Music·Point of View

As an immigrant, I wanted to understand Canada's fascination with the Tragically Hip. This is what I found

How the Hip gave writer Lindsay Pereira the key to understanding not just a culture, but a people.

How the Hip gave writer Lindsay Pereira the key to understanding not just a culture, but a people

'How could a band that had performed for more than three decades, with more than 13 studio albums and 50 singles to its credit, not be world famous?' writer Lindsay Pereira, who grew up in India unaware of who the Tragically Hip were, asks. (Andrew Chin; graphic by CBC)

Written by Lindsay Pereira.

Images of a weeping prime minister are what alerted me to the existence of the Tragically Hip, undoubtedly my most absurd introduction to a rock band. 

I see now that it was also fitting for a group fronted by someone as unusual as Gordon Edgar Downie. He died exactly one month and 17 days after I set foot in Canada, so most early impressions of my newly adopted country were crowded with people on the subway wearing T-shirts proclaiming "In Gord we Trust." I couldn't wrap my head around it.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wept on television as he delivered his tribute on Oct. 18, 2017, the day after Downie died, and one of the things he said prompted me to take a closer look at these musicians: "Gord loved every hidden corner," said Trudeau, "every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life."

All around me that week, local venues dimmed their lights and audiences at hockey games stood in dedicated silence. It was the sort of respect traditionally reserved for heads of state, so I began spending as much time reading about the Hip as I did on job hunting. Who were these people, I wondered, and why had they left an entire country so bereft?

I had arrived in Toronto from Mumbai to spend more time with family members who lived here. What I had listened to while growing up reflected only what music companies thought we would all like to hear. There was Michael Jackson, of course, and Madonna, as well as bands like Guns 'N' Roses and Scorpions. Bryan Adams was a rare example from Canada, but one so successful that he would eventually add India as a stop on every one of his world tours. Anyone and anything that was commercially successful in America or Britain would inadvertently find its way to our shores, which meant that musicians doing anything out of the ordinary didn't stand a chance until the internet arrived to save us. 

Every rock band I knew — from Aerosmith to Nirvana — had been created by young people trying to connect with their peers. Few had anything new to say after their third or fourth album, let alone their 10th. What the Hip had done, almost effortlessly, was tap into the collective consciousness of a generation and take them along on a journey as enriching when it ended as when it began. I could list the number of bands with that kind of influence on one hand: maybe the Grateful Dead, the Fall or Phish. If the Hip wasn't as famous in Asia, was it simply because they didn't tour that part of the world as often as their peers did? Was it because Gord knew he already had a huge audience for everything he had to say?

The first surprise, once I started diving in, was how prolific the Hip had been. How could a band that had performed for more than three decades, with more than 13 studio albums and 50 singles to its credit, not be world famous? How could I have heard of lesser groups that imploded soon after their debuts and not know about the Hip? The more time I spent looking for an answer, the easier it became to see why these unassuming rock stars from Ontario had turned their back on celebrity.

Over the months that followed, as I adjusted to a new life, two specific songs gave me glimpses of what made Downie so special. The first was "Ahead by a Century" from 1996's Trouble at the Henhouse, which I was first drawn to by a cover version performed by Tori Amos while she was on tour in Canada. By the time I heard the original and watched the quietly absorbing music video, I knew this was something I wouldn't forget in a hurry. It was the deceptive simplicity of the writing that moved me, an image of two young people sitting in a tree and celebrating the moment they were in. "No dress rehearsal, this is our life."

The second song that gripped me was "It's a Good Life if you Don't Weaken," off the Hip's eighth album, In Violet Light. I was familiar with the book that had inspired it, a gorgeous graphic novel by Canadian cartoonist Seth, but what Downie had created felt like a peculiar list of directives for a way of living worth aspiring to. 

"Find somewhere to go," he sang. "Let's get friendship right," and "Let's swear that we will get with the times." It was hypnotic, with phrases like "improvisational skills" and "countervailing woes" thrown in. I had no idea a rock song could do that. This was careful writing, the words cherry-picked by someone attempting to pin down the intangible, the way only hardworking poets managed to do.

Strewn across the band's discography were also references to things that were quintessentially Canadian. "I think it was Algonquin Park, it was so cold and winter dark," Downie sang on "The Bear," from 2000's Music @ Work. On "A Beautiful Thing" from In Violet Light, there was, "So randomly somebody calls, the phone rings and it brings Niagara Falls." "Fifty Mission Cap" from Fully Completely spoke about the disappearance of hockey icon Bill Barilko. Everywhere else were local names and places, from Millhaven Maximum Security in Bath, Ont., to the city of Sault Ste. Marie; Ontario's Regent Theatre to Quebec's Lake Memphremagog; Mistaken Point Ecological Reserve in Newfoundland to the 100th meridian west through Manitoba and Nunavut.

After months spent listening to this music, I watched Long Time Running, the 2017 documentary chronicling the Man Machine Poem tour. It was legendary, culminating in the band's final performance on Aug. 20, 2016, in Kingston. Nothing prepared me for the naked outpouring of emotion, with fans singing along at every venue, stopping only to wipe their eyes. It showed me what it must have been like to witness the Hip in the flesh, to watch these unassuming men play the music they had created over 30 years, growing up and old alongside the people who gathered to watch them.

The Tragically Hip: New Orleans Is Sinking

7 years ago
Duration 4:48
Man Machine Poem tour, Kingston, Ont., Aug. 20, 2016

What the Hip gave me, eventually, was a key to understanding not just a culture but a people. The band's songs reflected the hopes and aspirations of city dwellers as well as small towners, recognising a commonality in this shared experience that I began to appreciate as an outsider. The people wearing "In Gord we Trust" T-shirts weren't just fans; they were identifying themselves as members of a club that had used this music as a soundtrack to their lives. 

The songs were like sonic milestones, marking loves, losses and a thousand tiny, incendiary moments. The Hip sang about what it knew, which made its music deeply, intensely personal. Everything the band played celebrated the notion of something eternal tucked away within the perfectly ordinary, which is probably why the Hip's music resonates with as many people as it continues to. It's why Justin Trudeau wept.

The nicest thing about the Hip, for me, is how I slowly began to treat the band's music less as an artifact and more like a living companion. To be able to hum along made me happy, and feel a part of something bigger. That may be what fandom has always been about, of course, but I had never felt that need more than when I found myself in a country and culture radically different from what I had once called home.

It has been three years since I encountered Downie, Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois, and Gord Sinclair, and I now find myself turning to these songs with the kind of regularity one reserves for comfort food. Snatches of their music now come to mind when I find myself outside Toronto, on long, empty streets bookended by farmland, where it seems as if the big cities have ceased to exist. There is a strange and intoxicating beauty in those moments, as I think of quiet lives being lived behind the townhouses and detached homes that fly past. This is the elusive essence of what Downie spent his life trying to turn into a song; now and again, it feels as if I almost get it.

A week ago, I saw a profile on a dating app with the request, "Will go out with anyone who can converse in Hip lyrics." 

Yes, I thought to myself. I can see why that makes sense.