Like many people, the news of Gord Downie’s terminal Cancer diagnosis came as if I was hearing the news about a close friend. By the sheer will of persistence and passion to remain themselves as people and make music that is true in their hearts, they managed to take many of us along on the same journey, growing up in Canada.
I know a few things about the music of the Tragically Hip.
My first experience with the Hip was in 1989 in London, Ontario where I was enrolled in the Music Industry Arts program at Fanshawe College. Oh yes, it was rock school. One afternoon in the sub cafeteria room there was an “afternoon rock show” with “The Tragically Hip.” I didn’t know what to make of the name, and awkwardly, the band came on stage and played some songs. They were eager, shy and ernest in conversation after the gig. “Did you like it? What’s your name? Great to meet you!” Yep, we like this band. Suddenly that week “Up to Here” came out and was instantly at every party, including mine. I knew all the songs by day two.
The next time I saw the band was at Ontario Place forum, a giant round ball of a venue with a revolving stage. My girlfriend and I sat on the grass, witnessed a band coming in to their own and I had that beautiful epiphany that a musician gets when they think, “if they can do it…
so can I.”
It would be an understatement to say I play music professionally due to the existence and influence of this band.
Up next was the time we travelled to a field in the middle of nowhere - ok, it was Carlyle, Ontario to see the band live, co-headlining - wait for it - with Glass Tiger. Mostly I sat by the tent drinking beer and strumming Hip songs.
Life flowed on and I wound up out west In Vancouver, crashing on the couch of college mates in a shoddy two story house in East Van. Truly on my own for the first time, I started playing a few solo shows, and immediately went for what I knew…originals, and Tragically Hip songs. Sure I did lots of other stuff, but the Hip was always an easy, solid choice. Everyone, including myself, knew and loved the songs. I continued my journey up to Whistler where I played gigs every week for three years. Typical nights were three solo acoustic sets starting at 9 pm and playing until 2 am. It’s where I learned to really play an acoustic guitar live and also got my gigging spine where you play in a room of 200 hammered people talking about their epic day on the Mountain. Me, with my eyes closed singing ‘The Luxury,” from Road Apples. It would be a common (rude!) thing for people to stop their conversation to yell out “HIP!” and then get back to what they were doing. I use to yell a random thing back like “Chicken wings!” to a confused room, noting that I thought it was “yell random stuff out hour,” or something. But I often played the hip. So often, it got to the point that I had played the songs more than I had actually listened to them. There is no doubt in my mind that “Wheat Kings” is a song I have played more times than any other.
I could be dead drunk with my fingers wrapped in duct tape and if you put a guitar in my hand….
On a night in 1994 we all huddled on the couch to watch the band play on SNL for the first time. What is going to happen? Will they be famous overnight? Will they forget who we are? Will they suck? Will that mean we suck? I had another moment watching the band launch into their set. My college sub room.… Holy shit they are doing it! When Gord Downie raised two fingers and opened with the line “she said I’m Tragically Hip…come on just let’s go!” across Canada, fans had a collective mind meld of “yes, exactly, get with it people!” Two funny things about that broadcast: first, Downie tells a story of how he had made a promise to his nephew to give him a shout out on TV about his 11th birthday, and Gord was trying hard to not forget about it, so when he started and put two fingers in the air, that meant “11,” and forgot the opening lyrics so he simply said the last two words of what host Dan Acroyd had just said: “Ladies and gentlemen, from Kingston, Ontario Canada, home of Kirk Muller, Walter Frank High and me, it is my honour to introduce to America, my friends the Tragically hip.” Oh and how more Canadian could you get for an introduction?
And while I’ve never met Gord personally, I’ve listened closely when he said that he “is tired of the questions about being more popular in Canada than anywhere else,” and that he “shuns blind patriotism,” to use a pun; fully and completely. I liked that, too.
Yet is undeniable that many in this country consider them “Canada’s band.” Yes, there are plenty of mentions of Canadian iconography, hockey, and celebrities (or people that they turned into past celebrities through lyrics) but the main thing that have propelled the band into the hearts of people across this country, is seeing the band live. In every shitty bar and every good one, in hockey arenas and surprise Kensington Market gigs in Toronto. Through it all, we all knew in our bones, were reassured by peers and sonically connected to each other at parties that they were regular, good Canadian kids just like us. Sure Gord loved the Bruins, but he gets a pass; at least he loves hockey. Do you know the riff to new Orleans?” Sure, let’s go.
Many years later Downie was asked how that appearance on SNL affected the band’s popularity. He responded with “Oh I don’t know…why don’t you ask the 52 people in the bar in Buffalo the next day? They seemed to enjoy it.” Not that he seemed upset about the reality, but more about the question. Perhaps the wild patriotism from some Canadian fans of the band comes from a sensitive and honest place. For once, it’s nice to not share something special with the whole goddamn world. We grew up together, and this time we don’t want our best friends to move away. Or change.
When the hip played a surprise show at the venerable Railway Club downtown, I stood out front on the sidewalk just wondering how bands make it into that place. Once again, If they can do it…Years later my band Mazinaw would be found regularly hosting our own Saturday night at the Railway where we invited our friends bands, and picked our slot. I always would look down at the sidewalk and recall my innocence fondly.
I kept playing music through shitty gigs, great ones, poor times, a break up, small radio and TV appearances with several band lineup changes (ok, two) a marriage, a kid and mini tours in BC and Alberta and at the end of the day, I would still would find happiness in being inspired about something someone said, or a melody that just popped up on my guitar seemingly out of nowhere. And I would play the Tragically Hip. A particular memory is getting Phantom Power and driving up to Whistler with my best friend Robbo with it cranked, the music knocking our socks off on first listen; with the grand metaphor of the sea to sky highway winding underneath us.
I covered every song off it within the next week of gigs. I probably heard “Fireworks’ four times and then never needed to hear it again to remember the words, take it into my life, and hammer it out to tourists, friends and bar staff in Vancouver and Whistler. The last time I saw the band was in Vancouver during their Day for Night tour…and I remember having a longing feeling that I would way rather be up their playing along to all these songs I knew inside out than sit here in a chair, watch and listen. After all, it’s the boys, right? I’m sure they’d be fine with it. I did get to meet the band backstage that night, but Gord was swarmed and the questions I heard asked about specific lyric passages made me nervous and I decided not to
wait around the shake his hand. Besides, I was sure that one day, eventually - our paths would cross and I could buy the man a beer and find out why he loves the Bruins so much and talk about our love for The Rheostatics and Mary Margaret O’Hara. And with mutual friends now living in Toronto, it was only a matter of time and I was distanced enough from my years of playing every songs of theirs in bars that I wouldn’t be tripping over my mouth blathering on, but really was hoping to say thanks, and let them know that I’ve had a great musical life and owe them a debt of gratitude in that department.
Tonight the band is in Vancouver playing show # 2 of their farewell run across the country one last time. Of course I wanted to go, of course there is no way I could be there. Too emotional, too expensive, too many too’s. I am instead going to do what the band, and I - have always done. Put my head down, open up my heart and play. Play hard and proud and be a decent person when someone pays attention. When the news broke I was compelled to go bang out a few of the classics down at my local liquor store. I started with “Another Midnight,” from Up to Here, and the first woman who came up to me dropped five bucks in my open case and solemnly and slowly said “Thank you…SO…much.” I knew that other people would be feeling the same kind of confused feelings that I was. It felt so good sitting there howling those songs out from the bottom of my stomach. I also knew in my heart that it would make the band happy too.
To cap off my own tribute to the band I’m playing an acoustic Hip tribute show this Saturday, July 30th in my (4th) adopted home town. I’ll also be bringing a 15 year old musician who discovered the Hip on his own and has picked up the torch. It’s amazing to me, but ultimately not surprising that don’t need to re-learn any of the songs I grew up playing. They are all still firmly in there.
The band made it clear right out of the gate with Gord’s illness: “There, we’ve talked about it, and we’re not going to talk about it again.” Another example of the freedom and power the band affords themselves because they deserve to do what ever the hell they want to because they’ve earned it and they know it. Quietly, and calmly surrounded by friends and family and a generational fan base that loves them for more than just their music, and not for any of the wrong reasons, namely: fame, celebrity, chart-topping success.
So Johnny, Gord, Robbie, Paul and Gord…thanks for inspiring this kid from Ontario, pointing me to the garage and for providing so many songs and melodies, memorable performances and for being good Canadian kids who keep their heads up and their sticks on the ice.
Good game, gentlemen. And thanks.