Hi, I’m Matt. Welcome to Steady Beats, a newsletter about chasing the good life at midlife: exercise, education, and eighties music.
Music Beats: Shipwrecks and Sunsets
What artist can make you question God in one phase of life and serve as the soundtrack for your best college weekends later on?
Lightfoot passed away last week, leaving behind a rich musical legacy—especially for those of us who grew up in the Great Lakes region.
If you went to elementary school in Michigan in the 1980s, you weren’t moving on unless you’d memorized Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
It’s not a song. It’s a narrative poem set to haunting music, a six-minute, twenty-nine second harrowing journey with the crew of the freighter swallowed by Lake Superior in one of Michigan’s sneaky-strong November storms.
In the 4th grade we listened to the song over and over. We drew pictures of the freighter. Eventually, the song and the story burned into our memories for good.
The song came out in 1976. But to me and my fellow fourth graders, it might as well have been 1796.
We were living in 1984, and it was the future. Michael Jackson was moonwalking. Van Halen was using a space-age synth sound on its new hard rock album. The government planned to blast missiles out of the sky with satellite weapons. And here was this bearded-hippie looking guy strumming some acoustic guitar and singing about a boat that sank Up North.
Outwardly, we were all annoyed by the song. On the verge of adolence, we were showing early signs of needing to look cool.
Inside, I loved the song.
It’s was frightening and tragic. Plus, there was something surreal about a song retelling an event that happened near me. Eighties pop music was (and is!) great. But the songs all seemed to tell tales from coastlines far to the west or east.
Lightfoot sang about something that happened right off the shoreline in my state. That was mind-blowing.
And there was the way Lightfoot told the story. No passage from the song stuck with me more than this one:
Does any one know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
We’d been taught God loves us and will protect us. And yet, this, and other terrible things, did happen. Why? Later in life I discovered trial and tragedy doesn’t mean God is absent. It fact, he’s often most present in our hardest moments.
But as a 4th grader those lines left me feeling vulnerable. A harsh truth, exposed in a Midwestern Iliad.
The mid-90s were a fantastic time for rock. Pearl Jam was at the peak of its powers. We had Green Day. Smashing Pumpkins. Even Hootie and Blowfish reeled off five hit singles.
And yet, when my friends and I assembled each fall for the Michigan vs. Michigan State football game weekend, it’s was Lightfoot’s “Sundown” that served as the weekend’s central anthem.
I don’t know why. I don’t remember where we first picked it up. It’s certainly not a party tune.
The song is about Lightfoot’s tumultuous relationship with Cathy Smith, the woman who would later deliver the fatal dose of heroin to John Belushi.
The song has a seething anger to it. Lightfoot plots revenge.
Sundown, you better take care
If I find you been creeping 'round my back stairs
And underneath his anger, stoking its fire, is a dull and incessant ache:
Sometimes I think it's a shame
When I get feeling better, when I'm feeling no pain
Not exactly “Everybody Have Fun Tonight.”
It’s funny how we draw our own emotional associations to music, regardless of its contents.
“Sundown” is not a happy song. And yet every time I hear it, I’m back in my flannel shirt with my best friends, having a blast, drinking terrible beer until sunup.
“Sundown” is dark. But it always lightens my day.
Rest in peace, Gordon.
A little more on Lightfoot.
You can watch a documentary on his life and music on Amazon Prime called “If You Could Read My Mind.”
Rick Beato put together an insightful tribute looking at Lightfoot’s lyrical and composition prowess here:
Thank you for reading.
Let’s keep the Steady Beats going. 💚
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Wonderful post. As an 80’s kid is was nice to remember the hits.
As for the love of God in trials. Paul recounts his passionate plea for avid to remove his suffering but hears “my grace is sufficient for you”. He goes on to say that he will boast all the more in his weakness for when he is weak, he is strong.
The teaching of sovereignty in suffering is awkward but glorious.
Love this one!! You're awesome. I can't wait to meet you in person!