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THE CITY REBORN FROM THE ASHES OF AMERICA'S MOST DISASTROUS FOREST FIRE
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The Lion in Winter - From My Window 6/22/22

Issue Date: June 23, 2022

Janie Thibodeau Martin

An on-line definition of that term says "the lion in winter is a wonderful phrase, a compliment. It refers to a proud, competent man who is aging, but remains active and vital." I was thinking of this term last week as I watched a legendary musician perform live.

Gordon Lightfoot is a Canadian songwriter/singer, with a long string of hits including the very well-known tribute song "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," but also for introspective ballads like "If You Could Read My Mind," and my personal favorite, "Sundown." In 1974, I waited patiently for this song to come up on the playlist of WMAM radio, with Howard Emich the DJ. This was well after my parent's imposed quiet time on school nights, so I would tuck my little AM radio close to my ear in bed to avoid getting busted.

We had gotten tickets to his concert with friends many months ago, but Covid and the singer's broken wrist delayed the event a long time. I am myself just cautiously reentering society, so this was the first live music I have seen in several years.

Just as a test, I have asked quite a few people I told about the concert how old they thought Lightfoot is. Most guessed around 60. In fact, he is 83, and has emphysema. Of course age and his medical condition have greatly impacted his voice. It really didn't matter.

There is something so powerful about live music. The concert was a review of his many popular songs, and this music stands on its own. I "heard" the rich tones of his youthful voice in my head, and was uplifted by the affectionate response of the near-sellout audience. They were respectful and appreciative, and deservedly so. Even if he had never sung at all during his career, his songwriting talent is brilliant, and the quality holds up very well. I didn't realize that he wrote songs recorded by many other artists, including Glen Campbell, Bob Dylan, Sarah McLachlan and Barbara Streisand. (And I understand he is still writing!)

His touring band is composed of three musicians who have been with him for many years, all similarly age-defying guys, and "the kid of the group," the lead guitar player, Carter Lancaster, who is maybe 55. He was impressive, a very skilled player who brought life to the beautiful guitar sections of the songs. It was a pleasure to watch him play. When someone has mastered something, you don't have to be an expert to spot it. I know little about the technical aspects of guitar playing; I do know talent when I see it.

Live music is something you not only hear; you see the physical and mental engagement it takes for a musician to deliver quality music in person. And you feel it inside in a different way as well. I had really forgotten that feeling; it was a joy to rediscover it.

I read some on-line biographies and watched some interviews with Lightfoot, because I was curious what draws an 83 year old man with serious lung disease out on the concert trail at a time when contracting Covid is still a real danger for someone like him. I would guess he has financial security in the form of his catalog, so it's likely more than money. But he says he still enjoys performing and some of his comments on stage seemed to confirm that. I contemplated a life where you are 83 and performing in three different cities on three consecutive days like he was when we saw him, and feel exhausted; and I am a lot younger than he is. Even a casual observer of musicians knows life on the road destroys a lot of them.

He paid tribute at one point to his wife Kim, who was in the audience. (I am paraphrasing here but I am close.) "I knew the minute I met her she knows what she is doing"..she makes sure I get fed, manages my oxygen"." he joked, and laughed like the rest of us were. A lion in winter, indeed. He could be kicked back at home and enjoying a quiet and peaceful life, but seems determined to carry on as long as he can. At one point he took a brief pause and used a nasal inhaler of some kind on stage, squirting a playful blast of it at one of his bandmates. He may be old, and he may have a serious disease, but he is still clearly having fun.

On the drive home, I thought about another famous musician in the winter of his life; but it is a darker, much more emotional performance that's the legacy of the late Johnny Cash. Toward the end of his life he recorded a most unlikely song by Nine Inch Nails ?? "Hurt." Totally stripped down, it was just Cash and his guitar. His voice was severely damaged by that time, but if you want to see and hear something that will be gut-wrenching, check out the video for "Hurt" on YouTube. It is incredibly moving, and the raw lyrics are interpreted by a man who clearly knows he is nearing the end of his life and has some regrets. A masterpiece video, directed by Mark Romanek, it intersperses video of Johnny as he was as he recorded "Hurt," and the rebellious, strong hellion he was in his youth.

I was happy to leave the Lightfoot concert with so many uplifting memories; when I watch "Hurt," it is hard not to share the black emotions of a sick and aged Johnny Cash. No, Gordon Lightfoot is no longer the young man with the tall, strong frame, blessed with writing talent and a rich voice to match. Nor am I the teenaged girl with the radio glued to her ear. But for a little while on a recent Thursday evening, he channeled his younger self; and I channeled mine as well.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: JanieTMartin@gmail.com.


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