I discovered Gordon Lightfoot a little late. Paul Gambuccini used to present a weekly US chart show on BBC Radio One back in the 1970s and 80s with all the top tunes from the Billboard Hot 100. Long before Spotify and other streaming services made the charts around the world remarkably similar, songs you’d never heard before would pop up on his show.
Once day in the 1970s, Paul Gambuccini played Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”. There was a lot of hard-edged punk around at the time, jostling for chart success with the stark, emotionless soundscapes of early electronic music.
So what sounded like an old-time folk song stood out.
I later discovered that “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” wasn’t an old-time folk song at all. Gordon Lightfoot had written it just a short time previously about a 1975 accident which resulted in the sinking of a bulk carrier in Lake Superior with the loss of all 29 hands.
But it was an intriguing song which led me to explore his work a little more.
By chance I was learning the piano at the same time and had bought a large-format book containing the sheet music for some of the popular songs of the time. Writing these words now, I know this sounds desperately quaint…like the sort of thing that happened in an episode of Downton Abbey…but this really was what you did just a couple of decades ago before the internet was invented.
I think the publishers were probably stretching both the terms “popular” and “of the time” a little, but there were a number of great songs in there, one of which happened to be another Gordon Lightfoot song, “If I Could Read Your Mind”.
I loved the melody for this song. Even allowing for amateurish attempts to make the piano sound halfway decent, it was a very moving piece of music.
And as I followed along with the sheet music, I couldn’t help but read the words of the verses that appeared under each note I played.
Up to this point, I hadn’t even heard “If I Could Read Your Mind” on the radio…pretty much the only way we heard music in the pre-internet days without actually buying a physical piece of vinyl. “If I Could Read Your Mind” had been released back in 1970, nearly a decade before I’d first heard “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald” on the radio.
And as we didn’t have “oldies radio” back then, I didn’t stand a chance of picking up Gordon Lightfoot’s performance. Kids like me had BBC Radio One, our parents had BBC Radio Two and, if you were lucky, a decent local commercial station like Capital Radio, or in my case Radio Clyde.
So it wasn’t until much later that I heard Gordon Lightfoot singing “If I Could Read Your Mind” on the radio for the first time. The song was everything I’d hoped it would be.
Although I adored the melody, I also loved the lyrics I’d read while following along with the sheet music. It was a complete story, a novel almost, in the length of a pop song…a fairly long pop song, admittedly, but still…
If you could read my mind, love
What a tale my thoughts could tell
Just like an old-time movie
About a ghost from a wishing well
In a castle dark or a fortress strong
With chains upon my feet
You know that ghost is me
And I will never be set free
As long as I’m a ghost that you can see
This was a wonderfully evocative tale of love gone wrong inspired, as great songs often are, by some of the songwriter’s own dark times.
Gordon Lightfoot wrote these words while sat in an empty house by himself after splitting up from his wife. I think we can tell he wasn’t in a very happy place at the time…
He felt trapped…paralysed…unable to move on. His lyrics describe himself as “the ghost”, but I think it’s pretty clear that Gordon Lightfoot’s now ex-wife was the one who cast the deepest shadow on his memories, not his own ghostly qualities.
But Gordon Lightfoot also knew it was time to make a break…
I walk away like a movie star
Who gets burned in a three-way script
Enter number two, a movie queen
To play the scene of bringing all the good things out in me
But for now, love, let’s be real
I never thought I could act this way
And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it
I don’t know where we went wrong
But the feeling’s gone and I just can’t get it back
If you listen to the song, I’ve always felt the final line of that verse brings a little emotional wobble in Gordon Lightfoot’s vocal, almost like singing those words for the tape was the first time he truly realised it was over and nothing was going to put things back the way they were.
Whether you agree or not, there’s certainly an emphatic flourish at the end of the line which is heightened by quickly fading all the strings down after it’s sung, leaving just one guitar plucking away. The sharp contrast in tone makes what went before seem even more final and decisive than it was already.
The split might have been final, but Gordon Lightfoot is still trying to understand…perhaps hoping that next time he’d handle the situation better…
And if you read between the lines
You’ll know that I’m just trying to understand
The feelings that you lack
Trying to understand someone else’s feelings is damnably hard. Perhaps we never will.
But I do wonder why, given that communication is such a vital part of the continued survival of the human species, that it seems for the most part we’re wired to do this spectacularly badly.
All we can do it keep talking, keep trying, keep hoping that next time it will be different. Hoping that next time we’ll be a better person, next time we’ll be more worthy of someone’s affection, next time we’ll stumble across true love even though we hadn’t been looking for it.
Sometimes life deals your cards from the bottom of the deck.
Sometimes it deals the card you need to complete a royal flush.
That’s the mystery of life. It’s what gets us out of bed each morning. Not the certainty that today will be better than yesterday…but the hope that it might be.
Hope is the magic juice keeps the world revolving.
Not money, not love, not possessions, not assets, not experiences, not accolades, not fame, not fortune. But hope.
And even in a song of hearbreak like “If You Could Read My Mind”, by the end you get the sense that Gordon Lightfoot has come to that realisation too.
One chapter is over. But there’s hope for something better just around the corner.
There’s always hope. It makes the world go round.
With his 1971 Billboard Top Five song, here’s Gordon Lightfoot with the tender, and very beautiful, “If You Could Read My Mind”…
If you’ve made it this far, thank you for reading about another of my favourite songs. I’m grateful that you’ve taken the time to spend a few moments in the company of a song that I love.
The video is below, but if you prefer to listen to your music on Spotify, you can find this track here… https://open.spotify.com/track/0fjYN9BylnRXMA3or3QSld