I started reading The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay. I’ve only read the first chapter, so I haven’t gotten very far, but I have always adored the Hip, so this should be a special reading experience. The fact that Barclay autographed my copy makes it even more so.
The Tragically Hip have long occupied a spot in my top three musical acts of my lifetime. (The other two are U2 and Peter Gabriel.) I have seen them play in concert more than any other act (five times). I own a physical copy of every one of their studio albums. Hanging on my wall is a commemorative collage of the band with a platinum record. I acquired it by writing down a minimum bid where it was displayed by the exit in a grocery store last year. My love for the Hip is bona fide.
I first heard the Hip when their self-titled EP was released in 1987. I was fifteen-years-old, and I listened to the same top 40 station as my older sister, although my musical tastes had started to diverge from hers. Whitney Houston had taken over her stereo. While I thought Whitney has an amazing singer, most of her songs didn’t grab me. I, on the other hand, became fascinated with Peter Gabriel’s So album, along with Genesis’ Invisible Touch. Looking back, both of those albums were introduced to audiences through pop singles, but listeners who delved deeper into the albums were confronted with far more nuanced material. Suddenly I started seeking out music that was more adventurous than what you hear on top 40 stations, but didn’t sink into the mindlessness and pomposity you’d normally find on hard rock stations around that same period. Soon enough, my world would be invaded by five guys from Kingston, Ontario.
Every Saturday, after working a twelve-hour shift at my dad’s restaurant in the St. Lawrence Market, I liked to watch a show called The New Music. At the end of one episode, hosts Denise Donlon and Laurie Brown quickly informed viewers of the emergence of an exciting new band out of Kingston called the Tragically Hip, and, under the show’s end credits, rolled the video for their first single, “Smalltown Bringdown.” I remember being immediately intrigued. As a young patriotic Canadian, I enjoyed finding out about new Canadian bands. There was something different about the Hip. They were more rough-and-tumble than Bryan Adams. They didn’t seem fixated on commercial success like Glass Tiger or Honeymoon Suite. And nobody was singing like Gord Downie in 1987. Eventually I would also catch the video for “Last American Exit,” but it would be years before the band would start getting a share of my disposable income.
Their first full-length album, 1989’s Up To Here, was a big hit in Canada, but I don’t remember it making much of an impact on my life. Then again, I was still listening to a top-40 station, and the only track from the album they played was “Boots or Hearts,” which, while strong, wasn’t life-changing. Perhaps if I heard “New Orleans Is Sinking” they would have become my band sooner than they did, but the song that truly won me over was the lead single from their next record. That album was 1991’s Road Apples, and the song was “Little Bones.”
As anyone familiar with the song knows, “Little Bones” opens with a simple, yet killer, guitar riff, which is soon paired with some pounding drums and insistent bass notes. Gord Downie’s enters with his distinct howl and even more distinct imagery. His lyrics in “Little Bones” are rooted in sex and everything blue-collar, like cheap beer and billiards, but the way the words are laid out betrays Downie’s poetic instincts. The song is a perfect demonstration of what made the Hip so unique; they could lay down a groove with the best of them while serving up poetry that begged for deeper examination.
From there, the Hip became ever-present in my life. I would be shut up in my bedroom, blasting their music as I did my homework. Their 1992 album, Fully Completely, turned me into an even bigger fan than I already was. But young Canadians tended to agree with me. Both Road Apples and Fully Completely hit the top of the album charts in Canada.
Still, as popular as they were, I had a few contrarian friends. There were those that preferred their rock more explosive a-la AC/DC. One friend argued that the Hip were too rootsy, and therefore more of a country band. Another said the only song he liked from them was “Fifty Mission Cap” because it was about the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their complaints failed to sway me, and I now find them laughable.
The release of their 1994 album, Day for Night, was a momentous occasion for me. I managed to buy it a day before everyone else because a record store in Thornhill stocked it too early. I even worked the album’s release into some of my assignments at journalism school. To this day, Day for Night is one of my all-time favourite albums. The Hip’s music had deepened in texture and mood, and the entire work felt like a cohesive and complete listening experience. Songs like “Grace, Too,” “Greasy Jungle” and “Thugs” displayed a newfound sense of menace, while slower numbers like “Scared” and “Titanic Terrarium” offered insightful contemplation. When they appeared on Saturday Night Live to sing “Grace, Too” and “Nautical Disaster,” it felt like my country was getting a rare opportunity to educate our neighbours to the south what rock music could actually be.
I never became too pre-occupied with their lack of stateside success. If Canada was the only country that loved the Hip, that must have meant Canada was cooler than everyone else.
I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I didn’t see them play live until the turn of the millennium. It wasn’t until then that I was able to comfortably blow money on concert tickets. My first Hip concert was a surprise gig at Massey Hall in support of their 2000 album Music @ Work. The last song that evening was “Little Bones.” Massey Hall was the perfect venue for the Hip – intimate and iconic, yet large enough for a raucous crowd.
The next year, Downie released his first solo album, accompanied by a volume of poetry. Both were entitled Coke Machine Glow. I was, at the time, employed as an entertainment writer at a website, and I managed to snag media accreditation at an event at the Steamwhistle Roundhouse in Toronto. There was an assembly of improvisational musicians led by someone in a blue furry animal costume, and I remember Sook Yin-Lee was sitting in with them. After their set, Gord came out wearing a janitor’s outfit. He recited some verse as he performed an interpretive dance with Andrea Nann, and strummed some songs on acoustic guitar as he sat on the floor. This is the closest I ever stood to him; just a few feet away. Yet, I didn’t get to talk to him. That night is a bittersweet memory.
In the years that followed, the Hip continued to be a big deal, even if their newer albums failed to achieve the same sales numbers as their 90s output did. I still picked up every new release and bought concert tickets. When Canada Post released postage stamps of Canada’s top rock bands, I bought a book of Tragically Hip stamps, and I happily used them but saved myself the last two.
On May 24, 2016, an announcement appeared on the band’s website that Gord Downie had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an invasive brain tumour. I was shaken. That day I wrote in a blank greeting card about how much I loved the Tragically Hip, addressed it to their snail mail address, affixed my second-last Tragically Hip stamp, and deposited it in the mailbox.
After a lot of struggle, I succeeded in getting a pair of tickets to one of their last concerts at the Air Canada Centre. There is something cathartic about yelling how much you love someone in an NHL arena. Mob love exists, and I approve of it.
Following the end of the Man Machine Poem tour, the way Gord Downie lived out the rest of his days could not have been more graceful. He called for Canada to repair her relationship with the First Nations peoples. When he was interviewed by Peter Mansbridge, he, without reservation, told him he loved him, and then kissed him. I feel that’s much of how he used his remaining time – expressing his love. I think that serves as a reminder of the best use anyone can make of their time on this planet.
The morning of October 18, 2017, I found out Gord Downie passed away. I was working at a corporate conference at Deerhurst Resort in Huntsville. When I had a free moment, I went on Facebook and I shared the music video of “The East Wind,” the song he recorded with his makeshift band The Country of Miracles in 2010, accompanied by a message of how much I would miss him. As I got in my car and prepared to drive home to Toronto, I inserted Day for Night into the CD player. I shouted along to every lyric. As the last note of “Impossibilium” faded out, I switched over to CBC Radio. Listener after listener called in to express their love and their memories of Gord Downie. Then there was a program following Downie’s career from the birth of the Hip to his “Secret Path” project with comic book great Jeff Lemire. As rural Ontario flew by either side of my car, I couldn’t help but be gratified by how hard my country rocked.
It’s been less than a year since Downie died, and I’ve had a lot of time to contemplate why he meant so much to me. I think a lot of it has to do with how he engaged his audience. In concert he allowed his body to be contorted and buffeted around the stage however the music demanded, and the effect was enthralling. More importantly, the Tragically Hip’s music was created from the peak of the band’s collective intelligence. They didn’t stop at engaging you at skin level. Yes, they were masters at working a groove, but their singer was a tremendously elegant poet. No other band in the English-speaking world would release a song with the chorus, “We live to survive our paradoxes.” The Hip engaged you at a deeper level. They mind-melded with you. I’ve come to notice all my favourite artists engage me mentally instead of superficially: Radiohead, Peter Gabriel, The Arcade Fire, Kendrick Lamar… With the Hip, the land and life experiences I shared with them will always make my bond with them a special and lasting one.
Now to begin Chapter Two….