Published November 2011
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Author and rocker Dave Bidini’s toughest gig yet is his would-be biography of folk legend Gordon Lightfoot. But after 10 books and an enviable career as a globetrotting author, will it bring him the literary laurels he desires?
Dave Bidini is far from his life in Toronto. On the phone from a swish resort in Queensland, Australia, he can glance out his window to see a kangaroo or two and the green-blue waters of the Gold Coast. For Bidini, it’s a hard-won career perk: he and 15 other writers are taking in three days of R&R between appearances at the Melbourne and Brisbane writers’ festivals.
The prolific non-fiction author and journalist more regularly finds himself engaged in that other kind of R&R: rock ’n’ roll. As a founding member of influential indie rock band the Rheostatics, Bidini released 14 albums and clocked tens of thousands of miles on the road, experiences he’s used to carve out a distinctive literary niche in Canada. His 1998 debut book, On a Cold Road, was a Rheos tour diary peppered with lively road tales from 1970s and ’80s Canadian bands, while follow-ups found him travelling the world to take stock of the state of rock music, documenting the Homeless World Cup of Soccer in Melbourne, and playing in an Italian baseball league. (Sports are his other big passion.)
For his tenth, Writing Gordon Lightfoot: The Man, the Music, and the World in 1972 (McClelland & Stewart), Bidini attempts to put the folk-music legend’s life to paper, which turned out to be his biggest challenge yet. The notoriously prickly 72-year-old singer-songwriter wanted nothing to do with him, or with any other biographer. Calls to Lightfoot’s manager and agents got Bidini nowhere. From Lightfoot’s friends and colleagues, he heard the same line over and over again: if Gord ever participates in such a book, he’ll be the one writing it.
So what does a biographer-in-waiting do when his subject won’t participate? “At first I thought, ‘How can I do the book without actually sitting down with the guy?’” Bidini recalls. “Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe that could be the driving force behind it, or at least the starting point for something a little bit different.’”
The resultant 288-page work takes the rock biography in unexpected directions. In energetic prose, Bidini alternates between chapters that vividly outline the week of historic events leading up to the 1972 Mariposa Folk Festival – featuring Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, and Bob Dylan – with epistolary sections in which he writes frankly to his musical hero in an attempt to get him onside. An ambitious mix of history, fiction, memoir, and biography, the book is fuelled by Bidini’s hilariously desperate, tragically doomed, hostile yet tender non-relationship with the complex melody-maker.
“With all of my other books, I was embedded with the people I was writing about,” Bidini says. “They were friends, or I was playing on their teams or following them around or gigging with them. Here, I wanted to do something completely opposite. There was this really muddy windshield that I had to figure out how to scrub clean and see through.”
He continues: “It was easily the most difficult book I’ve ever written, aside from my first, which was inherently difficult. I felt physically taxed at times, trying to reconcile the fact that the book’s main voice was absent. Trying to find a way to fill the vacuum. At one point I had to see a therapist.”
Another bump came when the book’s original publisher, Key Porter Books, folded earlier this year, leaving the still nascent project in limbo. McClelland & Stewart, which had published seven of Bidini’s earlier works, stepped in, even hiring Key Porter’s Jane Warren as editor for the project. “I never approached M&S with the Lightfoot idea in the first place because I needed a holiday from them, and them from me,” Bidini explains. “There was a little burnout, but the time away helped both sides, I think.”
M&S wanted to adhere to the original completion date, which left Bidini with just five months to finish. He worked daily from 9 to 5, mostly at the Toronto Reference Library, where he pored over microfiche and periodicals from 1972, gathering facts about the largest jailbreak in Canadian history, the Bobby Fischer–Boris Spassky chess match, the journey of NASA’s Pioneer 10 toward Jupiter, and the announcement of the Canada–Russia Summit Series.
“The book is pretty packed,” Bidini admits. “I admire writers who can be spare and powerful, but my style is more of an eight-course meal. And that’s because I find life endlessly interesting.”
Writing Gordon Lightfoot is part of a trend of sorts that’s seen several Canadian writers pen biographies of rock musicians without their involvement. In 2005’s Neil Young Nation (Greystone Books), Vancouver author Kevin Chong retraces the steps Young took on a trip across North America in the 1960s, spinning a meditative tale out of the icon’s elusiveness. Victoria’s Robert J. Wiersema mixes music criticism, biography, and memoir in this fall’s Walk Like a Man: Coming of Age with the Music of Bruce Springsteen (Greystone).
In Writing Gordon Lightfoot, Bidini presents an iconoclastic artist who not only built his career here but was also one of the first to sing about the Canadian experience and landscape, at a time when his peers were seeking fame and fortune in the U.S. “A lot of what Gord did in the beginning was very punk rock,” says Bidini. “Fearlessly being himself. Doing what no one else had done before. Stridently. Bravely.”
Kind of like the fiercely independent Rheostatics, who disbanded in 2007 after an astounding 27 years together. They, too, loaded their lyrics with Canadiana and were unafraid to write unconventional, sprawling tunes. In 1991, the band covered Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” and a year later they released the acclaimed Whale Music, based on the novel by Paul Quarrington, a move that declared the band’s literary interests and led to a gig scoring the soundtrack to the film adaptation.
It’s easy, in fact, to draw similarities between Lightfoot and Bidini’s careers, though Bidini says he never felt he had to take just one track, especially when he discovered that writing books could be an extension of writing albums. “Just like with great songs, you’re reaching down into your soul and pulling something out that doesn’t always feel great coming up but, when released, is euphoric.”
These days, Bidini keeps a brisk pace: he writes a Saturday sports column for the National Post, and his current band, BidiniBand, is set to mix its second album just as Writing Gordon Lightfoot hits bookstores. He won a Gemini for his sports documentary, I Am a Hockey Nomad, and last year another of his musical heroes, Rush’s Geddy Lee, optioned film and TV rights to 2005’s Baseballissimo, now being adapted by Jay Baruchel and Jesse Chabot.
Though Bidini laments that his books haven’t been nominated for any major awards (“Sometimes it feels as if people in Canadian literature couldn’t give two shits about rock ’n’ roll or sports,” he writes in Lightfoot), his career trajectory still inspires. Take CBC Radio 3 broadcaster Grant Lawrence, whose memoir, Adventures in Solitude (Harbour Publishing), was nominated for the inaugural $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for non-fiction.
“When it came to writing my own book, he was pretty much the only Canadian author I truly looked up to, because his course in life has been fairly similar to mine,” says Lawrence, who moonlights as singer for the Smugglers. “Suburban kid forms band steeped in Canadian mythology and then moves onto a career in the broader arts and media.”
So, is Bidini worried about how Lightfoot might react to his unauthorized fan biography?
Bidini laughs. “In all of my music books, I try to illuminate the life beyond the cardboard ideas of music and art in Canada. I want to get behind the stage, into the minds of the musician. And as someone who’s been to those places, I think I can come to it more compassionately than cold biography. Which is why I hope Gord won’t kill me.”