Music and mortality

Justin Brake
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Legendary singer/songwriter says he'll keep on touring for as long as he is able

If it wasn't for the fire burning inside him, Gordon Lightfoot might not be launching a spring tour of Canada from St. John's on Monday and Tuesday. At 71, the iconic singer/songwriter is creator of one of the most revered musical catalogues in the country's history and his list of accolades is extensive.

His history doesn't need to be retold. If you've heard "If You Could Read My Mind," "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," or "Carefree Highway," then you already know part of the story.

Gordon Lightfoot, shown playing in 2006 at the Pantages Playhouse Theatre in Winnipeg, Man., will appear at Holy Heart auditorium Monday and Tuesday. Although the $99 gold-circle sold out some time ago, there are still regular seating tickets available at

If it wasn't for the fire burning inside him, Gordon Lightfoot might not be launching a spring tour of Canada from St. John's on Monday and Tuesday. At 71, the iconic singer/songwriter is creator of one of the most revered musical catalogues in the country's history and his list of accolades is extensive.

His history doesn't need to be retold. If you've heard "If You Could Read My Mind," "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," or "Carefree Highway," then you already know part of the story.

But it's the latter part of his life that Lightfoot is now immersed in, and it's this reflective disposition he reveals in an interview.

In 2002, he endured a six-week coma induced by an abdominal aneurysm, made a lengthy but successful recovery that involved multiple operations, and released his last album, "Harmony," in 2004.

His passion for performing, though, won't allow him to lay his guitar to rest just yet.

Unlike most interview-exhausted musicians, Lightfoot is lively; with his candid talk he demonstrates an eager honesty during our, at times, deep conversation.

Early on he recalls his first trip to Newfoundland to perform a series of federally funded shows on the Burin Peninsula in 1967.

"It was during Canada's 100th birthday. I just had a small group, a trio, and we ... played some of the small settlements down there, Grand Bank, St. Mary's, Burin," he says, pausing to recall the names of the towns.

"I remember that trip very vividly - there was not really a road to speak of at that point, just a gravel road. We played halls and schools, just small places."

Lightfoot has returned five or six times to the province, to play to his fans on "The Rock."

The upcoming shows in St. John's and Corner Brook will mark his second return since a 2002 concert was cancelled due to his illness.

In "Whispering Pines," a book about the Canadian roots of American folk music that devotes an entire chapter to Lightfoot, he admits to having confronted his mortality at age 10 and to being "depressed ever since."

I ask him whether his opinion on mortality has changed at all since surviving the coma.

"I realized lying there for that six weeks, that when you're dead, you're dead," he replies, without hesitation.

"And people said what do you think about that? I said I had no worries and no cares, because that's really what death is. It's peace, the kind of peace that we just can't understand."

Lightfoot occasionally strays from questions to tell stories, including one about wilderness canoe trips through the backwoods of Northern Quebec - but he doesn't mind being prompted back to the topic.

His storytelling is enlivening; each tale is imbued with a sense of homecoming.

"If you lie in a coma for six weeks, your muscles begin to atrophy and it takes a long time to get it back," he says.

"And I fought, I fought hard and I fought long, to get right back into it again because I want to play my music. I want to do it because I really love it. And I always have, ever since I was a child."

As he speaks those words, Lightfoot's voice fades.

"Harmony," he repeatedly told reporters after his recovery, would be his final work.

"The illness ... took two years almost to get over," he said. "So, during that time I worked on that album, as sort of an afterthought, kind of a gratuitous situation giving me something to think about other than (my) condition.

"At that time I wasn't sure if I'd ever perform again, quite frankly. I had enough songs to carry on and keep pushing through, and do that one extra album just for my own satisfaction. I'm glad I did that too because ... I love doing shows because I've always been a live performer."

Asked if he has contemplated the end of his performing career, Lightfoot insists: "As long as I'm physically able, I shall keep touring. I mean, I have my orchestra members and they're not getting any younger either. I'm the oldest guy in the band, but you know, there are a couple guys in their 60s. They don't really exercise like I do," he adds with a chuckle.

"In Grade 12 I wrote my first song and I didn't stop after that. I just want to improve. I want to improve my playing, I want to improve my writing, my singing.

"My whole band is together and the only thing that could stop us right now is a health issue of some kind. That could spring up from anywhere. But we're very enthusiastic and we stay well-prepared. I'm quite looking forward to getting up that way because we're doing the first two shows of the tour in St. John's."

Tickets for Lightfoot's March 29-30 performances at Holy Heart Theatre in St. John's are on sale now at the Holy Heart box office and through Ticket Pro's call centre (1-888-311-9090) or online at

www.ticketpro.ca

.

Organizations: Grand Bank, Holy Heart Theatre

Geographic location: St. John's, Canada, Newfoundland Corner Brook Whispering Pines Northern Quebec

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