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PHILIP MARTIN: 'Magnificent Outpouring'

by Philip Martin | January 28, 2020 at 2:02 a.m.

Somebody should give Robbie Fulks a Pulitzer Prize for the 9,000-word piece he wrote about Gordon Lightfoot and his recorded oeuvre that I found on the Internet last week. (Published on a site called Talkhouse, you can find it here: arkansasonline.com/128fulks.) It's the best piece of music writing I've read recently, and I spend an inordinate amount of time reading music writing.

Fulks, as you may know ("I know who Robbie Fulks is," my wife Karen pointedly told me, when I mentioned the article to her) is a Americana singer-songwriter of some distinction; a neo-traditionalist country artist with a sharp sense of humor. I especially love his cover of "Cocktails," a song that was originally recorded by Whisperin' Bill Anderson and the Po' Boys in 1965, but he's notorious for his funny 1997 anti-valentine to Nashville "F*** this Town," which was about his stint as a staff writer for a Music City songwriting combine. Fulks wrote and recorded it on his way out of town, as he was heading back to Chicago. His 2001 album Couples in Trouble is a strong and serious work full of menace and jazz. Fulks has the goods.

Fulks was 12 years old when Lightfoot's "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" was released in August 1976, a few months after I graduated from high school.

He spends far more time with Lightfoot's 236 songs than anyone who is not besotted with golden Canadian baritones ought to, and comes away with an empathetic but tough assessment of a career that peaked in the mid-70s, though the artist still soldiers on, providing fan service in concerts and obsessing over "scientific" tuning. (I was gratified to see Fulks allow that he prefers music that is slightly out of tune as opposed to locked down on A 440 tuning, in which the referential note of A above middle C vibrates at a frequency of 440 hertz, which serves as a general tuning standard for pitch in most Western music.)

My relationship with Lightfoot is not much different than that of Fulks; he presented as corny when I first began attending closely to pop music, though like most people I couldn't help liking songs like "Carefree Highway" and "Sundown," though the latter includes the nonsensical line: "Sometimes I think it's a shame, when I get feelin' better when I'm feelin' no pain."

I mean, Wha?

("Sundown" is about the singer's unhealthy relationship with a woman named Cathy Smith, who was--according to Robbie Robertson--"the most beautiful girl in Toronto" as well as a notorious groupie who is routinely blamed for breaking up Lightfoot's first marriage and for injecting the needle-shy John Belushi with his last speedball in Chateau Marmont. She sings a touch of backing vocals on Lightfoot's "High and Dry," included on the same 1973 album as "Sundown." The album also features legendary session drummer Jim Gordon, famous for being Eric Clapton's co-writer on "Layla"--though several people, including Graham Nash, Bobby Whitlock and Rita Coolidge, allege that Jim Gordon ripped off the piano part he contributed from Coolidge, who was then his girlfriend--and for murdering his mother in a psychotic episode in 1983. Fulks: "hey, it's a two-killer record!")

Even as a kid I recognized "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald," as both mesmerizing and lazy, consisting as it does of a repetitive four-chord pattern. I play it as A-Em-G-D, though Lightfoot's hit version is in B minor. (There is a debate about whether the song is minor or not. Apparently it's in the Dorian mode, which--to criminally over-simplify things--wobbles back and forth between major and minor. If any of you music theory types can explain it to me like I'm a tone-deaf 4-year-old, I'd appreciate it.)

But, as Fulks points out, Lightfoot never registered with a mass audience after that final hit, although he continued to put out albums and tour.

This happens in pop music; audiences move on quickly--if you have a couple of seasons' worth of hits you've done well. Lightfoot was 36 when "Edmund Fitzgerald" came out; lots of artists burn up all their fuel by that age.

Only Lightfoot didn't stop. He hasn't stopped yet. Just today, as I'm in the middle of writing this column, a story popped up on my newsfeed saying Lightfoot was readying his first album of new material in 16 years. Granted, it looks like it's just a bunch of "rediscovered" guitar-and-voice songwriter demos he recorded years ago, but it's fresh product in the pipeline. And, at 80 years old, he's still touring. Good for Grandpa Gordo.

I don't think anyone should quit doing what they have done all their life just because they aren't as good at it as they once were. If you want to stick around after you've lost your fastball, fine--maybe you can come up with a sneaky slip pitch. I probably wouldn't pay to see Lightfoot in concert, but there are plenty of folks who would be happy to have that experience.

That's all fine.

But Fulks deconstructs Lightfoot's catalog with remarkable insight and unstinting honesty, explaining why so many of his songs (even some that I mostly like) grate on me so. It's generally because, as a songwriter, Lightfoot too often seeks a sort of clinical perfection. Fulks quotes H.L. Mencken, who wrote that the artist "soon or late falls victim to his professional technic. His very skill ... degenerates inevitably into mere virtuosity, and so he becomes a sorry mountebank, juggling brilliantly a set of gaudy but increasingly hollow balls."

Lightfoot is always a little too on-the-nose--looking for the scientific center of the baritone note, seeking out the perfect rhyme regardless of the damage it does to sense.

Fulks: "He has spied the enticing butterfly of rhyme, off in the tall grass, and has scampered illegally off the marked path to net it."

I don't know. Fulks' piece didn't exactly make a Lightfoot fan out of me, but it did get me to listen to a few of his songs again, to pick up a guitar and strum my way through "If You Could Read My Mind."

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Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

Editorial on 01/28/2020

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