By Jacqueline Howlett
It’s very hard to write about The Tragically Hip. Hard then, and hard now. When something is big and broad enough to be tied into more than half of your life, primarily the most halcyon days of your youth when you thought friendships and summer days and dreams and parents would never run out, it’s almost gibberish. It smacks of redundancy.
It’s especially hard to write about a brilliant writer, a writer who can use economy, wit & play with language at a master level, with his own invented process, tools and tricks of his trade that are deep knots of mystery we don’t know, and we can’t know. I only know that they are better than mine; better than most. But too, that they feed my brain, my creativity, my heart and my soul. They enable tears as if they were a faucet, they heal heartbreak like a good bender, they make the lake glow like Vegas, they make love feel like winning the lottery.
It is easy to love them. If you’ve got alotta heart, yerself. Lace up your skates:
I discovered The Hip during 1989, and their first album Up to Here. But it really blurred together into 1991 with Road Apples, and both albums were heavily featured in our 12 disc CD changer at The Body Shop store where I spent some formative years developing my worldview. Straightening shelves, wrapping baskets, the music in the background got absorbed in my psyche a way it wouldn’t have via the radio. That wouldn’t be normal in adulthood when we got too busy. “Little Bones” is undoubtedly genius, and like many Hip songs even as their sound and subjects changed and always evolved, it bursts with an instant urgency and no warm up. It slaps you awake:
“It gets so sticky down here
Better butter your cue finger up
It’s the start of another new year
Better call the newspaper up
Two-fifty for a hi-ball
And buck and a half for a beer
Happy hour, happy hour
Happy hour is here”
It sounded like a great Paul Newman movie, that one we hadn’t even seen yet. It sounded American, though no band in America sounded like that then. It sounded like road music. But it sounded like Shakespeare too, as the twisting verse evolved: “Two fifty for a decade / And a buck and a half for a year; Two fifty for an eyeball / And a buck and a half for an ear.” Canadian music was growing up in 1989. And it was growing up led by this upstart band from Kingston, with one foot in Shakespeare, history (much of it undocumented) and literature but with most of itself firmly in the present, able to see into every corner of the Canadian heart, and us. With a keen observance of the world under our feet. With range, with imagination, with superpowers, telekinesis being just one of many. Tell me he didn’t move you and change the substrata, too.
“Pale as a light bulb hanging on a wire
Sucking up to someone just to stoke the fire
Picking out the highlights of the scenery
Saw a little cloud that looked a little like me
I had my hands in the river, my feet back up on the banks
Looked up to the lord above and said, Hey, man, thanks
Sometimes I feel so good I got to scream
She said, Gordie, baby, I know exactly what you mean
She said, she said, I swear to god she said…” (New Orleans is Sinking)
If you haven’t heard the band do that song live, you haven’t heard them. Each and every one of those lines have been known to stretch into side trips and diversions, meditations and hallucinations that became the only religion we would ever again want or need. Woodstock came to us, 25 years later.
This band was a rocking “bar band”, we thought. It was a man’s band, we thought. It was a road tripping band. It was and wasn’t all of those things because we had no expectation of our own Springsteen, Dylan, Lennon, Cobain, Gaye, Morrissey emerging from little old Canada. That and our false humility hurt this great, great band as it has others as well. But The Hip was also a tightly wound nerve center of intellect, of confidence, of outsider observance, of irony. Of iron. It was like nothing we’d ever heard. There’s a “Colonel Tom” reference in New Orleans is Sinking. “Blow at High Dough” is fully grounded in Kingston, Ontario, but depicts the way a big movie production upsets and seduces the small towns it touches down in like a tornado: “Some kind of Elvis thing”. This is a precise bit of Canadian culture, our cities regularly disguised as American ones, our shabby old buildings right on time for prohibition-era Chicago. The imagination of Gord Downie, from the jump, was preoccupied with affairs at home and the wider culture, of which he was an astute critic, with honesty about human foibles, a scribe’s talent for scraps that caught his eye and ear that others miss. Even his earliest works were weighted with an old man’s wry wisdom. This is a facet of him that we always loved like hell, one that now is burnished as he will never get to be the spectacular old man he would have been. Gord Downie was the University program in Canadian Studies that was all the university many of us would ever get, and it was transformative. It prepared us for the future. It was damn near free.
The early shows are legendary (and by early, I mean at least the first 12 years) as the band built their name in a tireless life on the road from city to city in a country that is over 4000 miles wide, that had no music festival scene to speak of (so they built their own) and that was largely indifferent to big ideas and used to the comforting nowhere nostalgia of cover bands. Not much has changed there. We’re in a bit of a downturn. But as much as we could change, we did change. Incrementally. “Blow at High Dough” was one of those songs that would turn into amazing Jack Kerouac rambles on stage. At our Eden Music Fest in 1996, in a period of rich musical output for The Tragically Hip as well as a rich time for its fans, “Some kind of Elvis thing” was swapped for “Mathew Broderick”. Who knows why? It was funny, that’s all. It was ours, alone. A secret gig. A bootleg to be. It was never boring. It was an adventure. It’s one of the only things I really remember about that weekend (which was a bit like the 60s: if you remember it, especially if you bitch about it, you weren’t really there).
Another thing about (the much maligned, flawed, ambitious) Eden Music Festival. That bill was stacked with some big name talent from Britain and the U.S. but we were all there for The Tragically Hip. The crowds were as big and devoted for The Hip that night as they were for The Cure the other night, a singular band that was in its 20th year of global domination and evolution. This was a moment. This was the year we all grew up and stood a bit taller as we graduated from Hip studies. 1996 was the year that The Hip tickets got too hard to get in Toronto, as each great album piled on the last. So, and I don’t know whose idea it was, but we rented vans and started road-tripping to faraway American cities and small clubs full of people like us from Canada. And there, we would get those legendary shows that I now realize The Hip were giving us like an intimate fan club exclusive because they knew all about our efforts. We didn’t know we made a difference to them. We were still thinking small, thinking Canadian. Chicago, Boston, Erie. And Toronto when we could.
Thinking about Gord Downie and The Hip incessantly for the past two 72 hours since his death, able to talk only to the few who deeply understand the wordless sadness & deep awe, I am so happy that the country and parts of the world, even, raised the level of appreciation lately for the triumphs of this band that millions of fans have known about for 30 years. (That’s been well covered elsewhere, and continues to steamroller throughout Canada. Bring it on, it’s never too much, I say.) Gord Downie’s legacy is assured. But I’m so sad and furious that this deserving artist, poet and man will not get to retire, see his children go on to raise families of their own, be the even wiser elder statesman / old man we all know he would have been. I’m full of bittersweet melancholy about the latest music from The Hip’s last few records that I put off, saving it for “later” and especially about his production with regular solo-album collaborator Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene) called Introduce Yerself the forthcoming solo record of 23 songs to Gord Downie’s loved ones and significant people in his life, that promises to put its hands around our hearts and squeeze us til we’re dry*.
Of all the great things that The Tragically Hip did for Canada & Canadians, for bookworms and hockey fans and boys who didn’t have the words and needed a spokesman, for David Milgaard and Guy-Paul Morin, for Bill Barilko and we hope, for Chanie Wenjack, perhaps their greatest achievement of the early years for Canadians was to make us less repressed. If we act almost alive at gigs sometimes it’s because of Gord Downie’s freedom and beautiful performance art, directly. His whoops and kicks and sweats and nuttiness and Jack Kerouac rambles were like snow that dusted everywhere he ever went and released us inch by inch from that dry uptight puritanism from a century ago. Wildness and intellect. You know, both were scary. Both together? It was revolutionary in the 80s and 90s. I remember being shoulder to shoulder with a thousand people in harmony swaying we were 25 we were 100 years old mystics we were not the same afterward. It was all love and unity. Any rock star who has come from here with any ounce of swagger or confidence (and our many actors who blur out their accents) owe a debt to Gord Downie and The Hip, who were missionaries.
I’m grateful for the education I’ve had. That sounds boring- but if you’ve ever had a real mentor, a life-changing professor, you’ll know it isn’t. Gord Downie’s brain, given flight by a band who never had one single member rotate out or get turfed since high school, took us all on a journey across landscapes beyond our own lifetimes, inward to the self, unflinchingly at marriage (and divorce) into the Grand Canyon, and sidelong at all the things that make us Canadian (a very under-reported topic before The Hip) including our wrongfully convicted, our hockey, our CBC, our Bobcaygeon, our nautical disasters, our self-esteem (low, which The Hip raised by inches and by years) our toughness, our stoicism, our wanting to be urban sophisticates but our truth that our ears and eyes and instincts are not far from the brutally harsh wildness that Hollywood would imagine was theirs in films like The Revenant, but, naturally, was filmed smack dab in the middle of nowhere in our vast pristine modern day ‘here’. Canada is a mystery. A work in progress. Adaptable. A snow globe. We need to be shaken up to become beautiful. And we know now that we are beautiful, creative and weird. After Gord Downie.
If the band had really broken in America or they’d “gone American”, it would have broken our fragile hearts. It would have knocked our collective self-esteem back a bit. In popularity, their homey specialness would have eroded a bit. America breaks many more artists than it gets broken by. They might have become like the actors whose accents slip into that L.A. smoothness and betrays us and our “ehs” and plain speak, who only touch down here from first class to a hotel and a restaurant none of us can afford and never really land. They deserved to be worldwide, U2 level, appreciated. It wasn’t their Canadianness that prevented it – I adore bands that only ever sing about Manchester and English preoccupations in full northern slang- it was just the way that it was. They were too good for it. So they stayed ours. When the news came that we would lose Gord, when the band & their families planned out the next year….? They flipped the U.S. the bird (I like to think) and they rooted in here, in this goddamned big enough land. Coast to coast, and then up to James Bay. That’s how you handle your circumstances with grace. You go deeper, you dig in. You mend and make do. There’s such a richness to that, an elegance. Imagine.
“I made degenerate art for the religious right
On the day that you were born
I had a passion to experiment
But I was torn” (Put it off).
The way Gord Downie spent the last 18 months of life with an inoperable & rare brain cancer is yet another masterclass, this time, in how to squeeze every last bit of meaning and usefulness, even art, from your days. It is the new way to go. Few can pull it off. Few ever did pull off what he did. It is almost a separate career worth of achievement that we have yet to unpack and will become a fine new tradition in Canadiana. It tells us: get up off your ass and don’t mourn, instead, do something, ass****! (That might just be me to me).
“If you knew you had X months to live, what would you do?” That question of floating docks and lazy days with legs slung over Muskoka chairs, slapping at mosquitoes, you never take seriously because you just can’t know what you would do, or if you’d be able to do much of anything at all. Or if you’d be in hospital for months in a twilight of lessening dignity, full of fear. You answer that question exactly the way you answer what you’d do if you won the 649, which is the exact opposite thing. Expansion of possibility versus life shrinking to a pinpoint. All of it, just wide speculation. “This is all nothing but cold calculation”. Downie and The Hip answered that question in a way that changed the face of illness and death, and even that evil epidemic we call cancer. They quite simply flipped it the bird. How they did it we’ll never know. It’s called magic for a reason. They, in a sense, just got on with it, just kept on workin’. They also said, let’s make a plan. One imagines a short list and a longer list and a longest list and that they made it pretty damn far but it’s never enough, is it?
“When the colour of the night
And all the smoke for one life
Gives way to shaky movements
A forest of whispering speakers
Let’s swear that we will
Get with the times
In a current health to stay
Let’s get friendship right
Get life day-to-day
In the forget-yer-skates dream
Full of countervailing woes
Its diverse-as-ever seen
Proceeding on a need-to-know
In a face so full of meaning
As to almost make it glow
For a good life we just might have to weaken
And find somewhere to go
Go somewhere we’re needed
Find somewhere to grow
Grow somewhere we’re needed” (It’s a Good Life if you Don’t Weaken)
I know that Gord’s family shared this person with all of US in the dark. Just as ever. Even then, even in the “what would you do with months to live”. My heart goes out, in the dark, to these people I don’t know. I know that Gord spent his last years making art to bring a light & raise both awareness & funds to a new family in the north, who accepted him in as the mystic he surely always was. He was given by them the Lakota spirit name “He Who Walks With the Stars”. It was his time. It was long overdue. It’s never enough. We were always looking up, looking around, looking inward after 1989. Now the stars are somethin’ else too. And the stars belong to everyone in the whole wide world.
*I’m sending this up to Gord: A Few Hours After This by The Cure
Lyrics referenced are copyright The Tragically Hip
Jacqueline Howlett was a lyric site before the lyric sites existed and is the co-founder of Disarm Magazine.