Talking tough: Canadian authors pick their favourite Tragically Hip lyrics

Claire Cameron, Tanis Rideout, Tracey Lindberg and Josh O'Kane explain their picks.
Gordon Downie of the Tragically Hip performs during the Live 8 concert on July 2, 2005 in Barrie, Canada. (Donald Weber/Getty Images)

In both his lyrical and poetic output, Tragically Hip singer Gord Downie has oft dipped into Canada's deep literary well for inspiration and articulation. As the group wraps up its sold-out Man Machine Poem tour, we asked Canadian authors to return the favour by citing their favourite Hip lyrics, and why they resonate as literature.

Claire Cameron (The Bear)

Claire Cameron (David Kerr)

Violins and tambourines,

This is what we think they mean.

It's hard to say, it's sad but true,

I'm kinda dumb and so are you.

-The Tragically Hip, "The Last of the Unplucked Gems"

"Have you ever re-read a book and found it to be a completely different from what you remembered? Take Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I was fascinated as a teenager, found it horrifying as a young adult, and felt fury while reading it as a parent. That is one mark of a great novel: it grows with a reader over time.

"'The Last of the Unplucked Gems' has the same quality. Since I first heard the song in 1991, these lyrics have helped me through grief, comforted me through heartbreak and more recently reminded me that life is an absurd endeavor. If I live to 70, I know I'll hear something completely new."

Tanis Rideout (Above All Things)

Tanis Rideout (Handout)

Under the pillow,

I bury my head and try and shut Chicago out.

As it turns out there's a whole other world of sounds

of perfect fifths,

Low skids and arctic howls.

-The Tragically Hip, "The Depression Suite"

"Like all good poets Gord has a fantastic ability to conjure narrative, character, image with the perfectly chosen word, the unusual turn of phrase. There are so many places and people that are alive in his lyrics it makes it all but impossible to pick a favourite one, a perfect one. The way he conjures the lake, the cottage, my hometown, walking to work with a hangover? But I've loved 'The Depression Suite' since it came out. There's such scope to the song; how it starts in the claustrophobia of hiding in a hotel room and ends up on the wind-scoured sweep of the barrens. And just like the ideal first page of a novel — it's all there — right in the first verse."

Tanis Rideout is the official poet laureate for Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, where Gord Downie is a board member. The two have toured together.

Tracey Lindberg (Birdie)

Fingers and toes, 

Fingers and toes. 

Forty things we share. 

Forty-one if you include. 

The fact that we don't care.

-The Tragically Hip, "Boots or Hearts"

"This line from 'Boots or Hearts' comes to me at the most absurd/appropriate (or absurdly appropriate) times. For me, it looks to the absurdity and randomness of life as it sits next to absolutes: attraction, strength, weakness. It is the soundtrack of elemental eloquence, which draws my attention to the luck, chance, fortune and misfortune beside me."

Josh O'Kane (Nowhere With You)

That night in Toronto.

-The Tragically Hip, "Bobcaygeon"

"As a Maritimer, I grew up thinking the Tragically Hip's view of Canada as confined, just like most Canadian pop-culture portrayals: it mostly consisted of Ontario unless otherwise convenient. This thought first arose as criticism. While the facts haven't changed much, I now see Gord Downie's words as a rightful celebration of regionalism. And in those words, he articulates whole worlds.

"I realized this through 'Bobcaygeon.' I probably first heard the song on a fuzzy Miramichi radio as a teenager. Four words struck me, and still do every single time: 'That night in Toronto.' There's something in the way Gord's voice lifts as he hits 'Toronto.' If you forget everything that comes before or after those four words, that line, that intonation, is filled with endless possibility — much like the city itself. It's Toronto as aspiration. Forget New York or Paris or L.A.

"Back then, I'd never been to Toronto — never left the Maritimes — and marvelled at the endless potential of one night in a real city within my Canadian grasp. My Upper-Canada cynicism dissolved. I live here now, and probably have a better sense of the song. I've spent dozens of nights on the checkerboard floor of the Horseshoe Tavern. But I still marvel at what the city's nights can hold."


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