A GUEST POSTING by DOUG McLAREN
I wonder if we Canadian folk seem as non-descript to outsiders as we believe ourselves to. We certainly spend a lot of time discussing amongst ourselves our apparent lack of Canadian identity, or defining culture, in the face of the proverbial elephant in the bedroom to our south. Similarly, when travelling abroad, we are sure to emblazon our Canadian flag on our backpacks, so that we can somewhat condescendingly be told that we are “Just like Americans, only nicer”. But there are certainly times when we surprise ourselves, and have overwhelmingly unique and truly “Canadian” reactions to things. Our long-standing fondness for the band The Tragically Hip, which almost no one outside our border has even heard of let alone “gets”, is a striking example of this.
So when Gord Downie, lead singer and creative power behind The Hip, as they are more affectionately known here in the country, passed away last October 17th, almost four months ago, dealing with the grief has been a defining moment in our national psyche. Even our Prime Minister shed public tears for the world to see. Community gatherings, public outpourings of emotion, daily news stories, memorial performances, celebrity tributes—all the means by which we measure the greatness of a person’s impact on us—continued to unfold spontaneously over the subsequent days, weeks, and even months.
As significant as we all know the passing in recent years of great musical figures such as David Bowie and Prince to have been to the world at large, the response within Canada to the passing of Gord, as most of us thought of him in our minds, exceeded all of these put together, and then some, if you can measure by the public response that followed. Even the recent death of another Great One of our of own, Leonard Cohen, though he meant a tremendous lot to so many both here and around the world, did not stay in the forefront of the news and the public consciousness quite as long. I think the only other musical figure who came quite as close in capturing the Canadian heart was the folksy Stompin’ Tom Connors, who probably deserves an ICA somewhere himself, though I am guessing even fewer are familiar with his material outside the country.
And why this emotional response to Gord Downie, outsiders may ask in somewhat surprised curiosity, even given the untimeliness of his death to a rare form of brain cancer? Though that is impossible to put into language, and I doubt I could add much to the (Arctic) oceans of ink spilled in the attempts to answer the same question in Canadian media, I would only say that Gord Downie was not just “one of us”; in some strange mystical way, he was us, or rather, a homey, comfortable embodiment in rock star form of the values and ideals of our hockey-playin’, doughnut-lovin’, toque-wearing nation of sometimes self-effacing, sometimes self-aggrandizing hosers.
To me, then, definitely worthy of an ICA.
Track 1: New Orleans Is Sinking, from the album Up To Here (1989).
Though I recognize that at this blog, where harder rockin’ songs are not the standard fare, this track may not be an immediate hit, it is probably nonetheless the obvious choice for a lead-off track, if you follow the theory of putting your strongest foot first. This song has at various times made it near to the top on various organizations “Best Canadian Tracks Of All Time”, one of which I remember was a very thoroughly annotated list played on the CBC’s program entitled “50 Tracks: the Canadian Edition”, where it hit #16.
Our local alternative powerhouse radio station CFNY put the case for this song a little more strongly, putting the song at #24 on their 2008 List of the Top 200 New Rock Songs Of All Time (whether Canadian or not!). A little odd, you say, that the Great Canadian Song should focus in its lyrics on an American city? Well, it goes to show you non-Canadians that if nothing else, we Canucks are outward focused, looking to the outside world (and especially our American neighbours) to make sense of ourselves. Think of the Guess Who’s greatest oeuvre, “American Woman”, as another example.
As a side note, this is one of the few songs by The Hip ever to attain any popularity in the US, where the band themselves are practically unknown, except for a few border towns and, rather understandably, a pocket around New Orleans. Most radio stations did, however, pull this song from airplay out of sensitivity when Hurricane Katrina struck…a case of being a bit too close to home.
And when Gord Downie died, it was perhaps inevitable that the mildly irreverent lines from the lyrics to this song, “I looked up to God above, and said, “Hey man, thanks!”, should have been turned into near-ubiquitous t-shirts that (equally irreverently) merely swapped out the word “God” for “Gord” to express our gratitude to our dying hero.
Track 2: The East Wind, from the album The Grand Bounce (2010) by Gord Downie and The Country of Miracles.
This is probably my personal favourite Downie-penned song, and it is interesting that it is from his third solo album, which I recommend quite highly to everyone I can, but perhaps most to those who don’t know or don’t like the Tragically Hip sound, as it takes his music in his own, more indie direction. I love his explanation of how the lyric in the song about the East Wind being the “laziest wind” came about. According to Downie, who spent his time in rural settings whenever he could, he was once having a conversation with a local farmer, and when he complained about the wind, the farmer looked at him knowingly and said that the strong east winds blowing at the time were in fact “the laziest winds”. When asked why, the farmer, a man of few words, answered succinctly, “Because they don’t go around you. They go right through.” And it was just like Gord that a conversation with a farmer turned into a great Canadian song…
Track 3: Ahead By A Century, from the album Trouble At The Henhouse (1996)
Another strong track to follow the first two. This was easily the most played Hip song during Downie’s extended public mourning. And everyone sang along….
Track 4: Blow At High Dough, from the album Up To Here (1989).
I think of this song as the little sister of its album mate, New Orleans is Sinking. A cracking tune about how:
They shot a movie once, in my hometown
Everybody was in it, from miles around
Out at the speedway, some kind of Elvis thing…
And to paraphrase Gord’s lines that follow these opening lyrics, he himself certainly was no movie star, but hey, yeah, he sure could get behind anything.
Track 5: Grace, Too, from the album Day For Night (1994)
Lyrically mysterious, a good bit sultry and brooding, and a grand way to close out side one…
Track 6: Little Bones, from the album Road Apples (1991)
This is likely the first song by the Hip that I really got into, and it was around the same time as I was deepest into the music of R.E.M. At the time, I remember thinking that though they are quite different, what R.E.M. is to America, the Hip are for Canada. And that’s some pretty good advice there to “eat your chicken slow, it’s full of all them little bones…”
Track 7: Bobcaygeon, from the album Phantom Power (1998)
Bobcaygeon is a small town in cottage country in Southern Ontario, where I spent so much time in my youth fishing with my grandparents. Enough said. It evokes my misspent youth…though apparently Downie said in interviews he only picked Bobcayheon to rhyme with “constellation”.
Track 8: Nautical Disaster, from the album Day For Night (1994)
This song, as well as the two final tracks to follow, are really good examples of the oblique narrative style song for which Gord Downie was so renowned. Behind the impressionistic lyrics, apparently, is the story of the sinking of the German ship Bismarck, and the aborted rescue attempts following, by the British ship Dorsetshire. Pretting gripping stuff if you tune in…
Track 9: Fifty Mission Cap, from the album Fully Completely (1992)
…But perhaps even more ominous is the story behind this song.
Bill Barilko was a star player on the Toronto Maple Leafs championship hockey team from 1947-1951, helping the home team win the Stanley Cup for the fourth time within those years with an overtime goal in Barilko’s final season. That summer he went on a fishing trip up north with his dentist, and the two were never heard of again, their plane going down somewhere in the wilds of Northern Ontario. The Leafs’ team was reputably cursed as a result of this, as they subsequently entered an eleven year drought, not winning the Cup again till the very year Barilko’s missing body was finally discovered and laid to rest in 1962…
Track 10: Wheat Kings, from the album Fully Completely (1992)
…And maybe the most emotionally impactful story of the lot, immortalized by a cracking great tune, this one tells the tale of David Milgaard, a young teenager from Saskatchewan who was wrongfully imprisoned following the grisly murder of a young local nursing student. Milgaard had been out with friends, a typical 17 year old, when he was picked up by investigating police, a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The police force were under great public pressure to make an arrest, and seemingly massaged the evidence to suit their case against him.
Although he would have served just 8 years if he had pleaded guilty, and indeed could have been released on parole almost any time after that if he had signed papers admitting guilt, he protested his innocence heroically, and ended up serving 23 years, until he was cleared definitively by DNA evidence (and the real killer caught and jailed). Now he is rebuilding his life, it seems, quite as heroically…chilling stuff, treated without any preachy or maudlin sentiment by Gord Downie, but rather with the wistful and and timeless air of a nation self-reflecting.