Wednesday, October 18, 2017

We Always Knew that He'd Go Free

"...promise me, promise me
 If they bury me some place I don't want to be
 You'll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously,
 Away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees,
 Whispers of disease, and the acts of enormity;
 And lower me slowly and sadly and properly –
 Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy." – Gord Downie/The Hip, "At the Hundredth Meridian"

We lost him last night. Oh, we knew it was coming – frankly, I still can't believe that he made it out of that year of death, 2016, let alone nearly another 10 months on top of that – but in no way does it lessen the blow. Gordon Edgar Downie – poet, raconteur, free spirit, showman, fiercely Canadian lead singer and soul of the most fiercely Canadian band of all time, The Tragically Hip – was stolen from us last night at the barely-halfway-there age of 53, by glioblastoma (an aggressive and incurable brain cancer). All of us in the Great White North have been trying to prepare ourselves for this day since we were collectively stunned by the news of his illness, posted on the band's website on May 24, 2016 – and, really, other than July 1st what other day could these quintessential Canadians have possibly chosen for this announcement? Of course, there is no real way to prepare for this and even if we had another decade or two to "get ready" our hearts would still be shattered by his loss.

At the last Hip concert in 2016
There is so much raw, visceral grief tearing through all of my news feeds today that it's really hard to process. So many people, so many hearts, were touched so very deeply by this man and his band and what they brought to our nation. We have spent most of our 150 years living in the enormous shadow of the behemoth with whom we share our southern border, always trying to measure ourselves against the Americans and always pouting when we think we're not being taking seriously enough. To "make it big" doesn't mean all of Medicine Hat or Kelowna or Moncton or even Toronto knows who you are; no, making it big requires hitting the top of the charts in the US of A, period. So much of our major talent has been sucked into the vortex, the yawning maw of the States' machine and we nudge each other knowingly and exchange a wink when a Michael J Fox or Jim Carrey or Steppenwolf is accepted as one of their own, and say "I knew them when they were living here in Canada, dude."

But not The Hip. No, they were our own little secret. And we loved them for it.

The Hip in '87
I'm not going to take you all through their long, wonderful history – there are so many other places for you to look for that information, and they'll all likely do it better than I can – but I will talk a little about what they meant to me in the soundtrack of my own life. I didn't grow up with them in Kingston (as a couple of my friends did); I was in my late 20s when they broke nationally so they weren't the high school staple that they were for so many people. But they were no less important to me all in all, and I fell in love with them the very first time I heard CFNY play "Small Town Bringdown" from their original EP so very many years ago – probably very early in 1987 because CFNY in those days were incredible at bringing new music to our ears before anyone else on the radio. I recall finding out about a free concert they were giving at Nathan Phillips Square (at City Hall in Toronto) one summer in the '80s; try as I might I cannot find any record of this show online but I do see that they performed at the Horseshoe Tavern (their second-ever Toronto gig) on July 15, 1988. It seems to me quite likely that their open-air show took place earlier that day, especially given the setlist for the 'Shoe I've turned up online. I remember the place being packed and feeling pretty proud of myself for having "discovered" this gem of a band that was clearly just on the verge of something huge. Still, I could never have foreseen how huge; the impact they have had on Canada (not just musically) over the past 30 years is virtually indescribable.

Up to Here: the breakthrough
And suddenly, everyone knew who they were. They released Up To Here – with so, so many great tunes but "New Orleans is Sinking" chiefly among them – and it was obvious to the entire nation (not just us "hipsters" listening to New Music and college stations) that these guys were for real, and they were absolutely terrific. I had been hearing "New Orleans..." on CFNY for several months already and I am absolutely certain they played it at City Hall that afternoon in '88. "Blow at High Dough" was another staple on 'NY, and I was very much looking forward to the album's release... but they still kept us waiting until September of 1989. I'm pretty sure I bought it the very first week it was on sale, and I was blown away by how good all the rest of it was. I played it incessantly the first couple of months I owned it and I am still not tired of it to this very day. My life had changed forever in an entirely different way earlier that year ('89) when my son, Tim, was born; it would be quite a while before I was able to see them live again.

Best. Canadian. Album. Ever.
But they were very much the soundtrack of so many wonderful years in my life and I will associate them forever with the rise of the Blue Jays (and their eventual back-to-back World Series victories); the births of both of my children; the Maple Leafs' incredible and improbable run in the '93 NHL playoffs; my few years as a stay-at-home dad; and even the huge upheavals I went through in '95 and '96. When, in October of 1992 (right around the time the Jays were heading for glory), they released Fully, Completely, it immediately and irrevocably went to the very top of any "Desert Island Albums" list I would ever make for the rest of my life. Every July 1st I celebrate by playing nothing but Canadian artists; I always begin with Big Sugar's version of "O Canada" and I always follow that up with Fully, Completely. No exceptions. It's the greatest album ever put out by a Canadian band, in my opinion, and I can't imagine it likely ever being eclipsed. It also happens to contain my all-time favourite Hip song: "Wheat Kings." It tells the story of David Milgaard, wrongfully convicted and in prison for 23 years for a murder in Saskatoon in 1969. The lyrics in it are incomparably evocative, I think, right from the opening line: "Sundown in the Paris of the prairies/Wheat kings have all their treasures buried..." For those of you unclear with the references: "Paris of the Prairies" is a nickname for Saskatoon; "wheat kings" is a nickname for those ubiquitous grain elevators covering the prairies both here and in the States. But my favourite lyrics comprise the third verse of the song:

"There's a dreamy dream where the high school is dead and stark:
  It's a museum and we're all locked up in it after dark;
  Where the walls are lined all yellow, grey, and sinister,
  Hung with pictures of our parents' Prime Ministers."

Yellow, grey, and sinister. That's incredible poetry, that is.

But there was another song on that album that became an anthem to anyone who ever rooted for the blue and white of the Toronto Maple Leafs – and, actually, to most people who are hockey fans in their hearts. That song, of course, was "Fifty Mission Cap."

Barilko's banner being moved from
MLG to the ACC
"Bill Barilko disappeared that summer...." If you know the story, the song is as much haunting as it is incredible simplistic. (If you don't, check it out here.) A few lines of information about the late playoff hero and the effect his death had on his team, ostensibly stolen "from a hockey card", repeated in a second verse just because. It's pretty much a perfect little song, capturing so much pure Canadiana in just a couple of minutes. And so it was that, in 1996, I learned that The Hip were putting together a cross-country tour for that winter, including a stop (for two nights) at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. Because I knew that the beloved "Old Lady of Carlton Street" only had a couple of years left before the Leafs moved to the ACC; because I knew the Rheostatics would be opening for them (you can read all about this tour in Dave Bidini's wonderful first published novel, On a Cold Road) and I love the Rheostatics; because I hadn't seen The Hip in quite a while; for all of these reasons I knew I had to get to at least one of these shows. In December of '96 – accompanied by three friends – I was sitting in the corner reds of the Gardens when this song was performed. Instinctively, I looked up to where Barilko's banner was hanging from the rafters, just above my head. The arena was still and a bit stuffy; not a lot of air was flowing as it was a cold night outside. But incredibly, the Barilko #5 pennant began to flutter and move. None of the other banners showed even the slightest inclination toward following suit; Barilko danced alone. There could perhaps be many simple explanations for this; I don't want to hear them. I know I was witnessing something spiritual that night and nothing could ever take that away from me.

Speaking of that show: I really feel that the Rheostatics and The Hip each played a song by the other band during their sets that night but I can find no confirmation of this whatsoever either through setlists or accounts of the show. If you were there – or know someone who was – and can corroborate my memory, please let me know. The song I believe The Hip played was "Saskatchewan", but I could easily be messing up that memory. In any event, that concert in December of 1996 was the very last time I was able to see The Tragically Hip in person. In fact, probably the next time I saw them perform a full show in any way was the very final one in Kingston on August 20th, 2016. This was broadcast coast-to-coast on the CBC and was very likely the first time since Paul Henderson's goal in 1972 that our entire country was "closed for business" and watching the same TV show at the same time.

"Wicapi Omani" – Lakota for
"man who walks among the stars"
But he leaves behind an even greater legacy than simply his music and poetry catalogue – vast though that may be. (As an aside: I own a copy of just over half of all of their albums and yet it still represents the biggest single collection I have of any one artist or singer.) Gord Downie has for many years fought to bring grave Canadian (especially) injustices to light and once he found out his remaining time on this earth was short, he worked feverishly to bring the plight of the indigenous peoples of Canada firmly into view. He and his brother, Mike, set up The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous people of Canada. Chanie Wenjack was a young boy who died trying to escape one of my nation's infamous and shameful residential schools, a story at the centre of his Secret Path project. On that website's home page, Gord included this:

“This is not an aboriginal problem. This is a Canadian problem. Because at the same time that aboriginal people were being demeaned in the schools and their culture and language were being taken away from them and they were being told that they were inferior, they were pagans, that they were heathens and savages and that they were unworthy of being respected — that very same message was being given to the non-aboriginal children in the public schools as well…They need to know that history includes them.” (Murray Sinclair, Ottawa Citizen, May 24, 2015)

He was at the front of a great many environmental and cultural issues in Canada, and I will forever be in awe of his passion, his integrity, his commitment to fixing so very many wrongs perpetrated over the past 150 years (and more) in the name of "Canada". I'd say we've lost an enormous influence and true champion, but I really hope his legacy far, far outlives him. 

Some excellent further reading would be this terrific little piece by the Toronto Star about the history of The Hip. In that piece they talk about that time Dan Aykroyd, also Kingston-bred, brought the band onto Saturday Night Live. Here is that night:

Here is an interview he did with Peter Mansbridge, long the face of the CBC National News, almost exactly a year ago which, for some reason, I cannot seem to embed on this page.

On January 1st of this year, the "Strombo Show" on CBC Radio devoted the entire four hours to Canadian bands covering The Hip, and it was supremely wonderful. You can listen here.

If you've any lingering doubts as to the impact of this man on our nation, I think this clip of our Prime Minister reacting to news of his death should lay all of them to rest:

And finally, here they are performing "Wheat Kings" in a concert at Abbotsford, BC in 2009. (If you want to hear the studio version, there are myriad places for you to find it online.)

Goodbye, Gord, for now you are truly "Wicapi Omani – man who walks among the stars."

"Done and done, night accomplished; If I had a wish, I'd wish for more of this."

- "Now for Plan A" from Done and Done

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