I make along the way this time. I certainly know I won’t remember it all.
But it’s not the learning I want. It’s the chance to stop. It’s the chance to prove, finally, after all these years, that I would have stopped, if I could have. And I’m glad that I’ve still got a way to earn these stops. I’m finally connecting to this country the way that I thought was possible when I was just starting out, by playing town to town, and being a part of this world for a little while.
And I love the work.
* * * * *
And we love you, Gordon.