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Now comes the news that Gordon Lightfoot has died, and if Gord, a guy fixed in my memory as somewhere in his mid-thirties, was 84 years old, then time’s running out a lot faster than I’m able to properly comprehend, which is dumb, because everything around me seems meant to make it all perfectly clear. Here I am, increasingly decrepit, mitigating (not curing) various health problems with the aid of continual medical interventions and about six different prescriptions, sore in the joints, slow on the uptake, composing little-read Song of the Day columns in a series that’s starting to double as the goddam Needlefish obituary page, and, well, I’m none too frigging pleased with the story arc. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I could do 20 chin-ups and bench press 320 pounds; now I can just about lift my backside off the couch, and I’ve got an osteopath looking balefully at an X-ray of my right knee, telling me that if I was a horse they’d just shoot me and be done with it.


Gord’s gone, and I wanted to pick something quintessentially Lightfoot to mark his passing. Steel Rail Blues seemed to fit the bill. I could have gone for The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, a musically repetitive yet mesmerizing ballad with a gripping and more or less accurate account of a real maritime disaster, or maybe Canadian Railroad Trilogy, with its narrative sweep and keen appreciation of history – not a lot of songs start with a poetic line like there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run – or something sweet and nostalgic, like Did She Mention My Name?, or the beautiful If You Could Read My Mind, which was only disqualified because it was already a song of the day not too long ago.

I settled on Steel Rail Blues partly because it’s a heck of a nice tune, and mostly because its theme better suits my present sour frame of mind, being as it’s about the sort of loser who doesn’t properly appreciate the love of a good woman, and doesn’t have the sense that God gave geese. You know. A young male. It’s a bit like Early Morning Rain, which when you get right down to it was about a drunken dim-bulb waking up outdoors in a puddle after sleeping off a bender, having somehow stumbled his way to the fence of an airport perimeter, where he now stands in the drizzle, homesick, watching the planes take off, and feeling like a hobo confronted with a new-fangled sort of freight train that can’t be jumped. This time around, the lonely protagonist, far from home and apparently penniless – you get the sense that he left town and hit the road looking for greener pastures, but wound up getting his brains beat out in the school of hard knocks – catches a precious break. A former sweetheart sends him a train ticket so he can come back home to her. Somebody still thinks of him fondly, and wants him back! Deliverance! So what does the knucklehead do? He goes out, gets loaded, and loses his ticket home in a card game. The ticket she had the heart to send him. The dummy just had to ante up for one more hand, as if this time he might win. Now he’s standing on the side of the highway trying to thumb his way back, and with his luck he’s probably going to get picked up by John Wayne Gacy.

It’s relatively easy to write something touching about a poor slob who’s been hard done by, and doesn’t deserve what he got. Gord had the rare knack of introducing you to the sort of guy who can’t get out of his own way, who’s fully to blame for his own stupid predicament, weak, hapless, and not very bright, and making you feel for the mutt; making you feel, even, that this pathetic screw-up sounds a bit too familiar for comfort, and that’s what really gets you.

Here’s my earlier entry for If You Could Read My Mind:

One comment on “Song of the Day: Gordon Lightfoot – Steel Rail Blues

  1. Candace says:

    So, so many great songs. I’ve been listening to The Circle is Small. A cheating song. That line that ends with “when his name is
    mentioned and I die” gets me.


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