By: Dan Grant
Let’s begin the way that every Hip show begins.
He said ‘I’m fabulously rich, come on just let’s go’. She kind of bit her lip ‘Jeez, I don’t know’ – Grace, Too (1994)
On May 24th, Canadian music fans were floored.
It seemed like a bad joke. If I had a nickel for every time some Internet hoax told me that Leonard Cohen or Gordon Lightfoot had died, I’d jingle when I walked. But as the day rolled on, and more and more outlets ran the story, it started to sink in — the news was real. It initially left us with more questions than answers. There were fervent whispers: ‘What does this mean?’ ‘Are the Hip finished?’ ‘Is there any chance for a recovery?’ And somewhat selfishly, ‘will we get a chance to say goodbye?’
2016 has been a tough year for music fans. Every time we turn around, it seems like the stability of the life-affirming framework music fans immerse ourselves in has been assaulted. We’ve lost titans in David Bowie and Prince. We lost Glenn Frey. We lost legendary keyboardist Bernie Worrell, famous for working with the Talking Heads and a founding member of Parliament Funkadelic. AC/DC is in ruins. I’m sure there are more I’m forgetting.
And now this.
Tonight, the Tragically Hip begin their final tour. We think. We can all hold out hope against hope that Downie will recover, but the odds seem slight. It’s an odd concept, announcing your impending death before it becomes imminent. I can’t remember it ever happening in popular music before. Sometimes we hear an artist is ‘having health problems’, but never has somebody stood up and said ‘Hey, I’m going die soon, but I’m playing a few shows first’. It means that the 15 date tour will serve as an extended pseudo-wake, not just for Downie, but for the band and everything it means. It’s like Kobe’s retirement tour, but with a way more maudlin ending.
I don’t meant to make light of the idea. I actually think it’s wonderful given the circumstances, if a tad morbid. It gives Gord a final chance to do what he so clearly loves, which is more of an opportunity than many with a terminal diagnosis get. It also gives fans a chance to realize the gravity of the situation — a chance to truly appreciate the moment. I thought that on the eve of this tour, it might be cathartic to express just what the Hip have meant to us, and why this is such a big deal to Canadian music fans.
I enlisted some help.
What is your most distinct Tragically Hip memory?
If I die of vanity, 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.
– At the Hundredth Meridian (1992)
For me, there are almost too many to choose. I remember listening to Fully Completely in the car with my dad and brother when I was 8 or 9. I remember looking at the odd album art, singing at the top of my lungs to ‘Courage’ and ‘At the Hundredth Meridian’. I remember loving that there was lyrics about hockey in ’50 Mission Cap’. I can remember hearing their songs at every cottage, every campfire, every party and every bar for basically my entire life. They’ve been omnipresent.
My favourite memory though, is one of wistful regret. I went through a ‘Hip-hating’ phase in my mid-teens — my mother was never a huge fan, and I think I felt some kind of solidarity with her by resisting the urge to immerse myself like most of my friends, and especially my dad. I didn’t understand ‘Bobcaygeon’ when I was an angry 15 year old, so I made fun of it relentlessly. This led to my dad (who thought this phase was hilarious, probably because he knew how short lived it would be) offering to take me to a Hip show one summer, fully knowing I’d say no. He then called me from the concert, you guessed it, right in the middle of Bobcaygeon. He was singing along, and laughing at my angst-ridden protestations. I remember him and the group of people he went to the concert with coming home afterwards, and just raving about how good the show had been. I remember looking at them, and how much fun they’d had, and thinking ‘This is stupid. Why didn’t I go?’ My Hip-hating phase ended that night.
The Hip were an always on the radio in Southern Ontario in the 90’s. Even if you had a fleeting interest in modern rock music, you knew the Hip, and you had a kinship with their sound. I remember my ten-year-old self hearing the Hip on the radio and promptly spending my allowance on the Phantom Power CD. I thought the opening guitar riff in Poets was just about the coolest thing ever, and I listened to it incessantly. As I got older, my tastes drifted away from the Hip, but I always kept up with their singles, and respected how they were subtly developing their sound with every release. Every so often I’d hear “Poets” on the radio again and think about that guitar riff, how effortlessly Gord enunciated all of those strange lyrics, and how damn cool of a band they were. Years later I heard “Bobcaygeon” on the radio while on an evening drive home from Peterborough to Toronto. It actually came on as we hit Bobcaygeon. It was nothing more than a cool coincidence, but the memory of hearing that song against the dark, unknown, yet serene rural Ontario scenery stuck with me.
– Dennis R.
It’s a common refrain for the Canadian music fan. The Hip are ingrained. It almost seems inevitable, given their prevalence on Canadian radio and in the Canadian ethos. They’re as much a part of this country as the rocks and the trees. They’ve woven themselves into the fibre of the Canadian experience, and particularly, into the fabric of the Canadian summer. No matter how far we stray to anything and everything else, when the weather is warm, we drift back to the Hip.
My friend has been living up in Northern Canada for the past 10 years, and always makes it home when the Hip are touring in Ontario. The last time I saw her, we shared poutine and beer while she cried telling me the story of how much she loved the last concert with her brother. That kind of pure joy and love of music and family always reinvigorates my iTunes playlist with many Hip classics.
– Anne E.
Now, some of you may be thinking: ‘ I never had a Hip phase’. And that’s fine. Despite their overwhelming popularity, there are elements about the band that just don’t appeal to some. It’s like cilantro — most of us realize it’s just about the best thing in the world, but like 10% of people can’t eat it without tasting soap. But even if that’s true, just think to yourself about how many different Hip songs you can name off-hand, or sing a snippet of. Then realize, that’s not normal, especially for a band you don’t even like.
Gord and the boys have been an acquired taste to many. But usually with an acquired taste, you have a defining moment that turns things around for you.
Seeing the video premiere for “My Music at Work” on MuchMusic was my defining Hip moment. At the time I was a 12 year old boy who boorishly hailed “Bobcaygeon” as a sappy piece of crap. I needed to be saved. I needed to be told that I was failing as a Canadian. I needed to see Gord Downie slow dance with a copy machine. It was probably my first true humbling experience, realizing I had completely misjudged this band. It’s not my favourite song of theirs, but I liked it enough to want to go back and really give these guys a fair listen. The Tragically Hip introduced me to the notion of acquired taste, and I’ve been a devoted fan of theirs ever since.
– Danny S.
My favourite memory is seeing them live! I got surprised by a friend one New Years Eve, with tickets to their show in Hamilton. I wasn’t a lover of their music at the time, and this friend had always pushed me to listen to more of their stuff. Seeing Gord Downie doing his thing on stage sold it.
– Marie T.
For others, you might have had a realization that whether you liked them or not, the Hip were pretty damn compelling, or at the very least, interesting. To have a national symbol that was so comfortable in its own skin was in and of itself, a cool statement about Canada.
I don’t know how to answer this question with a direct story, so instead I’ll say that my favourite Tragically Hip memory is, and will continue to be, growing up at a time where a band as strange as the Hip were considered a commercially viable act in Canada. They were played across radio formats on rock stations without scruples, as though programmers didn’t care if they were new or old. Gord’s poetry is like Al Purdy over a more tasteful version of Pearl Jam – equal parts personal freedom and complex nationalism, just artistic enough to be strange on the radio, but drunk enough to be fun. The latter could be the reason I don’t have a direct story for this answer.
– Patrick G.
For some, it’s been a love affair since the word go. I think most music fans have a band like that — one that you’ve loved since before you can remember, with unbridled and unwavering passion. Their music comes to mean more to you not just because of the songs themselves, but because of the memories they trigger. They become touchstones for our lives in so many ways. For many Canadians, the Hip are that touchstone.
I have so many memories of the Tragically Hip. Getting Road Apples, my first CD ever at age 10 in 1991, rocking out to Little Bones, Twist My Arm, Cordelia, Long Time Running, then hearing song 11 and playing Fiddlers Green on repeat for hours on end. Seeing them live at age 16 for the first time and the 21 times that followed. Outdoor concerts on Canada Day. Woodstock 99 with 400,000 people in a sea of Canadian flags. Taking my wife to her first Hip concert. Long weekends on a deck, BBQing on a hot day with a cold beer and every Hip album on shuffle. For me it’s not one memory, it’s a moment or a feeling, it’s when you first see the band walk out onto the stage, when Johnny sits down at the drums, Gord grabs his bass and Rob and Paul their guitars, the first note to the first song starts, the crowd is going nuts, the tingle from head to toe you get when Downie steps up the mic and belts out…“He said I’m Tragically Hip”…that moment, that feeling, The Tragically Hip.
– Dave R.
And I think that’s what it comes down to more than anything. Love them, hate them, or wherever you fall between, the end of the Hip is crushing for Canadians not because of what they’ve done, but because of what they represent. We’re a culture that borrows so much from our ancestors; a culture of immigrants. We’re a melting pot, still so young as a nation. We have so little that’s our very own.
Quick, if somebody asked you what the quintessential ‘Canadian food’ is, what would you say? How about the best Canadian movie ever made?
Struggle to think of a satisfying answer? Me too.
Now how about Canadian music? Not musicians born in Canada (settle down, Beliebers) but music synonymous with the country. That one’s easier, isn’t it? For most Canadians born in the past 30 or 40 years the instinctual answer would be ‘The Tragically Hip’.
That’s because they’re ours. Love them, hate them or anything in between — they’re our family.
When I was born in 1992, the year “Fully Completely” came out, Toronto was already The Hip’s town. My three older brothers saw to it that I heard the album as an infant, introducing the albums to follow as I developed a taste for music, and all the other things that rock and roll wakes a young kid up to. Maybe that’s why Field Trip 2014 was my favourite Hip moment. When Gord Downie came out on stage in his denim jacket and cowboy hat to join Broken Social Scene on a beautiful summer night, I was reminded of being that younger sibling looking up to my big brother feeling as though they were the first to discover light and sliced bread. My entire life, The Hip’s music has been around in one-way or another. Watching Kevin Drew look at Gord with the some wonderment that I’m sure was written on my face made the whole thing feel like a family portrait of Canadian music.
– Andrew C.
What does the end of the Tragically Hip mean to you?
The past is no place to
Rest your weary arms ‘cept at sevens at yer sides
Your face a campaign debt, reflected sky
You die to your fans one window at at a time, that’s right
– No Threat (2005)
I think one of the hardest things for Hip fans to stomach is that the band didn’t feel done — or anything close to it. Yes, their later records struggled to capture the magic of their (remarkably long) 1989-2000 prime, in terms of quality, if not popularity. But the band never got properly old. Gord Downie is still only 52. I fully expected to see them play on Canada Day in perpetuity, to not die, but just eventually fade into the Canadian landscape from whence they came. How can you kill something so elemental? How is it possible that the goddamned Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan are still touring, but the Tragically Hip won’t be? It’s a tough thing to reconcile. The loss cannot be overstated.
Like first hearing the news of Gord’s diagnosis, this question made me tear up, it still hasn’t really sunk in yet and I am still partially in denial. I am still hoping and praying Gord will make a full recovery and there will be a comeback tour announced years down the road. What would the Hip’s end mean to me? It would mean a part of me would be gone too. The Hip’s music will obviously live on forever, but what is gone for me will be the excitement and anticipation of a new album, tour, book, collaboration, introducing new people I love to the genius that is Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. I had the opportunity to take my wife to see her first Hip concert at the Molson Amphitheatre last year for our anniversary, I think I was more excited watching her watching them then I was watching the band. I have pictured many times in my head taking my children to their first Hip concert in the future and this is something I think I will miss the most.
– Dave R.
The end of the Hip embodies the sadness, shock and fear of yet another group of musicians being relegated to our collections and memories. Living just 40 kilometres outside of Kingston, I have had a daily exposure to local radio struggling with coming to terms with a band’s end, a band who has so greatly helped form Kingston’s identity in my lifetime. Next to Sir John A. MacDonald, I do not think there is a single figure or entity that will rival the popularity and impact that the Hip has had in the Kingston area.
– Anne E.
What I’ll miss more than anything is their uniqueness. Here is this band from small-town Ontario, that started as a essentially a straight ahead blues-style rock band, but somehow sprinkled in masterful pop hooks, delightfully strange lyrics and an ever-evolving sound. We all recognize the Hip instantly because of Gord’s distinct singing voice, but if you compare the evolution of their music from 1988 to now, the changes are pretty wild, if rooted along a common thread. Pick any random Hip song. You might hear soaring electric guitars, or gentle harmonies, a soft acoustic or a sprinkling of piano. You might hear all four, interwoven with Gord’s strange and wonderful lyrics. The Hip were a lot of things, but they were never afraid to experiment. To tell stories.
They’re the greatest Canadian rock band ever, right? There was no Canadian band as strong for as long a period of time. Rush’s catalogue is too spotty, and The Band were probably more technically accomplished, but they flamed out too fast. We’ll never see another band like the Hip in Canada, and aside from Gord’s health, that’s what bums me out the most. The Hip were a great bar band, but they were also comfortable indulging their strange tendencies. Even if you were a Canadian music fan who didn’t dig the Hip, you respected them. They didn’t pander, and were comfortable with Canadian success. The Hip were and are a unifying cultural force and a national treasure. August 20th should be National Hip Day.
– Dennis R.
I think the most ‘Hip’ thing I can think of is what a badge of honour they are and will continue to be for Canadians worldwide. They’re like a secret handshake. Whether it’s here or abroad, if you run into a Canadian between 25 and 60, they’ve probably got some kind of relationship with the Tragically Hip.
The Hip offer a way to relate to virtually every other music lover from Canada – and only from Canada. As much as they deserve to be recognized abroad, it’s a special feeling knowing that we don’t have to share them with the rest of the world. They have the ability to make Canadians on opposite sides of the country feel connected to each other because regardless of what city or town they’re playing, every live show feels like a homecoming. Their music is so effortlessly and obviously Canadian. But at some point during the last three decades we started to take The Tragically Hip for granted, or at least I have. When the news broke about Gord’s illness I was forced to acknowledge that the torch being held by the band for all these years was not going to be passed along, but extinguished. As depressing as this is for fans, it’s a testament to what is to become their legacy. I think it’s safe to say that no other band has ever made us feel more proud to be Canadian, and no other band ever will.
– Danny S.
That’s one thing at least — their legacy is complete. This is a band that has such a deep catalogue, and has been so popular for so long in this country, that it’s almost impossible to explain the closeness of the relationship to outsiders. You could, however, start here:
For the uninitiated: Diamond means 10 million albums sold, Platinum is 1 million and Gold is 500,000.
This is a band, that just using my blind eye and questionable math skills, has sold nearly 50 million albums, based almost entirely on their popularity in Canada. There might be a parallel somewhere in modern music, but has there ever been a band so commercially successful, yet so limited in their international scope? That’s not meant as a criticism, but as a statement of genuine wonderment. I remember talking to a friend of my father’s, a guy who was born in London, Ontario (shout out to the Doctor) but spent much of his adult life living in the US. He’d spent significant time in Pittsburgh, Phoenix and Chicago. He said that Pittsburgh shows were sometimes busier, but mostly because you could drive from Canada. Chicago would be a smaller mid-level venue — think something like the Danforth Music Hall in Toronto. And Phoenix? Phoenix was even smaller. In fact, the last time the Hip played there, it was at an arena — as an opener for the Who. This was in 2007! This is a band that regularly sold out arenas across Canada, who’s final tour has tickets selling for hundreds and hundreds of dollars. They could double the amount of dates, and the tour would still sell out.
Given the unique and singular success of the Hip, it shouldn’t be surprising that the Canadian music community is taking the loss as hard as anyone:
Gord’s the kind of person I didn’t realize I was looking up to until I saw him getting off the escalator. I was on tour staying with another Canadian band when the news broke. The overarching feeling was that Dad was dying. 2016 has been a year of celebrity death, and I’ve never even met Gord, but there’s a loss that’s already lingering because it’s hard to measure. We’re not losing an icon, or an artist, or a band. We’re losing the embodiment of a certain kind of success – not true wealth strong and free – but a satisfying level met at home with artistic integrity in tact. North has been missing on the compass of the Canadian music industry for years, but if anyone could spin the needle in the right direction, it’s The Hip.
– Patrick G.
What Are Your Favourite Hip Songs?
We’re forced to bed
But we’re free to dream
All us humans extras
All us herded beings
– Gift Shop (1996)
The primary reason we love the Tragically Hip, aside from everything else, is the music. When asking for help with this article, I wanted to conduct (unbeknownst to the participants) a bit of an experiment. I asked 33 different people for their three favourite Hip songs, and recorded how many people chose each. Here are the results:
Ahead By A Century – 14
Wheat Kings – 11
Bobcaygeon – 10
Little Bones – 7
Music at Work – 7
Fireworks – 6
Poets – 6
New Orleans is Sinking – 5
38 Years Old – 4
Boots or Hearts – 4
Grace, Too – 4
Scared – 4
Courage – 3
Gift Shop – 2
Locked in the Trunk of a Car – 2
Blow at High Dough – 1
Cordelia – 1
Fiddlers Green – 1
Fully Completely – 1
Greasy Jungle – 1
Gus, the Polar Bear from Central Park – 1
It’s a Good Life (If You Don’t Weaken) – 1
Long Time Running – 1
Looking for a Place to Happen – 1
Nautical Disaster – 1
Note the incredible breadth of the selections. Within the 99 responses, 25 separate songs are listed, and I bet you can immediately see some notable absences that would surely be included if we surveyed a different group. It’s no surprise that Ahead By A Century leads the pack, as it’s one of only two Hip songs ever to hit number one in Canada, but the other (2007’s In View) isn’t represented on the list at all. Further, even though Ahead By A Century got the most votes, it was included on less than half of the responses.
This is the Hip in a nutshell — a common ground, coupled with an intense personal connection. Every person I surveyed had specific reasons for their choices, and often agonized over their final selections. Three, it seems, is too small a number for this exercise. Still, even if making the ultimate decision was tough, most felt passionate about their choices. Let’s hear why.
I always loved how the Hip were such a monstrous singles band. This song is basically perfect, from the deceptively heavy drums to the slacker backup vocals. Also, I still get chills every time that electric guitar comes in at the end. Holy moly.
– Dennis R.
This was the first Hip song I ever heard! I’m pretty sure we were sitting in my friend’s Jeep, just listening to the Hip, while she was explaining all the reasons she loved their music.
– Marie T.
I have no idea what this song about, and I still haven’t tried learning the lyrics. But when that long intro finally breaks into what is my all-time favourite Hip guitar riff, I’m floored. Every time.
– Danny S.
This song sounds gentle and romantic, but the lyrics are a conversation or transaction between two unnamed speakers where one pays the other to…explain the void? Make him feel meaningless? There are references to a German-Russian conflict and art theft and people being “tickled to death by their importance.” It makes me want to slow dance into nothingness.
– Patrick G.
If I answered this question on different days I’m sure my other 2 songs would change a time or tw0. The next song would definitely not. Fiddlers Green will always be my favourite Hip song of all time. Road Apples is the first Hip album I ever got and Fiddlers Green is the first Hip song I fell in love with, even at 10 years old I could recognize the brilliance of Gord Downie. Fiddlers Green is kind of my reflect on life song, I think about the past, the future, about family and friends. I think of my dad when I listen to it. I have heard that song thousands of times and like seeing the Hip live I get that same tingling feeling every time I hear it.
– Dave R.
Hometown dive bar memories. Regardless of where life has taken me over the years, I can always return to Deseronto and expect to hear Little Bones and have a beer with old friends.
– Anne E.
A very Canadian (unfortunately) story about wrongful conviction – the line “Where the walls are lined all yellow, grey and sinister / Hung with pictures of our parents’ prime ministers” always makes me feel time passing very acutely. The song is essentially a story about the justice system writing its own stories, which it still does every day. Probably one of the first “folk” songs I ever loved.
– Patrick G.
This sing along song has been in my life for many years. As a camp going girl, it’s a campfire classic.
– Marie T.
Gord Downie’s lyrics were my first big attraction to the band and this tune is one that you look up the words so that you can read them even if there’s no music playing.
– Andrew C.
Another great single coincidentally from the same album (and also a devastating album opener). I never saw the Hip live, but I imagine seeing this song would be the most fun. The loud/soft drama at the opening coupled with those infinitely sing-a-long-able lyrics. Also, again, backing vocals prove to be the Hip’s great secret weapon.
– Dennis R.
This is one of my own selections. It’s always catches me off guard, because the Road Apples album kicks off so aggressively (Little Bones, Twist My Arm, Cordelia) that when this beautiful soul song is dropped into your lap at Track 6, you don’t quite know what to do with it. It’s so stripped down and precise, a meandering lamentation of broken love, all tied together by the repeated affirmation ‘it’s well worth the wait’. I don’t know how to rightly explain it, which is part of what makes it so special. It makes me feel feelings.
Since I can’t really choose ALL dark ones, this is my favourite non-blues Hip jammer with cool lyrics about persevering through a relationship despite perceived differences. Of course, because it’s Gord, he uses the backdrop of the 72’ Summit Series and Cold War to explain COMPROMISE.
“Isn’t it amazing what you can accomplish
When you don’t let the nation get in your way?”
It is. Thanks boys.
– Patrick G.
I’m a sucker for this type of song – constant buildup, subtle backup vocals, no sing-along chorus, and a sweet track name to boot. When Gord starts bellowing “Let me out!” over the final guitar solo I never want the song to end.
– Danny S.
This was one of my picks as well. It’s such a burning fireball of a song, nestled among the greater hits on Fully Completely. The lyrics paint a vivid picture of what’s going on, and whatever it is (suggested by the title) isn’t good.
I decided to end with it, because of one specific lyric:
It’d be better for us if you don’t understand.
In the context of the song it conveys something sinister, but applied to the context of the Tragically Hip as a band, it takes on quite a different meaning. When The Hip play their final show next month in Kingston, it will cap the career of the most unique cultural phenomenon in the history of this country. Gord will get to say goodbye, and we’ll be there to reciprocate — the concert is being broadcast live on the CBC. Emotions will surely be running high, but he’ll likely do it with grace, too. For all our wonderment about the Hip’s lack of success outside Canada, it almost feels like it created a kind of greenhouse effect within the national consciousness. We laughed derisively at the Americans and Europeans who failed to recognize the genius of this powerhouse of a band. We feigned outrage when they weren’t embraced beyond our borders. But secretly, we liked it. We had something that they did not. As protective as we’d get, buying every new record and attending each subsequent tour, we were happy that the Hip were ours. Are ours. Forever will be ours.
It’s been better for us because they didn’t understand.