It’s odd being a Canadian who writes about music. The narrative is completely different from what it would be if I had grown up in the American midwest or in East Anglia. Australians might understand it. Another English-speaking land with its own cultural touchstones, musically. I once heard someone try to explain Powderfinger to an American, before realizing that they were having a nearly identical conversation I had with the same person when talking about the Tragically Hip. Powderfinger is a band so deeply rooted in their native land’s cultural mythology that outsiders seemingly couldn’t comprehend the popularity of the band. For the record, Powderfinger is a good band. I mean, they’re no Hip…
Tonight, the Tragically Hip, the Kingston lads who made a career by being the carriers of Canadian mythology almost by accident, play their last ever concert. The news back in the spring that enigmatic frontman Gord Downie was suffering from a terminal brain tumour shocked and saddened the entire nation. The conversation of the last few months has been muted, with an air of disbelief. He’s only 52. It doesn’t seem real. Much like many of Downie’s fever dream rambling monologues that pop up during “New Orléans is Sinking”, it felt like a dream state. A terrifying, heartbreaking dream state.
I’ve been a Hip fan since 1988, when I first heard “Small Town Bringdown” on the radio. The band was deeply blues based, a bar band made good with a record deal and they had released their first E.P. There is nothing revolutionary about that eponymous first release. But being raised Canadian you tend to flock to what is good in Canadian culture. Who cares if Margaret Laurence is a terribly boring writer, you’re going to read The Stone Angel, dammit! My family didn’t have cable, so Saturday night was hockey simply because there was not a single thing to watch on the other two channels. Counter programming? Against hockey? In Canada? Are you mental? Radio under the law of the land was required to play a certain amount of music created by Canadians (what would eventually be called MAPL- music, artist, performance, lyrics. Since 1972, these four criteria must be Canadian to qualify for CANCON. There ‘s a logo on the back of your CD and everything). This created a unique soundscape for my childhood. Yes, I heard Madonna and Duran Duran, but I bet none of you can sing the entire catalogue of Honeymoon Suite. Glass Tiger is more than a one hit wonder here.
The Hip’s first full length album is much of the same musically than the E.P.- bar blues with the occasional ramble into country (“Boots or Hearts” is blatant country). It’s the lyrics that become curious. They are sometimes a young man’s lyrics, preoccupied with women and sex, but it’s here where we first come upon some of the Canadiana that would increasingly creep into the Hip’s music. “38 Years Old” is inspired with a break out at Millhaven Penitentiary back in the 1970s. It’s the album home to “Blow at High Dough”, which was used by the legendary Canadian dramedy Made In Canada as it’s theme song. And of course the Hip’s best-loved single “New Orléans is Sinking” stand above it all. It’s the album where Downie’s cleverness with words and smart ass Canadian humour begins to seep through- “Fingers and toes, fingers and toes, forty things we share. Forty one if you include the fact that we don’t care” he snarls on “Boots or Hearts”. It’s one of a handful of albums with certified Diamond sales (a million plus) in Canada, one of two Hip records with that distinction. The ubiquitous”New Orléans is Sinking” has never really been out of the Canadian consciousness. There is a comfort to the record when I listen to it now. It’s nowhere near my favourite Hip album, and outside of the four singles it’s a pretty middle of a road blues rock album.
I’ve always thought Road Apples was an okay record, but I’ve never really been interested in it. The three-four punch of 1992’s Fully Completely and 1994’s Day for Night is possibly one of the greatest set of albums in Canadian history. Here is where they break their standard twelve bar blues songwriting while never abandoning the feeling it creates and where Gord Downie’s lyrics are at their smartest, most mythical, and cleverest. Lifting a stanza from Hugh McLennan. Meditating on David Milgaard. Writing on of the greatest hockey songs ever. “Looking for a place to happen” is pretty much a small town Canada mantra. “At the hundredth meridian, where the great plains begin”. There are themes of being captured, hidden, lost. Fully Completely is probably my favourite Hip record from start to finish- “Fifty Mission Cap”, “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, and the title track are three of my favourite songs of all time. But Day for Night pushed it further. There are so many great songs, so many great lines. “Armed with skill and it’s frustrations, and grace, too”. “In an epic too small to be tragic.” “Close but that’s not why I’m so hard done by”.”It’s not a deal nor a test nor a love of something fated”. “Everyone’s got their breaking point. With me it’s spiders, with you it’s me.” “Now there’s a focus group that can prove this is nothing but cold calculation.” “I wanna book that will make me drunk.” “So we don’t fuck with the 401.” “I love you even when I don’t even know I’m doing it.” The ominous bass of “Grace, Too”. The sheer beauty of “Nautical Disaster”. The spitting acid of “An Inch an Hour”. The quiet contemplation of “Scared”. The humour of “So Hard Done By”.
I saw the Hip live at this point at Another Roadside Attraction (1995 edition). Standing out in a field near High River, getting a contact high from the neighbours, with my then best friend as we watched several miraculous performances (also on the bill that day was Spirit of the West, another sad 2016 Canadian music story that I will tell when the time comes). The Hip live are almost beyond worlds. Downie’s charisma shines as he dances, almost possessed by spirits that only he knows. The legendary soliloquies make you laugh, make you think. It remains one of the best shows I have ever seen.
After Day for Night the albums become less consistent. There are incredible songs still- “Ahead By A Century” remains the longest number one singles run they ever had, “Poets” is Gord at his snarky best, “Bobcaygeon” is perhaps their finest song of all, “My Music at Work” is hilarious. After 2000’s Music @ Work my music habits had changed thanks to my children and I never bought another Hip album. The Hip I know are the Hip I listened to up until I was twenty-three. I never gave it much thought. After all they have always been there, showing up on Trailer Park Boys and constantly part of the conversation in Canada. Hey, it’s “Blow at High Dough” on the TV. How comforting. And maybe that’s what’s been so heartbreaking about this. I never considered what it would be like to live in a Tragically Hip free world. It never seemed possible. They’ve turned out albums consistently since 1988. They have always been there. On radio. On TV. In print. They never left. I had time to catch up. Didn’t I? Don’t I? Will I ever?
What does one do when the music ends for one of your favourite bands? I have had this conversation before, when R.E.M. walked away. But that was a choice made soberly and with agreement by all. This is God making the choice for us all. The band released an album this year. The Hip weren’t done. It is beyond control.
So tonight, like the rest of the nation, I will turn in to see the Tragically Hip play their hometown of Kingston, ON one last time. They will never grace the stage again. And Gord will stand in his shiny suit and weird hat, so remarkably Gord. And his words will echo through out Canada one last time.
“Wheat kings and pretty things. Let’s just see what tomorrow brings.”
We will continue, as we always do. Just sadder.
The Tragically Hip;s last concert will air on cbcmusic.ca worldwide at 8:30 Eastern/6:30 Mountain/5:30 Pacific on Saturday the twentieth of August, 2016.
The Tragically Hip’s thirteenth studio album, Man Machine Poem, is currently available for purchase, along with the back catalogue.
Donations can be made for brain cancer research at the Sunnybrook Foundation.
Godspeed, Gord. And thanks for everything.