Canada Today: Gord Downie – From The Outside Looking ‘Hip’

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I may not actually be the best person to write these words, because I’m not a fan of The Tragically Hip and don’t own any of their albums. (That sound you hear is several million Canadians filling out my deportation papers.)

And yet, as the country mourns the loss of The Hip’s frontman Gord Downie, who succumbed to brain cancer on Tuesday at the far-too-young age of 53, perhaps mine is a voice that needs to be heard.

It’s not the voice of a bandwagon-jumper, randomly tossing out words like “poet” and “legend” as if he were a Hip die-hard capable of reciting their set lists verbatim. It’s the voice of an average Canadian who, while not a fan in the strictest definition of the word, could not possibly have missed the impact Downie and his Hip bandmates have had on Canadian pop culture – indeed, on Canada itself – over the past three decades, and particularly in the last fourteen months.

 

Among the many things I learned this week from the outpouring of media coverage regarding Downie’s death: The Hip were actually active as early as 1984 and recorded their debut self-titled EP in 1987, back when I was more familiar with the likes of Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Doug and The Slugs, The Spoons, Honeymoon Suite and Gowan. I wouldn’t hear a Hip song in its entirety until “Blow At High Dough,” from their first full-length release Up To Here, landed on radio playlists and my favourite video shows in 1989. I found the song catchy enough but, while it topped the Canadian singles charts that spring, it didn’t immediately hook into my heart, mind and brain.

My first year at the University of King’s College in Halifax would give me another chance to sample the Hip catalogue, as my guitar-playing roommate had a copy of Up To Here and played it regularly on his stereo. So “Blow At High Dough” slowly took root in my psyche, as did “New Orleans Is Sinking” (which I somehow managed to miss even as it topped the Canadian charts in the fall of 1989) and the first Hip song to truly fascinate me, “38 Years Old.” A fictionalized account of the real-life escape of 14 inmates from Millhaven Institution (in Bath, Ontario, not far from the Hip’s home base of Kingston), the song resonated me with its recurring description of one of the escaped prisoners as “38 years old, never kissed a girl.” (Even though I had definitely kissed a girl by that point in my life, I had waking nightmares that I would never be lucky enough to have a real, solid relationship. The happy epilogue to that story is that I started a wonderful marriage in 2008, just before turning 36.)

 

Gord Downie and the Hip kept following me around in my twenties, and even though my tastes were more in line with the likes of Barenaked Ladies, Moxy Fruvous, Crash Test Dummies and a lengthy list of Maritime artists getting their first taste of national fame in the Great Celtic Revival of the ’90s, I was still intrigued by the Hip’s unique sound. Their guitar lines alternately painted delicate pictures or snarled in your face; their lyrics shifted from quietly-evocative to vocally-activist and occasionally flat-out angry; Downie’s voice could carry the gentle cadence of a Sunday-morning pastor or the gleeful shriek of that co-worker or college classmate who was ready to hit the town on a Friday night. (I can rarely venture into a noisy bar without hearing Downie’s full-throttle “Little Bones” lyric: “Two-fifty for a highball and a buck and a half for beer, happy hour, happy hour, happy hour is here.”)

Working in commercial radio in the mid-to-late-’90s also guaranteed that I was going to get a steady stream of Hip songs seeping into my brain, in particular “Poets” (from the chart-topping 1998 album Phantom Power) but most notably the Hip song that is arguably my favourite, “Ahead By A Century.” Like many of the band’s signature songs, it’s relentlessly catchy, shows incredible musicianship and paints vivid pictures as it straddles a delicate balance between acoustic folk-rock and proto-grunge. “Ahead By A Century” remains a Canadian cultural cornerstone over two decades after the release of the album that featured it, 1996’s Trouble at the Henhouse; it may be the only Canadian hit single to be name-checked in a hip-hop song (the 2004 chart-topper “Crabbuckit” by k-os). More recently, it was featured in the closing video montage to CBC’s 2016 Summer Olympic coverage and became a surprisingly-appropriate theme song for the CBC/Netflix retelling of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables stories, Anne (broadcast outside of Canada under the title Anne With An E), which is currently preparing for its second season.

While I’m mentioning CBC-TV, I should thank Rick Mercer and the folks behind his five-season comedy series Made In Canada for heightening The Tragically Hip’s place in my Canadian consciousness. Set at the fictional Canadian film and television company Pyramid Productions, each episode of Made In Canada opened and closed with the opening verse of “Blow At High Dough” (“They shot a movie once in my hometown; everybody was in it from miles around”). A latter-day episode featuring the Pyramid employees using a karaoke machine at a staff party includes a hilarious clip of Peter Keleghan (as company president Allan Roy) unintentionally butchering “Blow At High Dough.” Another episode, depicting the female staffers blowing off steam at a local watering hole, features Leah Pinsent (daughter of legendary actor Gordon Pinsent) drunkenly bellowing for “‘Poets,’ by the Hip!” (and, later, dancing to it on a bar table); other Hip songs have also slipped into the soundtrack, usually when Mercer and his Made In Canada cast-mates were up to no good.

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With the arrival of the new millennium, however, it felt like The Tragically Hip were slipping from widespread public consciousness. The last new Hip song I recall hearing with any frequency on commercial Canadian radio was the title track to their 2000 album Music @ Work, which won the 2001 JUNO Award for Best Rock Album. I remember feeling a surge of national pride when MAD Magazine artist-writer John Caldwell had a 2005 article, “Thanks To The Popularity Of Poker…”, fall under the heading of “THE TRAGICALLY CHIP DEPARTMENT.” But that was pretty much it for my relationship with the Hip for a long time.

Until, of course, Gord Downie’s musical and cultural legacy took on mythic proportions with the group’s announcement in May of 2016 that he had terminal brain cancer, and that the Hip would officially leave the road after the final stop on its tour to promote what would turn out to be the band’s last album, Man Machine Poem. 

The rest of this story will likely be told for generations to come. It felt like everybody in the country stopped what they were doing on the evening of Saturday, August 20, as the Hip took the stage at the Rogers K-Rock Centre in the band’s hometown of Kingston for the final leg of the Man Machine Poem Tour. The Hip played an astonishing 30 songs (including three encores), finishing up with “Ahead By A Century.” Few of the concert-goers created more buzz than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who would go on to give a tearful statement about Downie following his passing earlier this week.

Sensing that this was a watershed moment in Canadian pop culture and, perhaps, in the country’s modern history, CBC officials abandoned their planned broadcasts of the second-last night of the Rio Summer Olympics, chucked three hours of potentially ad-heavy airtime and aired the concert uninterrupted. Heading into that weekend, I was under the impression that Hip fans would have to settle for a live stream and hope for the best. All of a sudden, here was Canada’s cash-strapped public broadcaster, running a three-hour live music event without any of the usual distractions that gum up today’s television viewing experience.

No commercials, not even pop-up corporate logos. No news ticker running along the bottom of the screen. No off-screen announcers attempting to enliven the proceedings with monotonous attempts at pithy observations. No sudden cuts to over-eager reporters asking lame questions to concert-goers – just the Hip, uninterrupted, unfiltered and unadulterated, on CBC-TV, CBC Radio One, CBC Radio Two, CBC Music and the public broadcaster’s YouTube channel.

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What did this all accomplish? Well, depending on who you believe, the CBC’s concert broadcast  either chalked up 4.3 million real-time viewers (according to these figures from Canadian TV ratings system Numeris) and allowed The Tragically Hip’s farewell concert to emerge as the highest-rated show of the week, or it drew in an eye-popping 11.7 million people – which is highly likely once you factor in live-streaming – and became one of the most-watched broadcasts in Canadian history.

Numbers aside, the CBC broadcast allowed the Hip’s farewell performance to become a truly shared Canadian experience. That’s gotten harder to accomplish with greater accessibility to a wide variety of North American TV channels, internet services and broadcasting options. And yet, fully one-third of this fractured Canadian viewing audience settled on one option for much of that already-legendary Saturday night.

The results were dramatic. One Halifax resident described walking down their street and seeing and/or hearing every single TV set on the block tuned into the Hip event. From cottage country in Ontario, we heard the tale of the idyllic lake-side air punctuated by multiple TVs, laptops and all manner of hand-held devices blasting out “Bobcaygeon” or “Wheat Kings.”

As Canadians, we don’t get moments like this very often. The few we get seem to be connected to hockey, most recently Sidney Crosby’s gold-medal-winning overtime goal at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. (For comparison’s sake, 16.6 million Canadians watched the entire game, with 26.5 million watching at least some part of the game.)

A few people have called this our “Paul Henderson moment,” referring to the dramatic winning goal of the 1972 Summit Series, but the Hip concert actually marks a generational shift from that cultural touchstone. It truly felt like Generation X was making its voice heard, even though Gord Downie himself was actually closer to the final stages of the mid-century baby boom. (It’s worth noting that he was born three months after another event baby boomers like to claim as a “Where were you” moment, the late-1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.)

(Above left: Cartoonist Michael de Adder’s Canadian flag made up of Tragically Hip lyrics first appeared, in Halifax’s The Chronicle-Herald, the morning of the legendary farewell concert. Above right: A T-shirt design offered on The Tragically Hip’s official Web site just before Canada Day 2016.) 

Adding another layer to Gord Downie’s legacy: His recognition that he had a platform to do great things in his final year of life. Having already implored Prime Minister Trudeau to address past and present injustices against Canada’s First Nations during the Hip’s farewell concert, Downie upped the ante with the multi-platform release of his fifth solo album, Secret Path, two months later. The concept album – and accompanying animated special on CBC-TV – tells the true story of Chanie Wenjack, an Ojibwe boy who died of exposure and exhaustion after escaping from a residential school in 1966 and trying to make the 600-kilometre walk home by himself.

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Now, this next bit might not seem to have much to do with Gord Downie or The Tragically Hip. Trust me, it does.

Hours after learning of Downie’s passing and seeing the outpouring of grief across traditional and social media (one of my Facebook friends posted: “Canada is closed today due to a death in the family”), Cathy and I heard a song from the Broadway smash Wicked on an episode of ABC’s Modern Family. The chorus of the song “For Good” features the lyrics: “Who can say if I’ve been changed for the better/But because I knew you, I have been changed for good.” I have the distinct feeling that Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip had that kind of impact on Canada, before and during this anniversary year, whether we realized it or not.

 

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not a Tragically Hip fan and I would be lying to suggest I ever was. Cathy and I only caught one song (“New Orleans Is Sinking”) from the big farewell concert and decided that was enough for us. (Put down your rotten fruit and vegetables, please. My point is worth making, and I’m getting to it.)

Whatever you or I might feel about Downie and his mates – who, by the way, are all now members of The Order of Canada – one thing remains clear: In both life and death, Downie found creative and substantial ways to stop Canadians in their tracks and help us to see the best in ourselves, while simultaneously reaching beyond the ordinary to make our country better.

We’d all truly be “ahead by a century” if we did that a little more often.

Thank you, Gord.

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