Aug 23 2016

The Tragically Hip


I just got home from watching the final Tragically Hip show. When the tour was announced, I had posted on Facebook that I thought it would be a great idea for the CBC or someone to televise the final gig. I felt that the coming together and celebrations that occurred across Canada would happen. Not that I had anything to do with it being televised but I am glad that the people who could make this happen did and that the people who could have prevented it, didn’t.

I watched it at The Bloor Cinema in Toronto, a place where I occasionally DJ before music movies. Its a wonderful theatre with a big screen, good sound and an intelligent, respectful crowd. So I figured there would be a minimum of yahoos wrecking my experience. It was a bit emotional, as I thought it would be. It certainly wasn’t a normal concert experience. Canadians from coast to coast were at a place like the Bloor Cinema or their local bar or at a friend with an amazing TV’s house or at a community centre, having a shared experience of watching Canada’s band play their last show. So there was a dark spectacle surrounding this-the idea that this amazing man was going to die and we were watching him do the thing we love to see him do for the last time. What does tomorrow look like for him and for us? The memory will likely haunt some people, it will haunt me.

IMPORTANT NOTE. The chronology of the following will be completely off.

The Hip and The Pursuit of Happiness, (and the Cowboy Junkies, Grapes of Wrath, some other bands) came of age around the same time. It was a great time for Canadian music and Canadian bands. We weren’t chasing anything, we were all being ourselves and that’s what led to all of our successes.

I’ve seen the Hip many times often because my band was sharing the stage with them and sometimes just as a fan. The first time was at the Copa, which was a dance club in Yorkdale that also featured concerts. When I moved to Toronto, I was amazed that there were concert tickets at record stores or clubs-free concert tickets. The Copa was one of the places that you could always find a free concert ticket-I saw Eric Burdon and Johnny Winter and lots of local bands. I recall, just after we recorded Love Junk, that we came home and played a Toronto Film Festival gig at the Copa, where our publicity person introduced me to Tiny Tim and Roger Ebert. But I think I saw the Hip before that.(?)

As I recall the show now, with the exception of Gord Downie, the band looked exactly the same as they did tonight. It’s as though it’s the next day and the band were wearing prosthetics that aged them. They all have the same hair and clothes that I remember from then. As it was for many, it was Gord Downie who caught my attention. I remember thinking there was a vague Stones-Doors idea here but the singer had some jump to him and I have always been a sucker for an engaging front man.

Not too long after that, we sort of blew open and went on a year long tour having pretty much the best time ever. One night in New York, Gord showed up at either a record company dinner or in a record company suite we were hanging out in. He’d come straight from the airport. He was was also in New York for a record company meeting. Where’s your luggage? He held up a Crown Royal bag then began pulliing out the contents, naming each item.

“A comb, a toothbrush and a fancy eating shirt, (a long sleeved button up shirt that he’d rolled up into the size of a large cigar). I’m not taking my boots off so I don’t need socks and the hotel with have shampoo.”

We all found this outrageously funny and, for years thereafter fancy eating shirts became part of the TPOH venacular.

The band’s full length, Up To Here came out somewhere around this time and was very successful. We did a New Years Eve show with them in Kingston and it was pretty fun and you could see they had something major going on. We got too drunk. My memory was taking a sip off of a Corona and involuntarily spitting it on Gord’s sister-in-law’s leg. She looked at me with pity and graciously decided not to make much of it. Unfortunately, TPOH’s early history is riddled with this kind of sorry behavior and disapproving looks from women. But that’s another story. At this point, I still thought we were kicking the Hip’s ass.

Every year Molson Park, just outside of Toronto was the scene of something called Edge Fest. Our slot was near the top of the bill but the Tragically Hip closed the show. Our tour bus was leaving and as I walked through the crowd to get to it, the Hip were launching into Blow At High Dough. Coming out of the intro as the band kicks into the song, “I can get behind everything’, the place just went crazy and it was just a sea of bobbing heads and I was thinking to myself, people fucking love the Hip. But whatever, we’re in Rolling Stone and People and Musician and every other magazine and I never hear about them down south. (years later, the band actually said this to us-hey you guys are always in the big magazines and they never have us. I thought, well a few critics, who don’t pay for records, like us and EVERY PERSON IN CANADA LOVES YOU. Not much of a trade.)

The band called me up one day and asked if I wanted to come over and listen to the mixes of their new album, which was going to be Road Apples. So I went and they put it on and we had some beers. I remember thinking it was a bit jammy, maybe it was going to be their sophomore jinx record. I liked it but I didn’t hear any songs that I thought were going to be, for lack of a better word, hits. Anyway, had a great time that night, one of their girlfriends started DJing playing cool stuff and I thought it was nice that they had me over. As it turned out, the sophomore jinx was going to be ours and Road Apples became a gigantic hit and any illusions I had that we were more popular or even AS popular as them vanished for good.

A radio station in Washington DC was doing a July 4th concert and thought it would be funny or something, to have a couple of Canadian bands play at it. Concrete Blonde was the headliner and The Hip and TPOH played in the afternoon. Someone had the idea to hire a tour bus for the gig and both bands would ride down together. Much Music came by just as we were leaving Toronto and asked if Gord and I would say a couple of words. Gord was not into this at all and gave a very cranky interview. I felt like I had to fit in with this vibe though I likely came off pretty inauthentic. We had a very fun trip to DC with lots of drinks and road stories. I think the Hip played before us and just slayed the crowd. We played next,  but it was obvious that they blew us off the stage. At the risk of sounding immodest, getting blown off the stage rarely happened to us. But it definitely happened that day.

Time went on and the Hip rose to legendary status. The biggest band in Canada by miles. We had moved to a new record label, Mercury Records after the president of Chrysalis, our old label had taken the helm there. The Hip were playing Ontario Place, which was a concert in the round with a revolving stage. It’s now the Molson Amphitheater. They asked us to open. This was just before we were about to head into the studio to do our third album, The Downward Road. Our record company decided to come and see us play so we opened with Hard To Laugh, played eight or so of the new songs and closed with Adult. That set list was one of the biggest regrets of my professional life. Who tries out their new material in front of 10,000 people in an OPENING SET? Gord came out to introduce us and it was a typical, poetic, angular Gord reading which apparently Kevin Drew from Broken Social Scene memorized and can still recite. The Hip should have told us to piss off after that stupidity but they continued to be nice to us then and in the years that followed.

Somewhere in all of this, we did a couple of benefit shows with them, one at the Phoenix and another at Fort Henry. At that show, I asked them if they would play Highway Girl, a song off their EP that I loved. The EP version is good but I had heard them play it live once and it rocked so hard it may have been my favorite thing they had done.  They said they’d play it for me at sound check but didn’t want to play it at the show as they were sick of it or something. It has one of those killer, hypnotic riffs that the band can mesmerize their audience with. I found out later there was a legendary performance of it where Gord tells a long story of a double suicide. Anyway, as I imagine it now, it was like I got a private performance of the song. That’s some good guys right there.

In later years, the Hip had us on a couple of their Another Roadside Attraction festival concerts and were always extremely gracious to us. At one of these shows, we received an ARA laundry bag that I used from that moment until if finally gave out about a year ago. We also opened a show for them in a field somewhere in Minnesota where Gord was just completely and utterly hallucinogenic, putting on the most bizarre and compelling show I think I ever saw him give. People talk a lot about how the Hip never ‘broke’ in the States but there was a large crowd that night loving every minute. My understanding is that they were pretty successful on a club level, probably more successful than a lot of Canadian bands who brag about how big they are in the States.

Back home, the band continued to be in a league of their own, (a cliche but in terms of popularity, during the peak of their career, they had no peers) and I slowly disengaged myself from show business, writing fiction and producing records. My writing led to me getting gigs doing book reviews and one day I was asked to review Gord’s book of poetry. Relieved that it didn’t suck I gave it a good review and it ended up on the front cover of the Globe and Mail Book Review section. So I have Gord to thank for that as it was clearly the subject matter and not my writing prowess that led to this honor.

So these are my Gord Downie/Tragically Hip stories. There are a few more, a favor or two that I asked for, which Gord fulfilled with grace. Some that I’ll likely remember after this is published.

No one could ever accuse the Hip of pandering or selling out. They played the music they wanted to and everyone loved it. Their success was a pure as it comes. Even the show tonight wasn’t a greatest hits show, they represented all of their albums. So if you’re looking for heroes, they are a good place to look. For people outside of Canada it would be hard to describe how connected they are to the fabric or psyche or some important word, of Canada. No other band could be broadcast on national TV and have the entire nation watch. No one. There is no bigger Canadian band and there is no band that more represents the Canadian music fan than the Hip. Neil Young and Joni Mitchell moved to California. Bryan Adams has never shown much of a connection to his homeland. The closest thing would be Rush but Rush are not popular with everyone like The Hip are.

The way they brought the country together tonight is like the Super Bowl or the Canada Russia Summit Series. It’s staggering. Each guy in the band can carry this night with them for the rest of their life. Tonight, they were the most important thing in Canada.

As a live band, they have no equal. They lull their audience into a state of hypnosis with their groove and then Gord takes the crowd on whatever journey he imagines that particular evening. I’m sure many fans have the equivalent of a religious experience at a Hip show. It’s a dying art, the live show. Live music is all show biz, vocals on tape, dancers, lights. That a band could take its recorded material to the next level in front of an audience and give them a unique experience of it-that doesn’t really happen much anymore.

Musically, the band seemed to grow with each new release. In my view, they made a gigantic leap on Trouble In The Henhouse, which is pretty cool considering it came halfway through their career. Which is to say, as popular as they were, they still pushed themselves to be better. The opening track, Gift Shop is in many ways classic Hip, a jammed out riff over which, Gord waxes poetic. But it was like they had finally perfected their ‘thing’. The opening is beautiful and spacey. Melodically, the song was more sophisticated than usual. Then, when the band kicks in, it rips into you as though you were watching them play it live. And Ahead By A Century may be their finest moment. Certainly my favorite Gord lyric and just an exquisite musical track.

Rumors are swirling that perhaps this wasn’t the last show. I’m not going to speculate on whether this may not be the end for the band. That’s not important now. Quite honestly, I’d be thrilled if Gord felt well enough at some point to play another show or two only because that would mean he felt healthy enough to do the thing he loves. I’d be thrilled if Gord was able to comfortably live longer than medical science might predict. I hope somehow he defies the odds. I hope he gets to spend more time with his children and his friends.

But if this is the end, how amazing was tonight? What those five guys accomplished tonight is historical. Like, where were you when, historical. Yes, tonight will haunt me.