Seeing as how autumn officially arrives later today, it seemed fitting to note the changing of the seasons with this month’s Forgotten Gem. There aren’t that many songs written about the fall, but there are plenty about summer, some of them from the perspective of days like today looking back over the lazy, hazy days past. Gordon Lightfoot may not be forgotten – particularly if you happen to be Canadian – but his early hit “Summer Side of Life” seems to often fall by the wayside when recounting his career. Which is a shame, as it’s a fine song, and it happened to be at its peak position of #21 in Canada this day in 1971.
It was the title track off his sixth album, but perhaps more notably his second Reprise record. By then he’d become well-known and loved in his homeland, scoring five top 20 hits before this album came out, but he’d only just relocated to L.A. From southern Ontario and gotten major American distribution and notice with his first hit there, “If You Could Read My Mind” the year before.
For this record, he traveled to Nashville to record, using a lot of that city’s best session players including the Jordanaires (famous for their work behind Elvis Presley) on backing vocals as well as Chip Young on electric guitars and seemingly Hargus Robbins on organ, although the players on individual tracks isn’t noted in the liner notes. Hargus was famous for playing on Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde…and being nicknamed “Pig.” In all, the album was a bit more lively and fuller-sounding than his previous one, which appealed to some but not all. Allmusic figured the album “prove(d) that Lightfoot was going to be around for quite awhile” and figured “his approachable, confiding sound is best heard within the title track.” Rolling Stone noted that the song is “bouncy” but only “overly elaborate producing justifies what would otherwise be over-energetic drumming.” They also felt “his voice sounds so much like a guitar that syllables frequently heard just as notes.”
They possibly had a point there; although his voice is strong and has his distinctive timbre, we get more a pastel, impressionistic view of his lyrics than hearing every word. The song may actually be an anti-war message from the Vietnam era, but the overall theme seems to be a nostalgic looking back on days of youth with lads enjoying the “young girls everywhere” in “fields of green” before things changed and they had to “go off to fight.”.
Either way, despite getting to only #21 in Canada and barely making the top 100 Stateside, it’s one of the great but forgotten bits of “Gord’s Gold”. And no matter where he was when making the record, there’s probably a reason Gord would feel melancholy about summer ending. Another song on the record probably illustrated why most Canucks might feel melancholy with the summer’s demise – “10 Degrees and Getting Colder” is what they’d soon have to look forward to!