Still Waters / Breaking Trail: Canadian Music’s Rocky Heart

or: What Canadian Rock Taught Me

“Don’t always look back. But look back.”

– Canadian workingman, visionary, agendaless poet Ken Babstock who joined this cocktail of Canadian poetic influences for me in 2007 during Nick Mount’s legendary class “Literature for our Time” at U of Toronto.

1: Toronto once had the coolest radio station in all the land. The song, by one of our own greats, one of the first greats to remain Canadian to the core and forever (geographically and ethically) was later covered by British Modern Rockers Catherine Wheel at a time when our own radio programming was, for a while, highly in tune with a robust 90s Canadian Alternative music scene from coast to coast that lived as large in our esteem as the British greats and the American gems. This anthem became a renewed cry for a renewed time, and was turned up on car radio dials on a weekly basis for years. In fact, it most certainly still is. (“The Spirit of Radio”: By Rush and later Catherine Wheel)

2: It’s a worthy national pastime to give a lot of very deep devotion to hockey. It’s also ok for some females to never give a fuck about hockey. Our deep emotional reserves of love for hockey (or our memories of sitting in the rooms next to fans and discussing other things in female heart to hearts) are also entwined with family memory, loss, ideas of heroism, and awe for The Greatest Generation and the greats who flew in wars in a world we can barely imagine. We’d like to introduce our many non-Canadian friends to our own Canadian Shield, you don’t need a plane, The Forever great Tragically Hip.(‘Bill Barilko’/ “50 Mission Cap; “Fireworks” -The Tragically Hip)

3: The only thing that can make a divorce feel even worse is that loveless meeting in “The Hortons”. The ubiquitous Canadian coffee chain, at some point American owned and increasingly loveless, a convenient plastic wasteland that cooks like an angry stepmother, was founded by a hockey player and the chain was once a bastion of his memorabilia, wider hockey culture and of true Canadiana. It’s now more often to be used as a roadside site of convenience for brief, bitter meetings. So, perfect. (“Vancouver Divorce”, Gord Downie)

4: Live through this and you won’t look back.can really save your broken heart, if not your life. “Because when there’s nothing left to burn, you’ve got to set yourself on fire”. (Stars, on the sublimely Morrissey-esque titled Your Ex-lover is Dead“. Two ex-lovers sing to each other their sides of the story in a brief, beautiful, symphonic piece of art that is still good years later when it does not remind you of your own mini-death they helped you through. A very interesting and exciting Canadian band.

5: The less celebrated east end of Toronto has Rock ‘n Roll significance, and of the many fleeting bars that come and go in a major city, The Lowest of the Low picked the exact perfect one to sing about. The Only still stands and is a casual, comfortable, rich local institution. The Carlaw Bridge is alright too. (“Rosy and Grey” The Lowest of the Low)

6: Toronto’s airport code is YYZ and is committed to youthful memory long before we get our passports via a rock anthem. (“YYZ”, Rush) Citizens born after about 1960 most likely have this song running through their minds the first time they step on a plane and outta here, feeling finally glamorous and Neil Peart cool.

7: We have our own versions of opera, our own little Les Miserables, and they are full of our own tragic poetics, cultural critiques, and empathy: (“38 Years Old”, “Wheat Kings” by The Hip, whose bounty is endless, and who (you heard it here first) will undoubtedly be on college and university curriculums in the next half decade, keeping kids awake, shaking them awake unlike the history/culture classes before. The Frontier narrative, Canadian identity and the very bounds of songwriting and music have changed forever thanks to this one band. The Tragically Hip)

8: It is normal and right to feel sad when you are a kid of a subdivision. The sentiment of this song is akin to Morrissey’s own cry on a distant shore: “So in my bedroom in those ugly new houses, I dance my legs down to the knees…” (he sings in The Smiths’ “Paint A Vulgar Picture”, one of his very best lines of so many). (“Subdivisions” Rush)

9: And Canada as Canada: Our nation, so often used in film for generic American backdrops (i.e. racetracks) and its most major, well known cities (Chicago, New York) has a complex relationship to this camouflaging ability and its imprint on our own young national identity. We used to be proud of it, just to be allowed to stand behind the cordon and smell the hairspray of those visiting royals. As our country grew, as Gord and the boys taught us, there was something twisted in that, and our own identity, those spaces used like Colonial missions then left again were probably a lot more interesting than some shitty American film. This is akin to a revolutionary statement, and a nation grew up in response to it, by metres instead of centimeters.  (“Blow at High Dough” The Tragically Hip) *Longtime concert-going fans of The Hip will remember this song as a moment of Downie’s now legendary way of going off book, as the line “some kinda Elvis thing” has turned over the years into pop culture or topical references of the day or the mood that day, as in: “some Matthew Broderick thing“.

10: Leamington, Ontario will always figure in our cultural history and will never be the same, nor will our beloved ketchup. (The Ketchup Song” Stompin’ Tom Connors; and his entire, rich catalog for that matter…) Some of us are even strange and romantic enough about our land to put this on our wedding CDs. “(Good news: serious business and serious cultural importance are sometimes intertwined and sung as in the era of folk protest. Connors was a genius.) ” There was a guy from PEI they used to call Podato/He met this young Leamington Ontario Tomato/But he had eyes for other girls & she was a little mushy/So they said well let’s get wed there’s no sense bein fussy/ Baked sized french fries-how they love Tomatoes/So dress em up with Heinz Ketchup-(Ketchup luvs Potatoes)”

11: The Horseshoe Tavern’s iconic checkerboard floors must never, ever go into landfill but must be landmarked & preserved someday. (“Bobcaygeon“, The Tragically Hip) This song, one of the Hip’s most accessible and representative of their broader work as folklorists, is about many things: the northern idyllic wilderness and cool lakes and the need to return and tolerate life in cities to make our living; the duality of living in both types of places at once, the untold miles and the drudgery of work and expectation, and the movement between spaces and feelings. “Bobcaygeon” has, naturally, become a wilderness trip (or even tourist near north lake) unofficial anthem since its release, assaulting the stillness and ears of innocent wildlife via drunken revelers, as so much of The Hip’s music has become a staple of “CCR” – Canadian Cottage Rock.

12: The Spoons’ “Romantic Traffic” video put us on the transit map. This early entry into the world of music videos is a brilliant piece of documentary and pop narrative about the city of Toronto finding its voice to declare its musicians, its people, and its public transit system as something artistic, cool, and even romantic. Has any Canadian band ever been more attractive than these four friends/loves/bandmates? Canadian kids of the 80s saw this video untold times on our new Nation’s Music Station, Muchmusic, which was always better than MTV and was gritty and rough and tumble and earnest just like we were/are. Canadian kids dreamed of the big city, the subway station and how damn romantic it was via guerrilla video techniques (whoever did this band’s videos was utterly visionary and sweated creativity) and got to see both the beautiful, video ready band and the ordinary folks that pass through the scenes like the rest of us. Making us kids all cooler than our 1984 haircuts, shoulderpads braces and mint green stirrup pants (just me?) ought to make possible. As cool as the iconic other video of the age shot in Toronto,THE (muthaflippin) REFLEX by 1984’s Golden Gods Duran Duran (!!!) The Spoons are still active, too!

13: But we are still wild at heart. When you are raised, as we are here, on the ‘Wilderness Narrative’ and 18th Century poetry from the rocking chair to university, and that history is still just a century or less from our own collective memories, you can turn stories of bears hibernating into heartbreaking, metaphor rich, art: the kind of thing that makes one think about the fate of our wilderness and wild animals, as well as our own baser natures and instinctive needs. Oh and let’s not forget to read prayers from some old book to pass the time under the ground. Stunning, stark, clean, like a forest creek, our poetry can be. (“Moving Pictures Silent Films” See also “Your Rocky Spine” which is novelistic and sweeping in scope by Great Lake Swimmers.)

14: There is one song that will always best any attempt at a Titanic or other Nautical Museum.  And will rock you and shock you into grabbing a hold of your own survival, by god. (“Nautical Disaster” The Tragically Hip)

15: There is a stellar band, Metric, perfectly named for our system of measurement that ought to be as big as all the bigs, except they’re not bloated, preachy or cheesy, and are even led by a female rocker who writes with the best poets of this age. They deserve “Stadium Love“, y’all. They serve as fine music and cultural critics as well as delivering a great show. “Wanna make a bet/We’ll be neck and neck/Taking off the gloves/Spider Vs Bat/Tiger Vs Rat/Rabbit Vs Dove/Wanna make a bet/Odds are neck and neck/Taking off the gloves/ Every living thing
Pushed into the ring/ Fight it out/ To wow the crowd/ Guess you thought/ You could just watch/No one’s getting out/Without stadium love” (See also “White Gold“, “Dead Disco” “Gimme Sympathy“.) 

16/17: Now, musical Anglophiles that we will forever be, this must include a quick turn to some notable artists from the U.K. who’ve written about Canada in their work. This big country affects visiting musicians much the same way it does our own writers: there’s always the forest and the water just out of the periphery, as present in “Forest and the Sands” by Camera Obscura, who sing about “that river in Toronto” as part of a romantic memory. And the backdrop of language (national/official or otherwise) and complex politics that are slow moving, iceberg-like monolithic issues rather than newsy or flashy talking points here become matters of the heart, part of the nightly table setting, and are occasionally ripened for metaphor and a lovely strum, such as in this rare B-side from ‘The Bard of Barking”, England’s Billy Bragg, a song once sought out and sent for by air mail in a limited edition to Canadian fans, in sheer delight and awe at seeing a distant hero and workingman poet find poetry in our driest stories, and in us. And create…this? And so we sat up and started reading the newspaper too. (“Ontario, Quebec and Me” Billy Bragg

18: “There is a town in north Ontario/With dream comfort memory to spare/And in my mind I still need a place to go/All my changes were there. /Blue, blue windows behind the stars/Yellow moon on the rise/Big birds flying across the sky/Throwing shadows on our eyes/Leave us/ Helpless, Helpless, Helpless, Helpless… Neil Young / Crosby Stills Nash & Young.

19. This: 80s Toronto Synth Pop greats Platinum Blonde covered by one of the new centuries’ most interesting Toronto creations, Crystal Castles “featuring” Robert Smith, who really leads the vocal to astounding effect. All can be proud of this little piece of Cure x Canadiana. As are we.

And no matter what Bryan Adams tried to claim, he never bought any six-string at any “five-and-dime”. It’s doubtful there was ever a “momma” or her porch to stand on. That was an uber- successful stab at writing pure, Springsteen-drenched, Americana.

(Wherever I’ve linked and not linked music or video files please seek out or purchase through official sources and support musicians. Thank you!)

Jacqueline Howell was a lyric site before the lyric sites existed.

We write about music worthy of obsession and cultural readings and that hold up, or more likely, expand in beauty over time like an impossibly tall weeping willow above a perfect public terrace. Blame Canada.

The Tragically Hip: A Canadian Shield

The Tragically Hip are a national institution. They are the rarest of things in Canadian music, especially Canadian rock music: a band massive enough to polarize people and to ensure just about everyone from coast to coast has heard of them. We, being Canadians, always have an opinion. The Hip are also of  Canada and are a success story made pretty much exclusively in Canada – with a requisite shout to the American fans along the northern towns of our shared border who get it.

Canada of the 90’s and 2000’s (while The Hip released 12 albums) became known for some of the world’s biggest, record smashing, polarizing, sometimes embarrassing figures: Nickleback, Celine Dion, Alanis Morrisette, Michael Buble and Shania Twain; artists who have achieved the greatest heights of music acclaim, popularity and record sales the likes of which we’ll never see again in this digital age. They scaled these heights through the unlikely and lottery-like system of the American music industry and were supported by a suspicious amount of marketing money that makes promoters of today weep with longing, as well as a certain universal pop appeal. The Hip, the great little bar band that grew, are as big as it gets nationally through sweat and grit and endless miles on buses and planes traversing this big country, all while remaining true blue iconclasts. They’re truly world class. And yet, they’re OURS. 

As hard/impossible as it is for Canadian rock bands to crack the U.S. and global music industry, (RUSH and The Guess Who being two rare exceptions, along with Neil Young who’s really been a Californian for 40 or 50 years) it is also no easy feat to cross our enormous country made up of many unique regions and little empires that thrive on our perceived and asserted difference from one another. The Hip cracked this code early as they emerged from 1980’s Kingston, Ontario, an old-fort and University town that squats between the two self-righteous universes of Toronto and Montreal. Of course, like all shiny things, Toronto wants to claim them as our own, as they now come back to Tawrana for a victory lap of their extended (and regularly sold out) Fully and Completely tour. The tour began in January and includes a diplomatic and generous criss-crossing of Canada and the U.S. with a focus on playing 1992’s Fully Completely album cut for cut, along with other high points from their extensive back catalogue. And tonight, we Torontonians call them ours with this triumphant Canada Day show. On July 1, the unusually expressive and flag-waving (but only really comfortable doing so once a year and formally) Canada Day crowd comes fully alive at the Molson Amphitheatre. It’s the best possible way to celebrate our heritage that doesn’t include being at least 3 hours north of the city and near a cool lake.

This writer and this photographer spent many of our free, young, and easy 20’s going to Hip shows as they reached the peak of their output and career success in the mid 90’s, after they’d put in over a decades worth of solid work creating their sound, tightening their unit, and becoming Canada’s modern day poet laureates (voiced by national treasure Gord Downie)- something we really needed in contrast to the bombast of Celine and the crustiness of Nickleback, a band that was the unfortunate 3rd generation runoff of Creed and Live. As The Hip became bigger in the mid 90’s, and tickets harder to get, our friends took to rented minivans, just a few drivers over 25, in a happy period of road trips to see the band in small, intimate, inexpensive venues in places like Boston, Chicago, and Erie, Pennsylvania. Basically, we took the hockey fan’s approach to scoring tickets, and created great memories along the way as 6 or 8 of us would stuff ourselves into the kind of awkward, familial room sharing arrangements that you can only do with friends in your 20’s.

Before and after those trips were many shows and early festivals here like Another Roadside Attraction and Eden Music Festival, which The Hip would ably co-headline alongside The Cure & Bush, (with many others including Porno for Pyros, Catherine Wheel, Live and The Watchmen).

And always, always, from high school parties (where Fully Completely was played on a loop) up through endless, perfect days and nights visiting summer cottages with friends, The Hip were (and are) a big part of the soundtrack of our Canadian lives for a large group from coast to impossible coast. A deeply rooted part that for us, is as big as U2 without the baggage or weight of all those trucks that make up a show, without the preaching and the tinted shades or the patriarchal post-colonial leanings. Icons that have grown and yet stayed local in a way most of our great comedians never do, with backgrounds on northern lakes like our own and life in towns always named after bigger and brighter UK ones that our actors distance themselves from by adopting blank American accents or sometimes, bad Brando. As we’ve grown, this background, essential, casually cool rock music has dug and grown deeper roots within us, staying true and proud like all those symbols on our money and our stoic anthem once made us feel proud of as kids.

The kids who’ve followed the road with The Hip have all seen some of the world now, along with its impending darkness. We’ve grown and lost and loved and been let down, plenty now. We aren’t on a road trip anymore, free of mortgages or kids or even real jobs to prioritize anymore, but on the long and rocky road of life (“no dress rehearsal…”) where you are lucky to find even one co-pilot. And The Hip still rises up to meet us as perfectly as an Ontario lake breeze that seems oceanic, as poetical as the great Irish bards, as our very own stab at Shakespeare. Like so many of the 80’s and 90’s bands who’ve managed to survive a difficult, shrinking and starving music industry, The Tragically Hip are no slouches. Rather, they are the best of the best, like our impeccable, impermeable Canadian Shield rock that has stood since the time of Canada’s aboriginal tribes and their still beauty; long before generators and jet skis or our dirty industries came along. It’s that Shield rock that brings us back to Canada, the idea of a Canada resistant to American encroachment, its shabby culture and its endless need for our greatest natural resources, and an appetite only for our most vanilla, easy to swallow music. We don’t care if you don’t know what Bobcaygeon is. For tonight, and all the nights like this, we are a people and a country that is proud of its difference and itself, unsellable and incorruptable, rugged and beautifully permanent.

To the people who’ve said to me over the years, usually women, “I don’t like The Hip” I turn away and shrug. So much of the best music, MY music, is off the radar or unappreciated and so it shall be, that’s part of being cool. I take it as an endorsement of my own difference and discerning taste. They really don’t get it (or deserve to have it) and that’s a fact. For I can think of nothing better for a long summer night, on the old wood ledge in our friends’ amazing gem of a cabin next to a smoky mosquito coil while we play endless games of cards, or for a Canada Day, than to hear our poets sing about caribou; David Milgaard; “Bobcaygeon”; the “Wheat Kings” of “the Paris of the Prairies” where rusty breezes push around the weathervane jesus” (in a stunner of a song that incorporates social justice issues and farming in a way only Johnny Cash, Billy Bragg or Toots Hibbert could accomplish) to get the inside references of the checkerboard floors of an iconic rock club that still survives and even thrives; the mysticism and uniquely Canadian ghost story and myth of Toronto Maple Leaf Bill Barilko.

This last one, “Fifty-Mission Cap” is a graduate level Canadian literature stunner, and always brings a chill, mixed up as it is with our own still-young country’s history which is so fresh it is literally worked into our passed down grandfather’s old RCAF caps. Canada is still an oral tradition of recent myth and legend. And all this music, romantic, open hearted, tough as it is, goes well beyond Canadiana, with universal concerns and ideas mixed with wit, literature sarcasm and swearing. It’s goddamn great. It’s sometimes obscure. It’s authentic, in double denim, instead of turn your skin green bling and daisy dukes. It’s tough as hell. It’s us.

The Tragically Hip have over 30 years invested in this music and performance, and attendance at one of their dynamic and fluid shows should be mandatory for visitors and newcomers alike, just as getting into their discography could (and should) serve as contemporary literature and history texts & curricula which we anticipate will happen in another ten years. They move from rock anthems to dirges about love, life and maturity (often in the same four minutes) and never stop for a break. They have given us our real national anthem “Wheat Kings” and they have quiet songs that conjure up the feelings of uncomfortable dreams about now distant family members and the childhood pains that return and linger all day like a rheumatic ache in songs like “Pigeon Camera”:

” This house it has it politics
Over there that’s my room
And that’s my sister’s
And that’s my sister
With something we could no longer contain”

They have early, eternal songs like “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Little Bones” that rock as hard, as capably, and as – goddamnit why aren’t they as big as anyone for this is as good as Zeppelin, The Stones, and certainly U2– underrated as most of Canada’s vast beauty and its stubbornly diverse, individualistic, frontier minded, complex, rugged and true blue hearts that live in it remain. Fully and completely.

(*Photo gallery below.)

“My Music At Work” (The Tragically Hip)

Everything is bleak
It’s the middle of the night
You’re all alone
And the dummies might be right
You feel like a jerk
My music at work
My music at work
Avoid trends and cliches
Don’t try to be up to date
And when the sunlight hits the olive-oil
Don’t hesitate
The night’s so long it hurts
My music at work
In a symbol too far
Or the anatomy of a stain
To determine where you are
In a sink full of Ganges I’d remain
No matter what you heard
My music at work
(c.  Little Smoke Music/The Tragically Hip)
Jacqueline Howell
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