Who doesn’t like this one? Who can be such a stone-hearted grump?
Released in 1970, If You Could Read My Mind was an instant hit on this side of the border, shooting straight to the #1 slot on the Canadian charts in short order, but it wasn’t until 1971 that the Americans noticed it, and pushed it to #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. From then on he was famous, though it wasn’t like he’d previously been unsuccessful, not when he was already dining out on a stream of royalties derived from the many covers of his songs, which everybody from Peter Paul and Mary to Elvis were recording in the late 1960s. While others made hits of his compositions, Gord had been kicking around the clubs and coffeehouses in Yorkville and Greenwich Village, where he was eventually discovered and signed by Albert Grossman, Bob Dylan’s manager. If You Could Read My Mind was included on his first U.S. album release, Sit Down, Young Stranger, which bombed initially, until various DJs in major markets started playing its standout track. The album was hastily renamed after it, and started to sell. He never looked back.
The song has a sad, romantic wistfulness to it that stood in stark contrast to earlier ones like For Lovin’ Me, in retrospect a rather chauvinist love ’em and leave ’em anthem made famous by Ian and Sylvia. Gord wrote it while staying all alone in an empty house, smarting from his first divorce, and full of regrets. Curiously, given its generally rapturous reception, Lightfoot has claimed that he doesn’t really like the recorded version, saying to one interviewer “Do I like the way it sounds? No. The first thought that came through my mind (was), ‘I wish I could’ve had just one more take. I wish I hadn’t had those few alcoholic beverages the night before.’” Most listeners would think that’s crazy talk. The execution is pretty near perfect, his distinctive voice setting just the right mood, his guitar playing immaculate, the tasteful string arrangement adding just the right touch. Plus Lightfoot wraps it up with elegant precision – there’s nothing like a song that ends properly.
Artists. They’re never happy.
I suppose this is rather an obvious selection from a sprawling catalogue full of worthy songs, many of them less commercial and arguably more powerful. Why not Steel Rail Blues, the tale of a loser who’s gambled away his ticket home, or Early Morning Rain, about a drunk who can’t afford a ride on one of those new-fangled jets, or Black Day in July, his account of the devastating Detroit riots of 1967? What about Ribbon of Darkness, or Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, for crying out loud? Why pick the easy one that’s full of conventional romantic sentiments?
I’m just naturally sappy, I guess.