Let Me Slip Away On You

RIP Gord

I had written a whole other post that goes here. Well, most of one anyway, three-quarters of an essay about the nature of smoking in songs that will show up here I guess next week or perhaps never at all. I had written a whole other essay about The Wonder Years and a song that features a cigarette and then I got a text telling me that Gordon Lightfoot had died, and I couldn’t finish what was started.

I have written about Gord before, an essay about my father and “Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”, the stories we tell and the tales we remember. And I want to write again about Gord but I am finding myself a little raw and emotional and maybe that is because on Thursday our little cat lost her fight with cancer and that is still haunting all the corners of this room and I want to write about Gord because I want to remember how it felt to hear Gord’s voice and feel comfort.

This is not a eulogy to Gord for anyone in particular, this is a farewell to a voice that has followed every trailing memory of my life that is longer now than I ever imagined it could be.

Nostalgia is often the flame of my impulses, the tinder and flint of tightly held memories creating an era that maybe never even existed in the first place. I’m an alcoholic and suffer from minor memory loss from it and various traumas and sometimes I have to work very hard to remember very little. And the reason I can recall anything at all most of the time is music is the constant that binds me to places and people and smells and scars.

When I think about Gord, beyond “Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”, I think about being innocently young. I think about how the air felt different on my face and the way that every memory is tinted in amber like a photo left in the sun. I think about my dad listening to music at night and the impossible darkness of the evening in the winter in the Yukon.

“Carefree Highway” unlocks flashes of these faded photos in my mind, memories I can touch and smells that could float on the wind forever. A perfectly brewed pot of coffee late at night, nutmeg and cinnamon and cloves from my mothers’ endless baking in a kitchen shaded brown and golden yellow. It is winter in my parents’ house before they renovated and before I moved out and my mom is sick but not in bad shape yet or at least as far as I am made aware.

My dad worked a lot, I am sure I’ve told this before too, but in his time at home he listens to music in his headphones and sometimes it escapes them and filters out into the living room and this is how you know he really loves something — when he lets it out for others to hear.

Her name was Ann
And I'll be damned if I recall her face
She left me not knowing what to do

Gord sings in a voice none could replicate, brassy and deep but with a lilt and hopeful tenor. It’s a voice of lived hardship, loves lost, mistakes and promises made and the push to keep moving through it. Gord is the voice of Canada insofar that he is the voice of failing and trying again.

The best songwriters sing to a place that is real, outside of the cities that bear the weight of a stacked populace and grand tall buildings. Real places that have kitchens like my parents did, kitchens that always had flour and sugar to make bread, water for tea, beans for coffee, and pungent spices for the thrill of the air. Gord does this beautifully in so many of his great works.

“Carefree Highway” makes me think of back porches with unfinished stairs and warped plywood and spring days when the rain wasn’t there and the breeze hit just right. Gord makes me think of wanting to have something good, not something perfect or ideal but something to hold onto all the same, something that feels earned and like yours and yours alone.

I don’t recall my dad ever singing along or talking at length about Gord when he played his records, and now that I am older I can understand easier why he kept so much of it private.

Gord sang of being sorry, of understanding his own perceived failings and trying to find a path through them to something better. “Carefree Highway” is pining for a lost love, a woman whose name he recalls much clearer than her face, but is also searching for a way to say goodbye to an idyllic past. One that may never have been real at all.

Gord was a drinker too, this is well documented in his life and stories, and maybe like me his memory is holes and patches where others might have had crystalline views into their past. Maybe Ann isn’t her name at all, maybe they never would have worked out. But all that is in the past is just that, and it is easier to remember and pine for something you can never turn back to.

What is hitting me here and now as I work through this news is the way that Gord’s music is so much of a past that I am not always certain about, but that I can never turn back to or change my memories of and have had to learn to make peace with their imperfect remembrance. It doesn’t make any of it less real, or the lessons I take away from them any less real. We do not always get to recall everything perfectly and what is perfect but an elaborate lie that requires too much upkeep.

What is beautifully contained in so much of Gord’s work is the freedom of imperfection. I am scrolling Twitter and reading people reacting to this news and Jason Isbell says so many other songwriters were glorifying the lifestyle and Gordon said “I’m sorry and I’m sad”. I have been writing all this and he just tweeted it out. But this is because like Gord, Jason Isbell is an expert crafter of music that will create memories of houses, smells, and old living rooms for decades to come.

I almost wrote about cigarettes today and instead I am not sleeping yet and I am thinking about Gord and so in a way I am thinking about cigarettes, because I am thinking about memories and the perfect form of them and a cigarette is something that is always much better in memory than it is in real life. And Gord loved to smoke when he loved to drink and even after and who among us hasn’t held love for more than one vice.

In all the ways that the news of Gord’s death is making me sad and pulled apart tonight it is maybe that the tether to these memories is tied to a man I met exactly one time in my life. At a party for a book written about him that I attended because someone at the same hotel as me texted and said “Do you want to meet Gordon Lightfoot?” And look, you learn many things as an alcoholic and one is knowing when to say yes to a good party.

And so we went to the party and I saw Gord and got starstruck in a way I am never normally starstruck and it took me an hour and more than a few drinks to work up the nerve to walk to him and hand him a copy of the book, asked him if he could sign my book for my dad.

“Tell me about your dad,” Gord said to me. My dad is private and quiet but funny in a wicked way, a craftsman and a loving husband and caring father, a kind-hearted man who often tries to hide the incredible tenderness he is capable of.

I didn’t tell Gord any of that, I told him that when my dad was home from work, which was rare in a lot of my youth, he would play Gord’s records in the house and it made me love Gord’s music too because it was always there and I grew up on Sundown and Gord’s Gold and he laughed, signed the book and handed it back to me and said kindly, “your dad sounds fucking cool.”

Gord’s passing makes me think of my dad too, and time moving on and the memories that are further and further behind us and how my parents don’t play music in their house the way they used to and how so much of what I hold onto is in the rearview and maybe was never there and someday this will all be lost too.

I think about those I have lost and everything left behind and all the ways I know I was a failure and I am sorry and I am sad but I cannot change what has been left behind and can only remember how it feels to remember the pain of loss and time and find a new way to keep going forward.

Now the thing that I call living
Is just being satisfied
With knowing I got no one left to blame