The Psychogeography of Gord Downie and Why We’ll Never Say Goodbye

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.

Read this feature: http://wp.me/p2zwrs-dF
Eden Music Fest Official Festival Guide – note who’s FIRST on the picture!

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. 

The Tragically Hip: A Canadian Sheild

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
Improvisational skills
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.

32 of The Tragically Hip’s Songs That Changed a Nation

*I’m sending this up to Gord: A Few Hours After This by The Cure

Street Muralist Victor Fraser commemorates Gord Downie in Toronto (photo: CTV) #WhatsVictorUpTo?

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.

Still Waters / Breaking Trail: Canadian Music’s Rocky & Radiant 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.

Repost: Originally posted June 26, 2016

32 of The Tragically Hip’s Greatest Songs That Changed A Nation

The inevitable final Tragically Hip show is already here. All summer long, fans, whose numbers include any music journalists worth their salt and still with a beating pulse and at least a generation of Canadian musicians and those in the know outside our frail borders, and writers and thinkers have been grappling with a new kind of loss. A post-modern kind of turmoil. This turmoil comes from an inner churn that is like standing in a crowd while people brush past you going somewhere else, from different sides at once, ungently, causing you to pivot and move by inches as unconsciously as something not-quite rooted to an ocean floor. This churn, though, is internal, mostly.

Yet, a nation stands and takes notice of something that has always felt (rightly or wrongly) like your private ritual with friends of your youth, tinsel-bright like Christmas, strained and tense and fraught like Christmas is now.

A nation becomes festive and also, somehow, poignantly mournful and the media rises up to reclaim some of its tarnished, squandered and plundered glory and beautiful power to lead people again, and of course, commercial interests are around every corner, too.

We’ve become a web of loosely connected cultures and private worlds that wrestle with all these things inside of a single tweet, a Facebook post that you’d expect would shower down love but is ignored (or brings dull negativity instead of support), a chance meeting with former loved ones, a sudden revelation that your dad knows who The Tragically Hip is (and likes them.)

This is news, but all this news either comes screaming at you like Toronto Sun 150 point red font, or is sent too late by telegram.

Of course, music is forever selective, personal, private, no less private than your religious feelings and political leanings, if any. As dear and as vulnerable as your love and your secrets (if you have any). So-

  • All there is left to say is that the entirely real grief that has risen up from this land from coast to coast and all the way up north in the places you’ll never get to see; the rare feeling of national unity that Canadians reject out of hand to avoid becoming one degree more American than we already are; the conversations with strangers, with authorities, with artists, who are really kindred spirits in a language of music that has always been the one and only currency you trust; the sight of our best, ever, forever poet looking up at a weeping willow in contemplation, in real life, in the strange twists of fate that can happen when your heart and mind is open and you’ve chosen to be bold and start a magazine; even the deafening, and deaf, silences from the corners of life you once believed were true blue and have breathed their last, laughed their last, toasted their last, are part of this thing. From across a canyon.

A nation is growing up and it’s painful. You will have growing pains all your life if you are really alive and so what do you do with that?

First you grieve what is gone, already, and what is ending. That won’t stop with Saturday August 20th when all who are not at a final show in Kingston who care deeply, all of us sports fans now, all of us unified, will be watching from home, yard parties, bars, music halls and even the famed checkerboard floors – but it better damn well unlock something deep that needs to get some air that we’ve been struggling for all summer. This city is nice to tourists but has a default mode of making eye contact behind that on the rarest of occasions, like when our grandfathers celebrated winning the cup and when the Jays won it all (twice in a row!) more than 20 years ago, and the streets were filled with a joy and what should be a human cameraderie that we were all raised to pretend is not ours to claim. It’s no wonder some of us treat family members like lepers and old friends like strangers. But even an old injury or a ghost limb still can hurt.

This, here, is the kind of talk and noise that hits your system in times of grief, of the rising waves of anxiety, the inability to make a decision, of the grief that triggers the other grief in hearts, the tenderest places, the ones that make a person say: I (finally) don’t want to see my old friends anymore (anyway), and reach for strangers instead in our limited way of socializing now, one eye on the mobile and the other on the door, where home awaits and you can really have a good cry. It’s the grown up kind. It’s the post-modern kind. Home awaits, luckily, after all, to unburden all of it but not until after there have been real singalongs with real fans. After beer has been spilled on you and by you and no one checks their makeup anymore. After you approach something of the spiritual cleanse of a proper Irish wake. Or a proper British music festival. Or something bigger and more alive than what Canadians were supposed to be like before all of this, before we grew up. Before we learned our history and our geography and our culture from one very strange and beautiful man and ignored all the rest of ’em who called themselves teachers all our lives.

Then you go on.

Here are 32 (one for each year) of our favourite Tragically Hip songs, noting that there are endless live variations, a brisk history in the live bootleg trade, and three decades of innovation and growth beyond this list. Have we ever heard “She said I’m fabulously rich” sung? Or has it so long been the crowd-sung-unofficially changed (by the singer, too, now) “She said I’m Tragically Hip”? Dunno.

We think it’s useful if you are rusty or new to approach the huge catalogue of music via tempo shifts. So here’s a split between ROCKING and ROLLING (for the ladies…) Still time to jump on board. Just. Do.

For all those who will take to the Toronto streets in celebration tomorrow night, we’ll see you out there and one or the other of us will be in a red Tragically Hip hockey jersey from 15 years ago that is good as new. We’ll be a little active on the Twitter during the evening at Jacqueline‘s and Dave’s accounts as well a bit of Facebook/ Instagram.

ROCKING

At the Hundredth Meridian ” I need to debunk an American myth. I take my life in my hands.” Also contains the best asides ever, worthy of MacBeth.

Blow at High Dough

Cordelia

Courage

Boots or Hearts Has an entire music festival named in its honour. “When it starts to fall apart, it really falls apart. Like boots or hearts oh when they start, they really fall apart.”

Fifty – Mission Cap (“Bill Barilko”)  “I worked it in to look like that.”

Little Bones “2.50 for a highball. And a buck and a half for a beer. Happy hour, happy hour, happy hour is here” / “2.50 for an eyeball. And a buck and a half for an ear…” Cancon and the infinite radio replays of this song is probably the root of “the haters”. Which is ridiculous.

Locked in the Trunk of a Car

Looking for a Place to Happen

Nautical Disaster (Gord Downie’s intro from a live recording: “No Canadian band, no Canadian musician, would be complete without a song about a nautical disaster.” (“New Nautical Orleans Disaster”)

New Orleans is Sinking

Poets

The Wherewithall

Music @ Work (Yes, even video stars. Big time. A video as good as the lyrics which are historic.)

ROLLING

38 Years Old

Ahead by A Century “I tilted your cloud. You tilted my hand.” In the running for The Hip’s most beautiful songs, from their body of work in the dream-world lyrics they do like no other.

Apartment Song (Did this inspire the gorgeous Apartment Story by The National?)

Bobcaygeon

Escape is at Hand for the Travelling Man

Flamenco  (The guitar chords. The lyrics.) Contains the wonderful line “Maybe a prostitute /could teach you/ how to take a compliment”

Gift Shop Could be about the Grand Canyon. Could be about marriage or life changes. That’s The Hip.

Grace, Too  This is how you start a rock song.

Fireworks

Long Time Running You can remember the greatest bar band that ever was, that The Hip once was. (Perhaps a shared title with The Cowboy Junkies.) TIMELESS.

Membership

Pigeon Camera

Scared

Springtime in Vienna

Wheat Kings

(Gord Downie solo) Coke Machine Glow

(Gord Downie solo) Vancouver Divorce

It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken

When the colour of the night and all the smoke for one life gives way to shaky movements, improvisational skills, 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
In diverse-as-ever scenes
Proceeding on a need-to-know
In a face so full of meaning
As to almost make it glow

O’ 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 were needed.
Let’s go somewhere we’re needed. Find somewhere to grow. We grow where we are needed.

All lyrics are copyright The Tragically Hip

Jacqueline Howell

Photos: Dave MacIntyre

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
  

The Tragically Hip: A Canadian Shield

The Tragically Hip, Fully and Completely Tour Canada Day (July 1) Molson Ampitheatre, Toronto.

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, 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 once a year) 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 crustyness 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 the road in a brief, 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 a rented family van and fall into the kind of awkward, familial room sharing arrangements that you can only do 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 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 lives. 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. 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.

We’ve 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 mortages 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 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 our Native tribes and their still beauty; 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 only our most vanilla 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; 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 young country history which is so fresh it is literally worked into our passed down grandfather’s old RCAF caps. It’s 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. 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.

“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
My music at work
My music at work
I call it “Olga Waits
The Cloud That Entertains
The Dim Possibility
Of Showing Some Restraint”
The rain came down berserk
My music at work
My music at work
On a star beyond the chart
Or the dark side of a drop of rain
Determining where you are
In a sink full of Ganges I’d remain
No matter what you heard
My music at work
My music at work
My music at work
La la la la la la
La la la la la la la la
La la la la la la
La la la la la la la la
Everything is bleak
It’s the middle of the night
You’re all alone
And the dummies might be right
Outside the darkness lurks
My music at work
My music at work
Hey, fallen hummingbird
My music at work
From the middle of the earth
My music at work
Bound for bed without dessert
My music at work
It’s my music at work
My music at work
(c.  Little Smoke Music/The Tragically Hip)
Jacqueline Howell
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