The biography of “Canada’s band”
In the summer of 2016, more than a third of Canadians tuned in to watch what was likely the Tragically Hip’s final performance, broadcast from their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Why? Because these five men were always more than just a band. They sold millions of records and defined a generation of Canadian rock music. But they were also a tabula rasa onto which fans could project their own ideas: of performance, of poetry, of history, of Canada itself.
In the first print biography of the Tragically Hip, Michael Barclay talks to dozens of the band’s peers and friends about not just the Hip’s music but about the opening bands, the American albatross, the band’s role in Canadian culture, and Gord Downie’s role in reconciliation with Indigenous people. When Downie announced he had terminal cancer and decided to take the Hip on the road one more time, the tour became another Terry Fox moment; this time, Canadians got to witness an embattled hero reach the finish line.
This is a book not just for fans of the band: it’s for anyone interested in how culture can spark national conversations.
|Edition description:||2nd ed.|
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About the Author
Michael Barclay has worked for Maclean’s, CBC Radio’s Brave New Waves, and Exclaim!. He co-authored Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985–1995, which told the stories of the Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo, k.d. lang, and dozens more. He lives in Toronto.
Read an Excerpt
In a Big Country
BRAND NEW RENAISSANCE
"Song is not desire, not wooing any favour that can still be attained; song is existence."
Rainer Maria Rilke, "Sonnet to Orpheus, 3," 1921
"Give me the making of the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws."
Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, 1703
In the beginning, in the period known as Dreamtime, giants roamed the Earth, singing as they travelled far and wide, calling out the names of animals, plants, topography — "singing the world into existence." As they walked, they left words and musical notes in their footprints. These songs were then passed down through generations of human descendants. This was not mere music; this was cartography. If you knew the song, you knew where you were going. You knew how far you'd travelled by where you were in the song.
This is the creation myth of Australia's Indigenous people, a myth known outside the country via Songlines, a 1987 book by British travel writer Bruce Chatwin, which was enthusiastically passed around the Tragically Hip's camp in the early '90s. It's easy to see why.
"Aboriginals could not believe the country existed until they could see and sing it," wrote Chatwin. "Just as, in the Dreamtime, the country had not existed until the Ancestors sang it.
"So the land," Chatwin asked his Australian guide, "must first exist as a concept in the mind? Then it must be sung? Only then can it be said to exist?"
"True," responded the guide.
"In other words, 'to exist' is 'to be perceived'?"
* * *
Let's shake the beaver off our back. Let's get the Canadian thing out of the way right off the top. Because there is a lot more to the Tragically Hip than their passports.
The Tragically Hip are often spoken of as "Canada's band." As if there are no others. As if there were no other before. As if there will never be another. Only that last statement is definitively true, if only because there is no monoculture in popular music or in any other sphere of the splintered public imagination.
English Canada is often invisible to itself, particularly in our popular songs. For years, some considered Ian Tyson's "Four Strong Winds" an alternate national anthem because it was the only explicitly Canadian song in the popular lexicon. This is the country that didn't get around to making "O Canada" the official national anthem until 1980: 100 years after the song was written, 113 years after Confederation. Let it never be said that Canadians are a decisive people. And let it never be forgotten that the song's composer, Calixa Lavallée, fled the country as a young man to find work in America, fought as a Union soldier in the Civil War, married a Massachusetts woman, advocated that the U.S. annex Canada and died an American citizen. So there's that.
Then there's Margaret Atwood, never known to mince words, who canonized the Canadian cultural mindset in her epochal 1972 book Survival. Her thesis cast an inescapable shadow over Canadian literature for the next 30 years, when new voices began redefining the canon. Positing the story of a Canadian writer in the 1960s, she wrote:
If he was lucky enough to acquire an American or English publisher he might get some attention from the Canadian literati and thus from a more widespread audience; but in order to do that he would have to squeeze his work into shapes that were not his, prune off anything "they" might not understand, disguise himself as a fake American or Englishman. At this point he either gave up in disgust ... and left the country and headed for one of the "centres of culture" — London, New York or Paris — or stayed and tried to follow his own vision as best he might, knowing that he could expect, at the very best, publication in a slender edition of 500 copies for poetry and a couple of thousand for novels; at the worst, total oblivion.
For the longest time, the fate of Canadian musicians was not much different.
Many Canadians see this dilemma as unique to this country, caught between our colonial mother and our bullying big brother to the south. Yet in the 1921 novel The Age of Innocence, set in Manhattan's aristocratic social scene, Edith Wharton's characters are so enamoured with what they perceive as superior British and/or European culture that they look askance on anything produced in their backyard — and these characters lived in New York City! Likewise, in Last Train to Memphis, Peter Guralnick's biography of Elvis Presley, the author tells the story of how Memphis DJs were reluctant to play Presley's early singles — because they didn't think anybody local could be any good. It's a joke as old as the Bible — specifically, John 1:46: "Nazareth?!" exclaims Nathaneal, soon to be one of the first disciples, upon hearing about the new messiah making the scene. "Can anything good come from Nazareth?"
In the late 1960s, a furious Stompin' Tom Connors decided to single-handedly write a new Canadian songbook and he spent the rest of his career doing that — and only that. The CBC hired Gordon Lightfoot to write "Canadian Railroad Trilogy" — because of course they did. The Guess Who had a No. 1 smash hit with "American Woman," which is Canadian only by negation — not unlike the Tragically Hip's "Last American Exit." Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Leonard Cohen would all occasionally nod to their native land; Bruce Cockburn did so much more often. Rush might do so only to title an instrumental ("YYZ," "Danforth and Pape" ). Bryan Adams, never.
* * *
At the time the Tragically Hip released their debut EP in 1987, 20 years after the country's centennial celebrations, Canada was barely an imaginary presence in popular song — because precious few could be bothered to imagine it. It was time to sing this country back into existence.
The Tragically Hip were by no means alone in doing so. Andrew Cash and Charlie Angus wanted their early '80s band L'Etranger to be to Toronto's punk and new wave scene what the Clash was to England, connecting local concerns to international struggles. The Rheostatics discovered Stompin' Tom and Neil Young and started singing about hockey players and the "Canadian Dream." Spirit of the West wrote about the Expo '86 evictions and Indigenous rights, inspired by the political pop songs of the Smiths and Billy Bragg. The dawn of hip-hop in Canada, a genre as loyal to regional peculiarities as folk music, meant that Maestro Fresh Wes, Michie Mee and Dream Warriors were all identifiably Canadian when all other Top 40 pop music was not. Even Blue Rodeo didn't start specifically situating their songs in Canada until their third album, in 1990.
Fully Completely, released in 1992, is the Tragically Hip's most commercially successful album. Perhaps that was inevitable. It's their third album, and Canadians had fervently embraced the first two and flocked to the live shows: 1992 may well have been the point when they were destined to reach critical mass. It could be a coincidence — but likely not — that it's also the album where Gord Downie's writing was most explicitly Canadian.
In 1992, Canadians were engaged in a constitutional referendum. They were gearing up for a federal election that would decimate the ruling political party. Quebec separatism was again on the rise. Four years earlier, a federal election was fought on the issue of a free-trade deal with the United States; a continental deal was on the horizon. The Oka Crisis of 1990 kick-started a new awareness of Indigenous issues. Clearcuts in Clayoquot Sound were sparking massive civil disobedience. The Cold War was over. Canada was unusually interesting for a while there. Into all of that came Fully Completely.
"We hit the Canadian music scene at a good time, when the winds of change are blowing," said Downie in 1990, right after the Tragically Hip won a Juno for Most Promising Band. "Ten years ago we probably wouldn't have gotten away with doing what we do."
Despite endless comparisons to R.E.M. and the Rolling Stones, the Tragically Hip most resembled their immediate peers. Listen to "Another Midnight" from 1989's Up to Here, and, other than Downie's unmistakable voice, it's interchangeable with anything by 54.40, Skydiggers, Crash Vegas, Blue Rodeo or, later, Sarah Harmer's Weeping Tile. It's a Canadian sound.
"We were maturing as a nation, and the Hip was a huge part of that," said the Rheostatics' Dave Bidini, whose song "Saskatchewan" Downie cited as pivotal in the Tragically Hip's own approach to writing. "Gord would tell you that it was a collective, combined effort. There would have been a lot of people in the sea. But there was this wave that surged, and the Hip were in a canoe at the top of that, riding the crest."
"There was an amazing concurrence of circumstances that led to a bunch of bands starting to reflect their own lives," said Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy, of the Hip's ascent. For a long time in Canadian culture, "Anything we took was co-opted, and anything we created was secondary. I think [Blue Rodeo and the Tragically Hip] were lucky that we came in at a time when Canadian audiences, whether they knew it or not, were sick of that. From the get-go, the Hip really reflected their own background. When audiences saw the Hip for the first time, they thought, even subconsciously: 'Finally, our own band.'"
Because Fully Completely was so Canadian in its content and so massively popular in its home and native land, that led — of course — to musings about why it didn't move similar numbers in the U.S. There were myriad reasons why that didn't happen — most involving luck, timing and record company support — but Downie's lyrics being "too Canadian" was never one of them. American music fans might be myopic, but they're not the complete xenophobes they're made out to be. Midnight Oil wasn't too Australian. The Smiths weren't too British. Björk wasn't too Icelandic — and then there's Sigur Rós, who are a whole other kettle of fermented fish. Hell, think of all the random one-hit wonders from around the world: was Falco too German? Psy too Korean?
"I don't see Fully Completely as 'too Canadian,'" said Bruce Dickinson, the American A&R executive who signed the Tragically Hip in 1988. "I see it as a fresh viewpoint on reality. Its uniqueness separates it from other albums of its time."
Dickinson also thought Canadians routinely underestimate Americans' knowledge of Canadian culture. "On a personal level, I knew who Hugh MacLennan was," he said. "I had read Robertson Davies. Most of my high school and college friends had read Leonard Cohen's Beautiful Losers. The Band was successful in the U.S. The Hip have a certain level of darkness like those artists. In the U.S., Fully Completely sold where it was heard, and mostly that is where airplay from Canadian radio came across the border to American cars and homes. Case closed. The Hip's music can work in the U.S."
And it did. Not just in border towns like Buffalo and Detroit, but in Texas and Arizona. Fully Completely sold almost 100,000 copies in the U.S. — not a blockbuster by any stretch, but not insignificant, either. The reason the Tragically Hip toured the U.S. extensively during their entire career was becausethey could: they have hundreds of thousands of American fans, they played large and lovely theatres everywhere and — most important — their audiences there kept growing. But because Canadians never saw the Tragically Hip on The Tonight Show or in Rolling Stone, we liked to assume that they were our little secret, serving the paradoxically smug insecurity that persists in being a national character trait. "Sometimes," said Dickinson, the American A&R rep, "I've wondered if thoughts like that are a manifestation of unjustified, excessively debilitating self-consciousness or — worse — some feeling of unworthiness. What a crock."
The Fully Completely song "Courage" was dedicated to Hugh MacLennan, a brilliant writer of the 1940s and '50s whose novels, set in Canada, were internationally acclaimed. In a 1952 essay, he wrote, "If you drop a stone into the ocean, the impact is as great as if you drop it into a farmer's pond. The difference is that the ocean doesn't seem to care. It swallows the stone and rolls on. But the pond, if the stone is large enough, breaks into waves and ripples that cover its surface and are audible in every cranny along its banks." The Tragically Hip's waves and ripples were more than audible; they were a roaring flood into the idea of Canada.
Keyboardist Chris Brown toured with the Hip in 2000, when it struck him that when the band played in a town like Moncton, "It's not the cover story in the entertainment section — it's the cover of the entire paper. It's this cultural event and this whole identity-branding on this national level, which the band was aware of carrying. It's not like they asked for it or wore Canadian flags, but they displayed a sense of ownership of that." Sportscaster Dave Hodge said, "We adopted them more than they applied for adoption. I don't see any real concerted effort on their part to be a Canadian band other than, sure, some of the subject matter. They never said, 'Let's be the Canadian band.' It just happened that way. If I were them, I'd prefer it that way."
One fan told the Kingston Whig-Standard in 1995 that the Hip are "like a Molson Canadian beer commercial. They're a real Canadian hard rock kind of band." How blatantly Canadian were the Tragically Hip, though, really? It's not like they ever performed with an enormous Maple Leaf flag and a beaver logo as a backdrop — like the Guess Who did. Or with a giant replica of the CN Tower as part of their stage design — like Drake did. (Granted, the modest Kingston skyline is not as striking.) Downie might have introduced "So Hard Done By" to a Montreal audience by dedicating it to Mordecai Richler, or occasionally arrived onstage and said, for no discernible reason, things like, "Hello and welcome. My name is Maurice Duplessis," as he did on the stage of Vancouver's Thunderbird Stadium on Canada Day, 1992. And there was always a Tragically Hip gig somewhere on Canada Day.
This was all a red (and white) herring: American and international references outnumber Canadian ones in Tragically Hip songs. (Go ahead, count 'em.) Downie never threw darts at a map of Canada for song ideas, nor did he seek to set Heritage Minutes to music. His subject matter was always broader than he was given credit for, but it's easier for armchair academics to latch onto songs about hockey and a "late-breaking story on the CBC"; those images were low-hanging fruit in the dense forest of Downie's imagination.
Downie is not a writer like Stompin' Tom, an artist for whom provincialism in the face of a colonial mindset was the entire point of his oeuvre. "When I mention Halifax or Edmonton in a song, I know that beers get cracked," said songwriter and Downie-disciple Joel Plaskett. "Gord's writing goes all over the place. It's rich, and you can dig deeper than what most people associate with it."
The Hip's fans were happy to literally wrap themselves in the flag. It's detailed in a biting Spirit of the West song called "Our Ambassador," about encountering such fans while touring with the Hip in the U.S. At a 2000 show at Massey Hall, the Toronto Star reported that "one young woman in the front row of the balcony stripped down to a bra that had a red Maple Leaf planted on the middle of each cup."
Downie was somewhat amused by all this, but insisted, "I'm not a nationalist. I started using Canadian references not just for their own sake, but because I wanted to pick up my birthright, which is this massive country full of stories." One of Downie's heroes was the poet Al Purdy, who once wrote, "There are few things I find more irritating about my own country than this so-called 'search for identity,' an identity I've never doubted having in the first place."
Dropping a few proper nouns in a song seems trivial — and it is. It's easy enough to do. There was absolutely zero reason, other than an awkward rhyme, for Downie's decision to set one of the Hip's songs in Bobcaygeon, despite the fact that there is an entire feature film dedicated to the "significance" of the band's gig there in 2011. ("A Heritage Moment equivalent of Roger Waters playing The Wall in Berlin," claimed Maclean's.) But proper nouns also provide signposts: signs that can seem exotic even to citizens of the same country; signs that can tweak interest in local geography and history and culture; signs that can, in fact, sing a country into existence — especially a country rendered invisible when most of its cultural icons are readily absorbed into its southern neighbour.
Excerpted from "The Never-Ending Present"
Copyright © 2018 Michael Barclay.
Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Chapter One: Beginnings
Chapter Two: Up to Here / Road Apples
Chapter Three: Tribute bands
Chapter Four: Fully Completely / Another Roadside Attraction
Chapter Five: American albatross
Chapter Six: Day For Night / Another Roadside Attraction II
Chapter Seven: Machismo and femininity in performance
Chapter Eight: Trouble at the Henhouse / Live Between Us / Another Roadside Attraction III
Chapter Nine: Hipped? Check.
Chapter Ten: Phantom Power/ Music @ Work
Chapter Eleven: "It's better for us if you don't understand."
Chapter Twelve: Coke Machine Glow
Chapter Thirteen: Poetry
Chapter Fourteen: In Violet Light/ Battle of the Nudes / In Between Evolution / That Night in Toronto / Greatest Hits
Chapter Fifteen: Surviving as Canadian classic rock band
Chapter Sixteen: World Container / We are the Same
Chapter Seventeen: Next generations
Chapter Eighteen: The Grand Bounce / Now for Plan A / Sadies album / Fully Completely
Chapter Nineteen: 2016: Man Machine Poem / tour.
Chapter Twenty: Cancer and other curses
Chapter Twenty-One: Secret Path and reconciliation
Chapter Twenty-Two: Aug. 20, 2016
Epilogue: the aftermath