WEAKENING INTO STRENGTH
i wonder how many people are tuning in this week, having never heard of the Tragically Hip until news of Gord Downie’s untimely death made headlines, as celebrity deaths now seem to do. If you are Canadian it’s probably near 100% likely you know of the man, and definitely know the Tragically Hip. Social media has obliterated borders and now suddenly Americans are hearing the Hip, probably wondering how in the hell they had never heard of a band that was so solid, so tight, so good, they’re listening to song after song, the hits of our schooldaze, video after video, and oddly getting a glimpse into the psyche of the working person’s Canada. This band was always speaking to the people, but somehow their appeal never went below the south of the 49th, and from the way Gord Downie remained faithful to the Canadian way, you can tell he didn’t give a fuck. Fame never seemed like their angle, or destiny. But they are legend up here.
Strolling through a random swath of the hip’s 30 year career, and picking out the videos, one gets a giimpse into vignettes of a Canada both beautiful, and starkly real. The landscapes of the massive nation, wheatfields, and giant lakes, mountain vistas and trailer parks, Hip songs and their videos tell Canadian tales, from race riots on the ontario streets, to Winnepeg wheatfields to the park made famous by canada’s infamous trailer park boys.
While being a definitive Canadian band, they never went to the point of patriotism. In an interview with Canoe:
A. We’ve never consciously tried to elicit a patriotic response from our fans, nor have we tried to embody that in our lyrics. Speaking for GD, I can tell you that we’ve never tried to edit ourselves in any way. You write about what you know, stories that move you in some way, or about themes you want to explore. Over the years, we have written some songs that refer to Canadian events specifically, and others that reflect our response as Canadians to other themes and issues, because of who we are and how we’ve been raised. That’s where it begins and ends for us. We’d never write a song because it was Canadian, nor would we avoid it.
I take this to mean that they are Canadian band in as much as that this is where they come from, and they are true to that. It’s not to glorify the country, or embrace some sort of pride or nationalism for it. It’s the real voice of people who were born and raised north of the 49th, and the unique beauty and challenge that living here represents.
The music is not to be underestimated. The band has been, from their earliest days, tight as you could ever expect a band to be. Polished and practiced, but casual and unassuming. The guitar is genius, rock riffs and solos for days, all catchy lines that stick in the mind, and if you go back even to “Up to here” that quality was a defining factor in their sound. It wasn’t exactly rough, but it was gritty and real, dirty but definitely not sloppy. The rhythm section was a goddam metronome level precise. It was the perfect vehicle for Gord’s voice.
Gord was definitely a lovable weirdo. His stage manner was legendary, for the banter as well as his unique dancing which seemed like a cross between religious rapture and seizures, but also his heartfelt delivery, the pulling into the soul for the outward expression of something that always felt truthful. Never cheesy, sometimes so intelligently worded it required a trip to the thesaurus. He was endearing in his honesty, fascinating in his strangeness, admirable in his courageousness. A voice powerful, melodic, accomplished but never glamorous or over reaching. He didn’t have to impress anyone, the voice was the carrier of a message, and he didn’t draw too much attention to himself, other than to be be the messenger. Didn’t matter, our eyes were immediately drawn to him.
His band was deeply faithful to him, let him be the face and front man, but they were the foundation of the sound and maintained that foundation for their entire duration. It would be hard to imagine the Hip without Gordon Downie. He was so much the inspiration, and in some ways it was all about him, but truly the band deserves a huge amount of credit for being so good. They were friends from highschool. I feel for their loss.
Gord Downie was active outside of the band, and towards the end of his life he embarked on a campaign which aimed to shed light on Canada’s dark history of oppression and genocide with its first nations community. While being friends with prime minister Justin Trudeau, he was also willing to call him out on this dirty Canadian Secret, during the last encores of their final tour, where certainly every single moment he was imprinting like tatoos on his soul, knowing that it would be his last tour, and even some of his last days on earth. He used this precious time, again, to speak up for the marginalized and disenfranchised, and went straight to the top to do it. Gord was the kinda guy who could call the prime minister and get him on the line. Canada’s knight of the night.
I find myself more moved by him as the days pass, can’t stop listening to some of these tracks, though one track has always been my favourite, and which seems like such a perfect sentiment in the wake of his passing. He left so many precious jewels of poetry and wisdom in the folds of the tragically hip hits. There’s an essays worth of analysis in every track, but “It’s a great Life, until you weaken” is the one that ended up speaking most deeply to me, like a plea from a man facing the reality of mortality and letting us all know what’s ahead. “Grow somewhere you are needed.”
Canada has lost a true Canadian. Beyond the political implications of calling him such, he represented the best of Canada because it was the truth. He spoke for the Canadians who truly make up our population, the pride we can have as well as the shame we must face. At the end of the day, Gord can make us feel proud of being a Canadian with the tarnishes and all. So any of the folk out there who’ve never had a listen, sit down for a bit and get a taste of Canada eh. Have a beer, put on a toque, imagine the mountains, prairie or rugged coastlines and imagine being in a house, any house, just down the street. come in and get warm. You are welcome.
Bless you gord.
A hip playlist.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJZhc3HAwpc darkest one. classic trailer park boys mayhem. One of the most Canadian video ever eh.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=85k4RxqRyv8 it’s a good life. The hip play a private party at an old wealth family mansion. No-one seems excited but they deliver the message of a lifetime.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e8Fi46BFAF0 nautical disaster. A haunting dream about an old lover.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QE2joQsWXJg ahead by century. The Hip’s latter day anthem.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaYDnTb_fC8 the last recluse (not official) Gord getting older and feeling the weight of change.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OB965aUPsmM Wheat kings (not official). One of the Hip’s prettiest and darkest. A prairie murder ballad.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjQSbJXNmgo Trickle Down (not official) EI and welfare drinking song. A political jab.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FhpezwGtDEg Courage. Maybe one of the bands most poignant.