One of the most remarkable changes that happened in the pop music world during that watershed time of the late ‘60s was the transition from AM to FM as the dominant form of radio transmission. This changeover enabled the creation of radio stations like WNEW that specialized in what was then termed Album-Oriented Rock or AOR. It was suddenly possible for rock ‘n’ rollers to record songs that well exceeded the old three-minute 45 rpm standard and actually have them played on the air.
Results of this new freedom were mixed, of course. Although the Beatles hit paydirt with the endlessly repeated Na-Na-Na-Nas of “Hey Jude,” not many even of their legions of listeners had the patience to sit through “Revolution #9” more than a few times. And certain songs of that era achieved infamy for their self-indulgent length and obfuscating lyrics, Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and Richard Harris’ “MacArthur Park” being among those most perennially mocked.
But in 1976, there was one song in particular that nobody seemed to mind being really long (about six minutes as a single, half a minute longer on the LP) – probably because it told such a compelling story. That song was Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the true-life tale of the 1975 sinking of an ore boat in Lake Superior, at the cost of 29 sailors’ lives. For all the listening that it took to get through it, the single hit #2 on the Billboard charts in an era when disco and drum machines were all the rage. Gord’s golden baritone voice and ringing 12-string guitar seemed to mesmerize a nation (two nations, in fact, since Lightfoot’s popularity is firmly rooted in his native Canada). Bob Dylan might have been thinking of “Edmund Fitzgerald” when he said of Gordon Lightfoot’s music, “Every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”
For some reason, pop music historians always seem to forget that the ‘70s were not only the zenith (some would say the nadir) of the Disco Era and the spawning ground of punk and New Wave, but also the peak of the singer/songwriter movement that had sprung from the ‘60s folk revival. Gordon Lightfoot was one of the premier artists who spanned those evolving forms. He first found airplay in the Toronto market in 1962, and by 1964 his early folk/pop songs like “For Lovin’ Me” and “Early Mornin’ Rain” were being covered by better-known artists like Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins and fellow Canadians Ian & Sylvia Tyson. A year later Albert Grossman had become his manager, and Lightfoot was cranking out tune after tune that became classics: “The Way I Feel,” “Did She Mention My Name?” “Black Day in July,” “Ribbon of Darkness,” “Steel Rail Blues” and the epic “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”
Lightfoot also assisted the crossover of rock into country music, especially once he had added a pedal steel player to his band. His biggest ‘70s chart-toppers, “If You Could Read My Mind” and “Sundown,” have a more pronounced country feel than his folkier early work. He cut an excellent cover of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” before Janis Joplin did, with a hand-clapping percussion track that really does evoke the rhythm of a truck’s windshield wipers. Many more hits and near-hits followed, including “Ten Degrees and Getting Colder,” “Don Quixote,” “Carefree Highway,” “Cold on the Shoulder,” “Rainy Day People” and a fantastical kids’ song titled “The Pony Man.”
A string of serious health problems threw a monkey wrench into Lightfoot’s recording and touring career for quite a while. Now 73, he has outlasted episodes of Bell’s palsy, an abdominal aortic aneurysm requiring multiple surgeries and a 2006 stroke that temporarily paralyzed two fingers on his right hand. But he’s back to doing 50 tour dates a year, and one of them will be at the Ulster Performing Arts Center in Kingston this Friday, May 11, beginning at 8 p.m.
Having a local opportunity to catch this living legend is priceless; but the tickets cost $65 for Golden Circle seating, $49 for general admission and $44 for Bardavon members. You can obtain them at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; and via TicketMaster at (800) 745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.