On The Tragically Hip, Pt. 1: Gord Downie


[The poet’s] job is not to describe nature, but to show you a world completely absorbed and possessed by the human mind.

-Northrop Frye

It was early on a Tuesday morning immediately following Victoria Day. Canadians across the country were starting their morning routines, getting ready for work and school after another long weekend. I awoke to the faint sounds of my wife making coffee while she listened to the morning headlines on the kitchen radio. I lay in bed awhile longer, slowing waking up. She eventually came into the bedroom and sat down beside me. “I have some bad news. I wanted to tell you before you heard it on the news. Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer.”

In hindsight, it was probably for the best that I was still in bed, because this news was too heavy to bear first thing in the morning. Initially, there were tears over morning coffee as I read the band’s email announcement and the requisite CBC articles. But the implications of the news, the true gravity of the diagnosis, hit me slowly in waves over the course of the day. Lyric fragments and melodies, images and memories floated through my mind over the following days, each one a reminder of the impact of the terrible news.

Then mid-June rolled around, and Man Machine Poem was released. The album was written and recorded prior to Gord’s diagnosis. But, like Dylan’s Love and Theft and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, many of Man Machine Poem‘s lyrics possessed an eerie prescience. “Just gimme the news,” begins the album’s first single, and Gord later sings about feeling “tired as fuck.”

Of course, the announcement of Gord’s cancer and the release of Man Machine Poem constitute the beginning of a chapter in The Hip’s history, not the end of one. Last month, amidst a flurry of media coverage and an avalanche of fan support, the band concluded a triumphant Canadian tour.

While it was great to see the band receiving a lot of love, and to hear their tunes getting played on the radio, I was bothered by the dominant narrative that sprung up around the band: one that leaned heavily on patriotism, national pride, and collective ownership. I was also bothered by the lack of attention their last few albums had received, and by the fact that no one seemed to notice, amidst the cancer news, that the band had released their strongest studio album since 2002’s In Violet Light.

I’ll discuss these matters in later posts, but for now I just want to write a bit about what Gord Downie means to me. This is not a eulogy, of course; Gord is very much still with us, and he is even releasing a politically engaged new solo albumSecret Path, next month. Rather, it is just a way of voicing some admiration for an artist I feel many Canadians misunderstand, or at least simplify.

Sometimes I think people simplify and depoliticize Gord. CBC is guilty of this. Witness this cringe-inducing tweet from Peter Mansbridge. I guess it’s easier to wrap Gord in a blanket of safe, easy, unquestioning nationalism than it is to reckon with the true political and artistic complexity of the man. Thus, Gord becomes “our” rock star, and the Hip become “Canada’s band.” Sure, there’s Canadiana peppered throughout his lyrics, which has been well-cataloged and much-discussed. But there are many other facets to Gord’s lyrics that are equally, if not more important to understanding his artistic output.

I am convinced that his references to Canadian history and culture stem not from straightforward national pride, but from a desire to root his lyrics in local particularity; to write what he knows. He isn’t trumpeting Canada; he’s describing it to us, including the parts we sometimes shrink from and try to forget. On stage in Kingston, with Canada and the world watching, he spoke of political issues, like the residential school system. As he sings in “Lake Fever,” one of my favourite Hip singles, “Not trying to make you a believer / Don’t want a little piece of your heart / Just telling you a story about the lake fever.” The song is about the cholera outbreak that plagued Upper and Lower Canada in 1832, and about the dubious political and social policies that may not have been as helpful as they were intended to be. It’s also about two lovers. To miss either of those stories is to miss the richness of the song.

I’ve always appreciated Gord’s lyrics aphoristically, as fragments of meaning. Phrases and lines jump out at me, rather than whole songs. What is a Hip song about? That’s the wrong question to ask, as he often knits together several seemingly unrelated stories and ideas into one song. I have too many favourites to list them all. There’s the “upholstered silence” from “Springtime in Vienna,” which conjures an image of dusty living room furniture bathed in sunlight. The humour and friendship depicted in “A Beautiful Thing,” when annoyed Gord answers the phone at 3AM by hollering,”You’d better be dyin’!” only to realize his friend is in distress and needs to talk — that his friend really was, in a sense, dyin’. There’s also a wonderful and subtle humour in his lyrics. The “Superfarmers” referenced in “Poets”? A Dutch amateur men’s indoor soccer team he once watched play in a gymnasium while on tour in Europe. It was too good of a team name not to use.

It’s no secret that, with the deaths of David Bowie, Prince, and others, 2016 has been a tough year in music news. But while Bowie and Prince were peerless artistic innovators, I must sheepishly admit that I have no personal connection to their music. I appreciate the significance of their work intellectually, but not emotionally. They always seemed like giants from and for a different generation than my own. Their careers peaked before I followed pop music closely.

Gord, on the other hand, always felt like a musician who stood right next to me, singing into my ear. Even though we are a generation apart, I always found so much meaning and humanity packed into his lyrics, interviews, and performances. I guess I just connected with him in a way that was so deep I only realized it in hindsight, as I cried over a cup of coffee that Tuesday morning in May. Even as my musical tastes continue to change and grow, I keep coming back to Gord.

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