The feeling’s gone, and I just can’t get it back

In early 1971, I wasn’t yet 16, but my good friend Ben had just earned his driver’s license, so I would ride shotgun and locate tunes on the AM radio stations. Among the songs that came up during those times was a lovely, poignant ballad called “If You Could Read My Mind.” The song ached of lost love and regret, told with wonderfully descriptive language and metaphors: “If I could read your mind, love, what a tale your thoughts could tell, /Just like a paperback novel, the kind the drugstores sell, /When you reach the part where the heartaches come, the hero would be me, but heroes often fail, /And you won’t read that book again 
because the ending’s just too hard to take…”

This was my introduction to the musical talents of Gordon Lightfoot and, within a week, I bought the album it came from, “Sit Down Young Stranger,” a pleasing mix of original folk and country tunes played and sung impeccably by Lightfoot with his gifted accompanists (Red Shea on guitar and Rick Haynes on bass). With warm melodies like “Approaching Lavender” and “Minstrel of the Dawn” and a gentle reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby Magee” (before Janis’s version made it her own), the album became glued to my turntable, at least until a newer LP, “Summer Side of Life,” was released a couple months later.

Lightfoot’s rich baritone, compelling acoustic guitar arrangements and, especially, his gorgeous melodies and poetic lyrics made me a big fan, placing him right up there with James Taylor and Cat Stevens in my singer-songwriter rankings. I enjoyed learning his music on guitar, especially “Miguel,” a heartbreaking tale of a man whose love drives him to desperate acts, and “Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” his epic retelling of the construction of the cross-country railway in the 1880s. All this kicked off a lifelong admiration of his music, including his earlier LPs from the late ’60s as well as future releases in the ’70s and beyond.

So it was with great sadness that I learned of his passing a few days ago at the age of 84. His deft merging of folk traditions with pop and country influences appealed to a broad swath of music lovers in his native Canada as well as in the US and elsewhere, as evidenced by his multiple appearances in the upper echelons of the popular music charts over the years, particularly in the Seventies. The great Bob Dylan has spoken of Lightfoot in glowing terms: “Often when I hear one of Gordon’s songs, I wished I had written it. It’s like I want it to last forever.”

Indeed, they’re in mourning this week all over Canada, where he is considered a national treasure. As Prime Minister Justin Trudeau put it, “We have lost one of our greatest singer-songwriters. Gordon Lightfoot captured our country’s spirit in his music, and in doing so, he helped shape Canada’s soundscape. May his music continue to inspire future generations, and may his legacy live on forever.”

Lightfoot grew up in rural Ontario and showed an early interest in music, singing in barbershop quartets and teaching himself folk guitar. He spent a year studying music composition and orchestration at Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles and developed an appreciation for jazz, but he soon returned to Canada and began performing in coffeehouses and clubs in Toronto, becoming an important contributor to that city’s burgeoning folk scene. Inspired by Dylan’s astonishing early work, Lightfoot honed his songwriting skills “to inject some personal identity into my songs,” he noted decades later. “I wrote songs about where I am and where I’m from. I took situations and wrote poems about them.”

Lightfoot in 1965

He won a contract with United Artists in 1966 and released five albums in four years, offering four dozen original songs, some of which (“Early Morning Rain,” “For Lovin’ Me”) were made famous in cover versions by artists like Ian & Sylvia, Peter Paul & Mary, Judy Collins and even Dylan himself. His albums sold reasonably well in Canada, and he began a decades-long tradition of performing an annual concert at Toronto’s famed Massey Hall, where he recorded his live LP “Sunday Concert,” which was the first to break into the American charts (albeit at only #143).

Lightfoot’s career really took off when he signed with Warner Brothers/Reprise in 1970 and released “Sit Down Young Stranger.” It took nearly a year, but “If You Could Read My Mind” eventually reached #5 on US pop charts, and the album peaked at #12 here. A quick look at the title song shows how strong Dylan’s influence was on the structure and content of his lyrics: “Now will you try to tell us you been too long at school, /That knowledge is not needed, that power does not rule, /That war is not the answer, that young men should not die, /Sit down, young stranger, I wait for your reply…”

Over the next decade, all his albums peaked in the Top Five in Canada, with a dozen hit singles in the Top 20. In the States, his chart successes were more sporadic but still impressive. I call his 1972 release “Don Quixote” his most underrated album, managing only #42, while its single — “Beautiful,” one of the prettiest love songs ever written — inexplicably stalled at #58. Two years later, though, his 1974 LP “Sundown” and its title song both topped the charts in the US, and “Carefree Highway” from that same album reached #10.

Lightfoot wrote often and thoughtfully about betrayal — his own failings as well as those of his romantic partners — and “Sundown” was merely the most famous: “I can see her lying back in her satin dress, in a room where you do what you don’t confess.” On 1978’s “Endless Wire” album you’ll find “The Circle is Small (I Can See It In Your Eyes),” a powerful indictment of an unfaithful partner: “It’s all right to leave, but not all right to lie, When you come home and you can’t say where you’ve been, /The city where we live might be quite large, but the circle is small, /Why not tell us all, and then all of us will know…” He offers this gut-wrenching scenario in the 1971 minor classic “Talking In Your Sleep”: “I heard you talking in the night, that’s right, yes I heard you call, /Though I could hardly hear the name you spoke, it’s a name I don’t recall, /I heard you softly whisper, I reached out to hold you near me, /Then from your lips there came that secret I was not supposed to know…” 

He addressed many topics in his lyrics, from whale hunting (“Ode to Big Blue”) to the 1967 Detroit riots (“Black Day in July”) to the consequences of war (“The Patriot’s Dream”). He was an extraordinarily good story teller as well. “People have seemed to like my songs because they’re so simple, and I’m handy with the turn of the phrase. They’re tunes that move along, which is what I look for in my writing. Forward momentum.”

He spun many yarns (“Cherokee Bend,” “Miguel”), but most famously, he recounted the fateful journey of a Great Lakes ore freighter that sank on Lake Superior in 1975 in the richly detailed epic “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” which became an unlikely #1 hit despite clocking in at a lengthy 6:30. “It was quite an undertaking to do that,” Lightfoot said in a 2014 interview. “I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it. I already had a melody in my mind, from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about three and a half years old.”

His rural roots showed up in the country-inflected songs he included on nearly every album, from “Cotton Jenny” (which Anne Murray took to #11 on US country charts in 1972) to “Brave Mountaineers” with its celebration of simple living (“Born in the country and I like that country way, /Of the uncles and the cousins and the card games they would play…”). Lightfoot often described himself as “a cosmopolitan hick,” which succinctly describes the dichotomy of a man from simple rural beginnings who became world-famous.

He said he was flattered by the number of cover versions of his songs that exist, including ones by Eric Clapton (“Looking at the Rain”), Kenny Rankin (“Pussywillows, Cat-Tails”), Nanci Griffith (“Ten Degrees and Getting Colder”), Poco (“Ribbon of Darkness”), Sarah McLachlan (“Song For a Winter’s Night”) as well as Barbra Streisand (“If You Could Read My Mind”) and Elvis Presley (“Early Morning Rain”). “I never heard a cover of one of my songs that I didn’t like,” Lightfoot said in 2008. “Sure, I heard some strange versions occasionally, but they always seemed to do a good job. I would be amazed that people would enjoy my songs enough to want to record them, and it inspired me and made me want to work harder.”

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Lightfoot just couldn’t let it go when he first heard “The Greatest Love Of All,” written in 1977 by Michael Masser and turned into an international hit in 1985 by Whitney Houston. “The first time I heard it was on an elevator,” he recalled in 2015. “There were about 24 bars of the melody that were really obviously taken from ‘If You Could Read My Mind’ and I noticed it. So we initiated a lawsuit for plagiarism, but three weeks later, I let it go because I understood that it was affecting Whitney Houston, who had an appearance coming up at the Grammys, and the suit wasn’t anything to do with her. So we settled out of court.”

Life threw Lightfoot quite a few curve balls along the way. Because he was an inherently shy man who wasn’t that comfortable with the spotlight, his stage presence was sometimes misinterpreted as arrogance, and he subsequently struggled with alcoholism before getting clean in the mid-1980s. The fact that Lightfoot lived to reach 84 is fairly amazing in light of the serious illnesses he suffered in his later years, from a bout with Bell’s palsy to a stomach aneurism that required multiple surgeries and put him in a coma for six weeks in 2002.

A tracheotomy damaged his vocal cords and made him consider retiring from live performances, but his work ethic wouldn’t permit it. “In the final analysis, the job was what mattered,” he said in 2018. “When I was recuperating, it was good being preoccupied in a very constructive way with a project in the works; one which would carry itself forward, right up through the artwork and editorial, until its ultimate completion.”

That project was “Harmony,” a 2004 LP that proved to be his final album of new material. Nevertheless, he continued performing about 80 concerts a year over the past two decades, gamely offering his hits and a cross-section of his repertoire despite a singing voice that had become a shadow of its former self.

Lightfoot’s pointed references to Canadian locales in his song titles (“Christian Island,” “On Yonge Street,” “Alberta Bound” and, of course, “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”) forever endeared him to his Canadian audiences and made him something of an ambassador while on tour in other countries. He has been inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, won numerous Juno awards (Canada’s version of the Grammy) and honorary degrees, and was featured on a postage stamp. As Tom Cochrane, frontman for the Canadian rock band Red Rider, put it, “If there was a Mount Rushmore in Canada, Gordon would be on it.”

Rest In Peace, good sir. To his many fans and my blog readers, we would be well served to follow his advice from his 1976 song, “Race Among the Ruins”: “If you plan to face tomorrow, do it soon.”


Can you judge an album by its cover?

If you were an album buyer in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, I’d be willing to bet there were times you bought, or were very tempted to buy, a new record based almost solely on the captivating cover art.


I remember doing so in April of 1969 when, armed with some money from my 14th birthday, I riffled through the “underground rock” bin at a traditional record store near my home in Cleveland and first laid eyes on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s debut, released a couple months earlier. At that point, I hadn’t even heard of the group, and I hadn’t heard a note of the music yet. But for some reason, I was spellbound by the cover art depicting the famous explosion of the Hindenburg zeppelin.

Compared to other album covers of that era, it wasn’t all that extraordinary — not shocking, not surreal, not erotic. But I was nevertheless entranced and felt compelled to buy it. It could’ve easily been a dud of a record, but as we all know now, it was a sonic boom, the opening salvo of a new genre that combined heavy blues with vocal histrionics, quicksilver guitar and sledgehammer drumming.

In recent years, when downloadable files became the dominant form of how consumers purchased their music, many of us bemoaned the disappearance of a tangible product to hold in our hands. Thankfully, vinyl LPs have made a big comeback in recent years, and one reason that’s good news is the perpetuation of the extraordinary art form of album cover design.

In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, album cover art — be it arresting portrait photography, surreal landscape drawings, erotic paintings or highly stylized logos, to name a few — was an integral, vital component of each new release.  In some cases, the art was so striking that it became as important as the music on the album within.

Most observers pinpoint 1966 as the year when artists — specifically, The Beatles, The Stones, Bob Dylan and a handful of others — saw the perfect opportunity to extend their creativity to a new canvas.  They figured, hey, since we’re spending so much heart and soul creating and producing memorable music, why leave the visual presentation of the product to some record company marketing department hacks?

Album art very quickly became cultural touchstones, using images that reflected either the genre of the music, or the political climate of the time, or the avant-garde sensibilities of the artists and photographers the recording artists chose to create their album covers.

To be fair, the notion of using album covers to make an artistic statement didn’t begin with the great ’60s rock bands.  The debut of the “long-playing” (LP) album in the early 1950s, which replaced the 78-rpm records of the ’30s and ’40s, offered a new canvas for the commercial display of images that might draw buyers’ attention and differentiate an album from the rest of the pack.  Jazz artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane were among the first to express a desire to put something more…interesting on their LP covers than the garish, cheesy sales appeals favored by profit-minded label executives.

In the rock music arena, though, covers tended to lean toward formulaic, slapdash artwork throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, because that’s what the record labels wanted, and they had the control.  Some were downright embarrassing, as they sought to capitalize on the lame lyrics or novelty aspect of the one hit single (witness Barry Mann’s “Who Put the Bomp” or the cringeworthy “Last Kiss”).  Then again, you could understand why Capitol Records chose to emblazon The Beach Boys’ 1962 album “Surfing Surfari” with a photo of the five guys awkwardly carrying one surfboard (never mind that only one member, Dennis Wilson, had ever surfed before).

You could make a case that the cover of The Beatles’ second album “With The Beatles” (“Meet The Beatles” in the US version) was artistically significant, with its unique display of the group in a three-faces-above-and-one-below arrangement.  But it really wasn’t until the group had their way and insisted on the use of artist friend Klaus Voorman’s unusual pastiche for the “Revolver” cover that the mainstream audience started seeing bold artistic presentations on the covers of the albums they were buying.

And then there’s the groundbreaking “Sgt. Pepper” cover in 1967.  Manager Brian Epstein freaked out when he saw what The Beatles were proposing — the faces of nearly 60 different individuals from past and present, whose approval he would have to seek in order to include them in the mix.  The only one who objected was ’30s/’40s sex siren Mae West, who wondered, “Why would someone like me want to be in a lonely hearts club?”  Meanwhile, it’s interesting to note that only four people on that cover are still alive today, and two of them are Beatles…  And how cool of the band to turn right around on their next record and offer the most minimalist art conceivable:  A plain white cover for “The Beatles” (AKA “The White Album”).

At that point, album cover art exploded, with fabulous and disastrous results.  It was banana-bizarre (“The Velvet Underground and Nico” and the Mothers of Invention’s “Weasels Ripped My Flesh”).  It was animated fun (Janis Joplin’s “Cheap Thrills”).  It was psychedelic (Jimi Hendrix’s “Axis:  Bold as Love” and Iron Butterfly’s “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida”).  It was mildly disturbing (King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King” and Captain Beefheart’s “Trout Mask Replica”). It was simple portraiture (the front porch snapshot for “Crosby Stills & Nash” and the dime-store machine photo for “Songs of Leonard Cohen”).  It was understated (Joni Mitchell’s delicate line art for “Ladies of the Canyon” and Carole King’s domestic serenity for “Tapestry”).  It was retro (Pure Prairie League’s use of Norman Rockwell artwork and The Grateful Dead’s faded Americana photo on “Workingman’s Dead”). It was just plain silly (the garish carnival claim of “50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t Be Wrong” and The Mamas and The Papas wedging themselves into a bathtub for “If Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears”)

Artists chose famous photographers to capture their images in just the right way (Richard Avedon’s portrait of Simon and Garfunkel on “Bookends” comes immediately to mind).  Eric Clapton selected a painting by Frandsen de Schomberg, which he felt resembled Pattie Boyd Harrison, his heartbreaking muse for the Derek and the Dominos classic “Layla” LP.  The cover painting of the shabby beggarman for Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” cover was expressly commissioned (although leader Ian Anderson said he would’ve preferred the photograph of a homeless man his wife had taken months earlier).

If the covers of record albums are designed to be attention-getting, then perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of all is The Rolling Stones’ 1971 classic, “Sticky Fingers.”  It features a closeup of a male crotch, clad in tight jeans with a noticeable package and, on the original vinyl LP release, an actual working zipper.  And that’s not all;  the belt buckle had perforations that allowed buyers to peel back the jeans and reveal a sub-cover featuring a pair of “tighty whities” and the gold-embossed name of ’60s art icon Andy Warhol, who came up with the cover concept.

Some of the groundbreaking artwork on albums of the ’70s remains lasting and important many decades later.  Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” gatefold with saxophonist Clarence Clemons may be THE quintessential rock pose of that decade;  David Bowie’s lightning-bolt image on “Aladdin Sane” is still adorning t-shirts today;  Peter Gabriel’s otherworldly “Face Melt” evokes Twilight Zone-ish moods;  Traffic’s hexagonic die-cut “Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys” broke the mold on album cover dimensions;  the shocking/erotic photo of half-naked ladies on Roxy Music’s “Country Life” was banned in many states and countries;  the pop-up defaced schoolroom desk of Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” took album covers from two to three dimensions.

Perhaps the most prolific album art purveyor was a hip London outfit known as Hipgnosis, responsible for the design and execution of many dozens of memorable covers of the period, none more notable than the prism/spectrum depicted on Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”  The Hipgnosis designers also handled cover art for every other Pink Floyd cover, plus major releases by Led Zeppelin, The Police, ELO, Genesis, Alan Parsons Project, Yes, Al Stewart and Renaissance.

Homage must also be paid to the great Roger Dean, who created some of the most fantastical visual landscapes for his album cover art for Yes and a few other bands.  And H.R. Giger’s work for Emerson Lake & Palmer’s “Brain Salad Surgery” broke new ground and must be singled out.

Some bands defied the “anti-corporate” ideal by creating logos that made the bands into brands.  Every single album by Chicago has the “Chicago” logo proudly displayed.  Most Stones albums contain the “lips and tongue” logo — if not on the cover, then elsewhere in the packaging.

Art imitated art (as it always has) in 1980, when the rebellious British band The Clash chose to emulate Elvis Presley’s 1956 debut LP cover design when it used the same typeface and layout on its “London Calling” album.  Some fans barely noticed, but artists took note, for sure.

So why has album art been such a big deal?  Part of it has been the visceral thrill of tearing off the shrink wrap of a new album and soaking in the visual at the same time you listened to the aural.  It was like opening a big picture book and following along as the musical story unfolded.  A lot of this had to do with the inclusion of song lyrics, which had never occurred to anyone, apparently, until they showed up on the rear side of the “Sgt.Pepper” LP.

In the 1980s, even as the 12″x 12″ canvas of album covers gave way to the decidedly inferior 6″x 6″ format of CD covers, notable album art design continued to flourish. Bands like Duran Duran, Debbie Harry, The Eurythmics, Culture Club and The Cars used the bold, stark lines of ’80s advertising styles and Alberto Vargas pin-up girls, which seamlessly tied the sounds of the New-Wavish music to the dynamic, chic visuals that dominated the worlds of fashion and style at that time.

Madonna ruled the airwaves in the ’80s, and her acute fashion sense was hugely evident in the way she used her album covers to promote her too-cool persona, especially on LPs like “True Blue” and “Like a Virgin.”  The same held true for fun-loving Cyndi Lauper, whose 1985 chart-topper “She’s So Unusual” and its anthem “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” set the standard for young women’s devil-may-care fashion for most of the decade.

Heavy metal bands certainly didn’t neglect the chance to showcase their in-your-face stance and vaguely threatening personas.  Album covers like Ozzy Osbourne’s “No Rest for the Wicked” and Ted Nugent’s “Scream Dream” reached out and throttled consumers as they walked down the aisle at Tower Records.

Even though most artists weren’t releasing vinyl albums by then, Nirvana and other leading ’90s bands still chose to take advantage of the artistic palette available in “album” cover art (even though it was on the significantly smaller CD booklet dimension).  There may be very few artistic images of the 1990s more indelible than the floating baby and the dollar bill on the fishing line that comprise the “Nevermind” cover art.

There have been SO MANY great album covers displaying fantastic works of art over the years.  Trying to list the best of them is a fool’s errand.  It’s like trying to list the proverbial “Best 50 Albums of All Time.”  Very subjective, and very limiting.  It would be easier to list the best photo album covers, the best art covers, the best illustration covers, and so on.

But here’s the thing:  It’s safe to say that clicking a few buttons on your laptop and glancing at digital images passing by on your computer screen is nowhere near as satisfying as holding an album-sized image in your hands.  It’s almost like the difference between driving a car and looking at a picture of one.

It’s good to know that the latest generation of music lovers are plunking down the money to buy turntables and relatively pricey vinyl versions of the latest releases.  Not only are they rewarded with better sounding recordings of the songs they want, they’re once again getting full-size art, presented in the way the artists originally intended.


Some of us, in fact, are so crazy about great album covers that we FRAME them and mount them on our walls, as I did several years ago in my Santa Monica home office…