Our Gordon Lightfoot Died Today

By John Swartz

It is with great sadness I pass along news that Gordon Lightfoot has died today.

This time tomorrow, we might all be packed and gone
I believe, it’s best we carry on
            (Gordon Lightfoot, I’ll Tag Along)

There was a period when every time I saw Gord perform he sang that tune. It didn’t matter if it was a concert, or for just a couple tunes at Mariposa. It’s one of the two tunes which come to mind when I think of Gord.

There are few details and no cause of death.

This won’t be a news story, but rather a story from my perspective of who Gord was in his later years.

I first met Gord in a trailer back stage at the Mariposa Folk Festival in 2000. He was the headliner, the name the festival hung its hat and reputation on for its return home to Orillia. I recall the organizers were more than ecstatic Gord agreed to perform here, both parties knew the significance of the act. For the festival organizers it legitimized their effort to save it and prove to the home town skeptics they were serious about making the MFF a healthy, viable venture the community could get behind.

For Gord, he just wanted to help out, to keep the ball rolling for the festival that gave him an early shot at a music career. I know this because he told me so.

I sat across a table in his trailer. It wasn’t the kind of high end trailer the festival now brings in for their main stage talent to occupy before performing. It was smaller, you could hitch it to any old car and tow it tow it out to Bass Lake Provincial Park.

“Smoke?” he said offering his package to me. “Can I get you a coffee?”

I refused both saying Barry Harvey (Gord’s long-time road manager) told me 15 minutes and I’m not going to waste them or over-stay my time because, “I want to be able to speak with you again sometime.”

Gord laughed and said not to worry. I remember saying something like, “thank you, but I need to stay in Barry’s good graces.”

I got there thanks to Pete McGarvey. I really wanted to be able to do an interview with Gord, but why would he ever think talking to the new guy in town would be of benefit? Pete told me to use his name, and tell Anne (Leibold, Gord’s office manager) Pete said Gord will want to talk to me.

I’d already had some experience interviewing household names from the entertainment world, but something about this one seemed special, intimidating. I faked not being intimidated and we had a great conversation. The record of it may exist in the archives at the Orillia Public Library, but it never made it to my computer.

The interview ended, I took my exit. Barry was on the other side of the door. I raised my arm, looked at my watch and said, “Thanks Barry, right on time.”

After that I never had to beg or call more than once to get an interview set up. Eventually it was acceptable for me to just call Gord at home, rather than bother Anne, though I often went through her first for courtesy.

The there was the time he almost died in 2002. I had published an interview in the Packet and Times the day before and was to shoot an interview for Rogers TV the Sunday afternoon of a concert he was giving at the Opera House. Loaded down with gear, Barry met me at the stage door and informed me Gord had just been taken to the hospital not 10 minutes earlier.

It was a shock to say the least. I had spoken with Gord just a few days earlier and he seemed perfectly fine. Throughout his recovery I sent messages to Anne wishing for Gord’s recovery, and any news seemed to be a step in the right direction.

When Gord was able to, I was the first journalist to speak with him. From then on Gord always seemed to give me his time freely, not all of it for publication.

Then there was the time was the time Gord died, but didn’t. News was spreading, based on an unconfirmed rumour he had died in 2010. I was sitting at the light by the Opera House when my phone rang. The news anchor at Rogers told me of the report and wanted me to set up something right away for inclusion in the evening newscast.

Oddly, I had also just spoken with Gord days earlier and didn’t believe what I was hearing. I told my anchor to hold on and I would confirm it. I went back to my office at the Packet where my phone book was and called Gord’s office. I told Anne who it was, and…

“Do you want to speak to Gord?” she said. Seconds later Gord was on the phone, “Hi John,” I’m not dead yet, he said.

Julie Langpeter had the sense to open up a CP Newswire session and was typing out my side of the conversation. After I said goodbye to Gord, I told her what Gord said to me, she typed it and hit send. The Packet was the first to get out the news Gord was still with us. At one time a search for that news on Google would turn up the story. Google being what it is doesn’t show it any longer and for quite a while Charles Adler was getting credit for breaking the good news, but that too seems to have become old news as far as Google is concerned.

Swartz and Gordon Lightfoot at Barnfield Point on the beach where he swam as a kid, day of unveiling of the Golden Leaves statue, Oct. 23, 2015

I want to tell you something personal. Gord always seemed like the replacement for the grandfather I lost in 1974. I never felt our relationship was solely professional. He’d sometimes cross the room to say hello to me, or invite me into whatever conversation he was having. I never felt I wasn’t welcome to speak with him at public functions, to wait my turn, or at other times just to call and say Merry Christmas, or, “I want to do a story, can we talk?”, or whatever.

He had similar qualities to my grandfather, even though Gord is only 20 years older than me. The aneurysm in 2002 took a lot out of him. He was frail. But even that was hit or miss. Sometimes I worried, and sometimes he was as strong and sharp as could be. It was something he refused to let slow him down, but it did. Except for when he crossed the line and went on stage.

I was standing next to him at Mariposa one year. I don’t remember what we were talking about. When his name was called by the announcer, he straightened up, shoulders back, head high and strode out to greet the audience with all the confidence of a younger man. It was a transformation like I’d never seen before. I watched for that several times after and it happened every time.

With this last bout of whatever he suffered three weeks ago, the lack of news was not encouraging. I spoke with Anne and passed on my get well wishes, but something told me this was not the time to just call him at home. If he was seriously ill, the last thing he’d need is to talk with me, or anyone. I wish I had called now, just to tell him I was thinking of him and to get better.

If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love

            (Gordon Lightfoot, Song for a Winter’s Night)

Good Bye my friend.

(Photos by Swartz – SUNonline/Orillia and Louise Parker) Main: Gordon Lightfoot at the 2014 Mariposa Folk Festival


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