The news was covered even in many major American media outlets: Gord Downie, lead singer of the Canadian band The Tragically Hip, has terminal brain cancer. I’m sure many Americans were wondering, “Who the hell is Gord Downie and what the hell is a ‘tragically hip?’” If they’d looked at Canadian media, they’d have been even more mystified: it was front page and lead news across Canada.
So let me try to answer these questions, and tell you what The Tragically Hip mean to this one Canadian (who’s now lived in the U.S. for 21 years).
“Bring it all back to me”: My History with The Hip
It was 32 years ago when I first heard of The Tragically Hip. I was working at Old Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario, dressing like a British soldier from the 1860s for my summer job. The guard member in charge of guiding told me about his band, The Tragically Hip. “Cool name,” I said. “We’re playing Alfie’s [the Queen’s University pub] this weekend,” he told me. His name was Gord Sinclair, and a few years later I’d see him on the cover of the Hip’s first full-length album – with a thick bush of hair replacing the crewcut we all wore at Old Fort Henry.
I saw the Hip for the first time that weekend. Gord Downie had long, curly hair and leapt around like a wild man. They played mostly (if not entirely) covers if I remember correctly. “Not Your Stepping Stone” stands out. I saw them more times than I can remember over the three summers I spent in Kingston from 1984-1986.
This is the point in most of these stories where the author tells you how awesome the band was, and how he or she knew they were going to be big. Sorry to disappoint (or more accurately I’m sorry to admit that I have no instincts as an A&R rep), but I didn’t see that! They were an awesome, tight bar band – and I thought that would be it. Then in the summer of 1987, I ended up at the Dutch Mill Inn in Trenton, Ontario (a classic dive bar in the area where I grew up) and, lo and behold, the Hip was playing. I talked to Gord S. and recall he mentioned something about not getting summer jobs and deciding to take the band on the road. Shortly after that, I was surprised to see a low-budget video from their self-titled EP for the song “Small Town Bringdown” (shot in Alfie’s, I think) followed not too long after by another video for “Last American Exit.” Wow, I thought, the boys are actually getting serious.
July 15, 1988. Back from my job in Montreal for the weekend, I heard the Hip were playing the legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. I dragged my youngest sister and my good friends Debbie and Doug down there. We were crammed on the wooden dance floor watching a band that had upped its game considerably since I’d seen them the year before. Gord D. was demonstrating the stage presence that would come to define much of the band’s image over the coming years, thrashing around spastically, shaking his head (and spraying sweat from his still long locks over the crowd – eww, gross), spewing bits of poetry and rambling stories in the middle of and between songs. I apologized to my sister and my friends: “Sorry, I know the lead singer is a little weird.” Debbie and Nancy responded simultaneously, “Oh, yeah he’s really weird” in a tone of voice that implied they had an entirely different interpretation of “weird”!
Up to Here came out in 1989, a collection of fairly straightforward swampy blues-rock that churned its way up the Canadian charts on the strength of “New Orleans Is Sinking,” “Blow At High Dough” and “38 Years Old.” Road Apples (a tighter collection that emphasized even more the drama inherent in their sound) followed in 1991, becoming their first #1 album. (Since then Up to Here has been certified Diamond, meaning over 1 million albums sold in Canada, and Road Apples 8x Platinum, or over 800,000. Multiply those times ten for the U.S. equivalent.)
Then Fully Completely came out. The mysterious cover (created with distorted color photocopies) appeared all over Toronto, where I lived at the time, including a multi-story version on the side of the main Sam the Record Man’s (a legendary and sadly defunct chain in Canada) on Yonge St. Fully Completely pushed the Hip into the Canadian stratosphere, from being a great band to a great Canadian band. Why?
Simple: they wrote a hockey song.
“50 Mission Cap” is in many ways the classic Hip song: simple, repetitive, without much in the way of melody or structure, guitar chords snarling and crunching over a simple, solid bass line and booming drums. But on top of this deceptively simple musical backdrop, Gord D threw down the story of Bill Barilko, a Toronto Maple Leafs’ defenceman who scored the goal that allowed the Leafs to clinch the 1951 Stanley Cup. Let the lyrics tell the story:
Bill Barilko disappeared that summer
He was on a fishing trip
The last goal he ever scored
Won the Leafs the cup
They didn't win another till nineteen sixty two
The year he was discovered
“That night in Toronto” – Canada’s Band
It wasn’t just “50 Mission Cap”: Fully Completely started with “Courage,” a song dedicated to Hugh MacLennan, one of the best novelists Canada ever produced – and one of the first ever to set his stories unapologetically in a Canadian context. (The title of his novel Two Solitudes entered the Canadian lexicon as a symbol of the the French-English conflict.) “Wheat Kings” told the story of the wrongfully imprisoned David Milgaard. ("50 Mission Cap" wouldn’t be their last hockey song either: “Fireworks” off Phantom Power and “At the Lonely End of the Rink” from World Container both feature the unofficial Canadian national sport.)
It’s hard for someone who’s not Canadian (at least English-Canadian) to understand what a big deal this was. With American music and culture dominating the globe, most Canadian bands (indeed most musicians worldwide who want to make a career of it) kept things generic with their eyes on the massive U.S. market. As an English-Canadian, I didn’t have much that was truly mine culturally: some great literature, a microscopic movie industry, and mostly bad TV (the latter has improved a lot in the last decades). Suddenly I had a band that spoke to me, that was mine. This would be a blessing and a curse to the Hip.
Over the years, Hip songs would reference painter Tom Thomson (“Three Pistols”), explorer Jacques Cartier (“Looking For a Place to Happen”), former PM Pierre Trudeau (“An Inch An Hour”), the Dieppe landing (“Nautical Disaster”), indie band Eric’s Trip (“Put It Off”), the 1970s national fitness program Participaction and Bobby Orr (both in “Fireworks”), and the 1998 Eastern Canada (and U.S.) ice storm (“Something On”) among others.
Then there are the place names. The Hip’s lyrics often reference Canadian geography. It’s not called out or emphasized but slipped in organically as an integral part of the song. Americans are used to hearing their place names in songs – Canadians aren’t. In this regard, the Hip are very much akin to Midnight Oil, the Australian band that similarly used Aussie place names with no apologies or concession to the U.S. audience.
“Twelve men broke loose in ’73 from Millhaven Maximum Security” started the trend on Up to Here, but it was hardly the end. “Silver Jet” took us from “Clayoquot Sound to Cape Spear (that’s from the Pacific to the Atlantic for those of you unfamiliar with Canadian geography). Sault Ste. Marie, Bobcaygeon, Toronto, Thompson, Churchill, Calgary, Athasbasca, Isle aux Morts, Niagara Falls, Algonquin Provincial Park – even the isolated First Nations community of Attawapiskat has its own song.
From various comments in concerts and interviews, I know that Downie and his mates occasionally found the “Canada’s band” or “Canada’s poet laureate” title burdensome. I certainly noticed on a couple of occasions (once at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Mass., and once at the House of Blues in Chicago) a large “yahoo” contingent of bros in baseball caps screaming continually for “New Orleans Is Sinking” or “Little Bones” and talking right through newer material. (“Have any of you boys ever listened to the first lines of ‘Courage?,’” I wanted to ask.) But they’ve generally accepted this status with grace.
“One day I'll make some honest rock and roll full of hand claps and gang vocals”: The Hip’s Sound
When Bruce Springsteen inducted U2 into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he noted that the Spanish numbers Bono calls out at the beginning of “Vertigo” actually translate to “1, 2, 3, 14.” “That,” Springsteen noted, “is the correct math for a rock and roll band.” He was simply rephrasing “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” cliché.
The same applies to the Hip. Individually, they’re all solid but not groundbreaking musicians. They’ve done little outside of their work in the Hip. In fact, in 32 years, only Gord Downie (three times), Rob Baker and Paul Langlois have released solo albums (that I’m aware of), and while enjoyable, these albums had nothing of the impact of a Hip record.
Something happens when they come together. Gord Sinclair’s bass lines (often played either melodically high on the neck or very low in a distorted driving way) combine with Johnny Fay’s rock-solid drumming to lay a widely varied bed for the interplay of Paul Langlois’ crunchy rhythm figures and Rob Baker’s deft slide work. Above this, Gord Downie’s unique voice gutters and shrieks, often supported by Langlois’ constrained harmonies. We’re not talking great innovation here: we’re talking about a bunch of individual quirks that come together to create a unique and evolving sound.
“Use it up, use it all up, don’t save anything for later”
That sound comes to life in a live setting. While the early shows I saw are mostly gone from my memory (it was summer, I was in university, and Alfie’s always had cheap pitchers of beer), I saw them some 15 times from the now legendary Horseshoe gig in 1988 until 2007, when I last saw them at the 9:30 Club in D.C. Virtually every show was a thrashfest, the audience pushed into a frenzy by the band’s driving sound and Gord D’s manic stage presence. A few memories from those sweaty sets:
- June 22, 1990 at the old Ontario Place Forum in Toronto: Everyone dancing on the lawn, it started to rain, and gradually we all slide to the bottom of the lawn above the reserved seating area
- July 1991 at the Concert Hall: I wasn’t at this show but my friend Doug was there and told me that by the time the show ended, condensation was dripping from the ceiling onto the crowd.
- September 1991 at Federation Hall in Waterloo: the night before my final interview for my first professional job, the show moved last minute into this larger venue to meet huge demand for tickets, an incredible press of people. The band entered to “On The Road Again” by Canned Heat and crashed into “On the Verge.” I danced so hard I sweat through my jeans and they took three days to dry.
- Nov. 18, 1992 at Massey Hall in Toronto: As the band takes the stage and launches into the haunting opening guitar figure of “Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” Gord D rambles about murder and burial, and the crowd absolutely loses its mind.
- May 17, 1996 at Avalon in Boston: Trouble At The Henhouse (my least favorite Hip album) has been out for only 10 days. The band opens with the first track off the new album, “Gift Shop.” The entire audience sings every word as they’ve already memorized it. Chills run down my spine.
- August 1998 at Bill’s Bar, Boston: Canada’s biggest band (which regularly sells out arenas across the country in a matter of minutes) is playing the smallest venue I’ve seen them in since the Horseshoe gig. They have to enter through the crowd. When Gord D sings “That night in Toronto” during “Bobcaygeon,” we all go crazy and I once again feel a chill up my spine.
“Those Himalayas of the mind”: The Words
The Hip’s lyrics aren’t all Canadiana: Downie’s intellectual curiosity has taken his lyrics in many directions. Among many other things, you’ll find Shakespearean characters, early 20th century evangelist Billy Sunday, Randy Newman, Springsteen, John Gardner’s theory of the “fictive dream,” Jeff Beck, Cat Power, Beck, the Mariana Trench, John Cage, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (whose collapse is used as a metaphor for a failing relationship), Raymond Carver, James Agee, dire wolves, sharks (“Sharks don’t attack the Irish. It’s mostly Australians.”), a bear stranded on an island attacking a couple (“I was first attracted by your scent. Your arm must be a caramelized onion.”), and razor sharp observations from a life on the road (“One night in El Paso, the cops go into a crowd under a throbbing bladder of light and the music is so loud.” or “Past hills of chambermaids' dark bare arms and fields of muscle quilted to the bone.”). While sometimes obscure or outright inscrutable, his lyrics are among the best ever written. Who else could illustrate the lurching, brutish, sledgehammer of George W. Bush’s foreign policy as “Gus The Polar Bear From Central Park”?
Many of these words were worked out on the road through Gord D’s habit of telling stories, interjecting bits of poetry into songs, or otherwise ranting. An early famous example of this was the “Killer Whale Tank” version of “New Orleans Is Sinking” recorded at the Roxy in L.A. and released as the B-side to “Long Time Running.” Say “killer whale tank” to most Canadians and they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about.
“To boldly clap in a room full of nothing”: In Closing…
This is all a long way of saying that the Hip have meant more to me than any band I’ve known. Yes, I might find other bands more melodic, more artistically satisfying, more skilled, or having more impact on other musicians, but none of these factors can top the deep sentimentality I feel for a band I’ve followed for so long and that has laid down a body of work so personally meaningful.
The band is embarking on one final short tour of Canada (are they beating “the inevitability of death to death just a little bit?”). I won’t be there but I’ll be sending my best vibes through the ether, for Gord D. and for the band. But at the end of day, “What can you do? They’re all gone and we’ll go, too.”