Entertainment·Analysis

Gord Downie's mix of ambiguity and Canadiana speaks to the country

What is it about the Tragically Hip and their frontman Gord Downie that has given them such a vaunted space in the Canadian consciousness? CBC's John Mazerolle argues it's a mixture of Canadian lore, intense live performances and a little ambiguity.

Why the Tragically Hip are so popular: history, intensity, ambiguity

Gord Downie has sung about Canada's iconic people and places and in the process become iconic himself.

What is it about the Tragically Hip and their frontman Gord Downie that has given them such a vaunted space in the Canadian consciousness?

News of Downie's terminal brain cancer diagnosis shocked and saddened people throughout the country — and had people lamenting for Canada itself. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Downie had been writing Canada's soundtrack for the last 30 years. Actor Jonathan Torrens tweeted, "Gord IS Canada."

Part of the enduring appeal of the Tragically Hip is their Canadiana: Downie sang about Canada's iconic people and places and in the process became iconic himself.

But it's not just that he writes about Canada. It's how Downie writes about it, and how the band performs it. Their popularity is due in large part to history, intensity and ambiguity.

History

My first exposure to the Tragically Hip came At the Hundredth Meridian, where the Great Plains begin.

That song from 1992's Fully Completely came crackling over the blue earbuds of a friend's Walkman as I sat in my school hallway in Grade 11.

It was a whole new world for me. I soon owned all of the Hip's catalogue to that point, and for the first time was listening to modern popular music instead of Billy Joel's The Stranger album. (What?)

Many of my classmates listened to the band because "they rock," while I and my friend Neil (of the blue Walkman) were fascinated by lyrics referring to places like "the Paris of the Prairies." In the days before Wikipedia, I wondered who this Hugh MacLennan was that Gord had dedicated Courage to.

In the book Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995, authors Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider write that in the early '90s "the Tragically Hip's music has tapped into a well of youthful Canadian energy. It has become an entity that embodies the long-held virtues of rock and roll, but more importantly, the indelible qualities that each person in attendance feels identifies them as Canadian."

The authors note that the songs were neither political statements nor confessional ballads.

"The Canadiana references therefore became guideposts into a song's depths, and the resulting marriage of language and music produced an invigorating experience that had never been so directly aimed at young Canadians before."

Intensity

The Tragically Hip were chart-toppers then and have 13 full-length studio albums to their credit now, but they were performing on stage for six years before their first LP. Sales of their first release, a seven-track eponymous album, were dwarfed by the number of tickets they were selling at venues.

The band is a different beast live, with Downie often delivering wide-eyed, improvised rants.

The song Poets, a relatively straight-ahead single from their 1998 album Phantom Power, has over the years grown an extended intro, a long coda with Downie screaming about a shark attack, and a Monty Python reference ("Bring out your dead!").

"I surrender," he told his friend, novelist Joseph Boyden, about how he performs in a 2009 interview published in Maclean's magazine. "I throw myself on the altar of song and I see my own personal musical life in fast flashes of faces and names and colours and sounds and I get lost in the euphoria of standing up there like Howlin' Wolf or Otis Redding or David Bowie with a mike in my hand and an audience that's ready."

Mystery and ambiguity

When the Tragically Hip were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2005, Downie replaced the typical acceptance speech with a poem.

You can't hate huge, hate sprawling, hate the wild.- Gord Downie

The five-minute verse started by berating those who say, "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans," a criticism (and Sloan lyric) that detractors of the Hip throw their way, imagining Canuck dude-bros who drink Molson Canadian, urinate in concert fields and wave a flag in your face.

"You can't hate huge, hate sprawling, hate the wild," Downie's poem scolded.

The message was "There is no one Tragically Hip fan," a fact easy enough to see in a present-day Toronto show, where it's a mix of young and old, men and women, ballcap wearers and downtown condo dwellers (sometimes those last two overlap).

The band offers up enough contradictions to give many different people something to latch onto: an alternative band on mainstream radio; a shy lyricist who dances on stage like no one is watching; Canadian lyrics that are never nationalistic.

A recent Canadian Press write-up about the band referred in passing to their "cerebral smashes," which is a combo you don't often hear.

And Downie's lyrics are often ink blots, leaving the listener to decide how they relate. 

Asked by author Bob Mersereau in the book Top 100 Canadian Singles about how many of his lyrics seem to be about stolen moments, Downie replied, in part, "And the memories of the stolen moments can seem stolen themselves, but, yeah, not the moon but the moon glinting off the gas pump at a truck stop in North Carolina. Not homesick but a thick-rimmed coffee mug and saucer.

"Not the tree, the tree fort. Not the betrayal, the apology. Not by a mile, but by a century."

About the Author

John Mazerolle is a frequent contributor to CBC. He's obsessed with travel, A Song of Ice and Fire and the Tragically Hip. He lives in Charlottetown.

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