Reflections on Gord Downie
Gord Downie, poet, shaman, and lead singer of the Tragically Hip, announced last month on the band’s website that he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer last December. The Hip will be touring Canada this summer, beginning in Victoria and Vancouver and ending in Ottawa and Kingston, Gord’s hometown. I won’t be making the trip north, which means that my last Hip concert will have been April 27, 2007 at the House of Blues at Showboat Casino in Atlantic City. The House of Blues, and the Showboat Casino, closed in August 2014. Dead and stark,/it’s a museum and we’re all locked up in it after dark, in the words of the Hip.
Too much of the past 22 years of my life has involved Tragically Hip and/or Gord Downie lyrics, quotes, tableaux vivants, romans à clef. Eight Hip concerts, two solo Gord concerts across three states, five venues, twelve years, maybe twenty hours, over 100 bootlegs. Music, membership (being drawn along by it,/carried under, carried away), and memories. Below are a few more.
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The Tragically Hip comes from Maple Leafs country, Gord is a hardcore Boston Bruins fan, but I first heard about the band courtesy of a hockey writer from Brooklyn. A 1994 Stan Fischler column in The Hockey News ranked “Fifty Mission Cap” as the best hockey song ever written. I wasn’t a huge Fischler fan—he was a hopeless New York Rangers writer as far as I was concerned, I was a Vancouver Canucks fan living outside of Philadelphia, which meant I doubly hated the Rangers, since it was only a week or two after Game 7—but nonetheless, I was curious: who was Bill Barilko, Dead Maple Leaf Defenseman, and who were the Tragically Hip to have written a song about him? I found Fully Completely used on cassette for $3.99 at Plastic Fantastic Record Exchange in Ardmore. I listened to it often that summer, home from college. Within a few months I bought Road Apples, and then Up To Here.
* * *
The name “Tragically Hip” was taken from a sketch in ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith’s 1981 video Elephant Parts, which I watched with my obsessive Monkees (and Doors and Beatles and Beach Boys and Buffalo Sabres) fan, Television major, half-Canadian girlfriend from Rochester, New York the winter before. I would write about her, Joni Mitchell, Marshall McLuhan, Barenaked Ladies, Alan Thicke and others for a graduate evening class in Postmodernism I took during my senior year of college, in April 1995, in a paper titled “Canadians, Lovers, & Other Leitmotifs.”
We met in a TV lounge, on a Saturday night, between Mystery Science Theater 3000 and a TV movie that featured Alan Thicke pointing a gun at a robber and snarling, “Whaddya want, violins?” Both she and Alan Thicke were Canadian. Dating her increased my desire to watch television. Sometimes we watched together, but not very often, since I was living in Los Angeles at the time. Once, in my film class, we went around the room talking media studies, and I turned out to be the only person who preferred TV to film. I told this to her. She paused and then said, “I love you!” We laughed.
I only mentioned the Hip once in my paper, more as nominal metaphor (meaning, they were in fact hip) than as lover or leitmotif. We had only just met.
* * *
Thanks to guest host Dan Aykroyd, a Canadian who went unmentioned in my paper that semester, the Hip were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live in March 1995. It was a momentous occasion for a band from Kingston, Ontario (population 123,000) who lacked an American audience and a momentous occasion for me, since an old friend now attending a liberal arts school regularly ranked among the “Top Ten Countercultural Colleges” by High Times Magazine (“I don’t know anyone who’s been busted for smoking here”) was in town to offer me my first “experience” in the Jimi Hendrix sense that night. Stoned, we watched Gord blow through “Grace, Too” and then “Nautical Disaster” on the six-inch TV screen in my West Philadelphia dorm room as my mother taped it on VHS a half hour away (I was worried I would miss it).
As Mike Spry would write: The album version of [“Grace, Too”] begins, “He said I’m fabulously rich,” but on this night, on the biggest stage of their careers, introduced by fellow Kingstonian Dan Aykroyd, who was so adorned in Canadian gear as to parody patriotism, Downie sang, “He said I’m Tragically Hip,” as he tended to do in live performances, a nod to those of us in the know, to a country proud to see their favourite sons on America’s brightest marquee remaining true to who they were, true to what we believed them to be. It was as if Downie was telling us not to worry, that they were always going to come home to those who loved them like no other could.
Other explanations had Gord simply forgetting the words and substituting the band’s name because it rhymed. Leery of flag-waving nationalism—startled mid-concert by a bottle of tanning oil thrown by a fan at an outdoor festival the following summer, he would warn the crowd, “You mix this shit with patriotism, and it’ll make you crazy!”—Gord wasn’t being Canadian, he was only being human.
We were human too, and we were hungry. We ate a large bag of potato chips (Georgie Woods, The Snacks With the Goods, named in honor of local R&B broadcasting legend Georgie Woods, The Man With the Goods) and wandered off in the stairwells in search of a balcony with a view. We probably never found one.
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I first saw the Hip in concert at Theatre of the Living Arts on South Street that April, during the Day for Night tour, promoting an album I’d owned on cassette for a few months. Fellow Canadians the Rheostatics (known north of the border for, among other songs, “The Ballad of Wendel Clark Parts I and II,” which they played that night) opened. Someone in the crowd was wearing a CLARK #17 Leafs jersey; someone else wore a BARILKO #51 (for the year he died; as a player he wore #5) Leafs jersey. I mostly remember Gord. The TLA is a small, mostly standing-room venue—I would see the Hip four more times there over the next seven years, and Gord with the Country of Miracles there the year after—and I was only a few feet away most of the night, watching him writhe and shake and rant, shamanistic, stream-of-consciousness (“Enjoy the desert or it will enjoy you, that’s for sure…fuckin’ A;” “There’s somebody’s wallet in the street/,This ain’t no goddamn quest motif”), wearing a red Return of the Jedi tshirt and jeans, becoming momentarily startled by his shadow against the velvet curtain (“Who is that creature?!”), introducing “Locked In the Trunk of a Car” as “a Salman Rushdie tune.” He was 31. I was 22, and I was blown away.
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When I graduated college that May, I was ready for something else, but with more college the most immediate option, I had applied to two Master’s of Teaching programs. Both rejected me, and now I was contemplating some other program to be determined, related somehow to rock music and popular culture. I contacted my former English Department Chair, whose name was also English. I told him I wanted to be a rock critic. I asked him about Cultural Studies programs. He told me to write about rock music.
I wrote about rock music and my Canadian ex-girlfriend and hockey. I wrote poems and I joined a hockey pool. It was 1995. The internet didn’t exist yet. Email, for college students, was only two years old. Hockey fans could follow teams, both teams they were fans of and teams they weren’t, on listservs run by other hockey fans. Many, though not all, teams, had one. The Flyers had one, run by a Comcast software engineer named Pete. The Sharks had one, run by a web designer named Chuq in Silicon Valley. The Penguins had one, as did the Kings, as did the Leafs, as did the Vancouver Canucks. I joined all of them.
I had been a member of the Canucks listserv for a few months before Vancouver made their fateful and surprising Stanley Cup run in the spring of 1994. “I want to learn more obscure nicknames for Jyrki Lumme,” I had written in my subscribe request to be added to the listserv. “When he’s good, we call him the Flying Finn,” responded the list administrator at Simon Fraser University. “When he’s bad, we call him the Fucking Finn.”
As a member of the Canucks listserv, I was surrounded by future bloggers like Canucks Corner’s Tom Benjamin and Bleacher Report’s Carol Schram; I posted semi-regularly (under my own name, because anonymity was impossible with a college email account) as a Canuck fan in Philadelphia and was a columnist for a few issues of a Canucks email newsletter called Breakaway News. The Tragically Hip was my soundtrack, both literally—they were on in my dorm room, my boombox, my Walkman, when I borrowed my grandmother’s car with a tape deck—and figuratively, as the most often-quoted source in my email signatures.
Email signatures were more of a 1990s thing. Some were more complex than others, such as the Pittsburgh Penguins fan who created a 1980s Penguins logo, or the Kings fan who created a crown, out of ASCII characters. Most signatures were just words. Mine were mostly Hip lyrics. Some were more logical than others. Bring on the brand new renaissance/ ‘cause I think I’m ready,/I’ve been shakin’ all night long/ but my hands are steady works well enough for a 22 year old temp; Do you like to be judged or liked,/Do you like it inside a barrel plunging over the falls and Roses are worth more dried than alive not so much.
I wasn’t the only Hip fan with a Hip email signature; other than my college friends, almost everyone else I knew who had email was a member of a hockey listserv. Most were Canadian. Aaron in Toronto, a member of the Leafs list whose signature read Armed with will and determination,/and grace, too, was the first I remember, but there were others. If I remember correctly, someone even had Just then the stripper stopped in a coughing fit,/She said, “sorry I can’t go on with this.” Everyone was doing it, at least in Canada.
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— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) May 24, 2016
Yeah, I was a fan. I listened to them. It wasn’t as big for my age. It would have been my friend’s, like, parents that would have listened to it. If I went to a buddy’s places for parties, it would have been on, for sure.
—Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Patrick Crosby (“Sid the Kid”), born August 7, 1987
A generation so much dumber than its parents/came crashing through the window.
–The Tragically Hip, “At the Hundredth Meridian”
* * *
Trouble at the Henhouse, the Hip’s followup to Day for Night, disappointed me at the time. “Gift Shop,” “Don’t Wake Daddy,” “Flamenco,” and “Put It Off” were all decent songs and “Coconut Cream” (once introduced in concert by Gord as “this is a song about the world’s largest penis”) ended up on more than a few mix tapes but the album as a whole was too inconsistent, too affected, not as raw or as punk as their prior albums. AllMusic calls the album a set of professional, but rarely exciting, anthemic hard rock that occasionally dips into pedestrian bar-band boogie. The Hip are at their best when they have a bit of grit in their sound, and for too much of the album they polish all of their rough edges away. In retrospect Henhouse might be my favorite Hip album, though Day for Night and Fully Completely are probably better; “Sherpa” is among my top five Hip songs. (I may be the only Hip fan who thinks “Ahead By a Century” is overrated; it’s less likely that I’m the only Hip fan who prefers the X-rated version.)
* * *
The Hip returned to the TLA in May 1996. I was there with a woman I had decided to move in with during the Blizzard of 1996, which dumped a record 30.7 inches of snow on Philadelphia. We were trapped in her, now our, Spruce Street apartment for three days. I was unofficially living with her already. Now I had nowhere else to go.
The Hip, who were trapped in Canada, would write “Something On” (“Outside there’s hectic action/, The ice is covering the trees/, And one of ‘em’s interconnecting/with my Chevrolet Caprice”), released on their 1998 Phantom Power. As Gord explained, “We weren’t actually holed up in the house as the ice ravaged the county side. ‘We’ve gotta make this record, Ice Storm be damned.’ It put everything on hold in the entire North East for about five days and beyond. It crippled Quebec hydro power, anyway it was a huge storm, of huge magnitude. I was in Toronto, which never gets touched by weather of any sort, and these guys (the band) were in Kingston battling it out in their own individual ways as everyone was. Dealing with things from generator crime, to all manner of paranoia. Ya know, ‘Escape from New York’ material. We came and we had to do a song, ‘Something On.’ And ya know, I guess the feel of a guitar neck is pretty nice after five days of… that.”
I would write, in 2011, a poem called “1996.” We were buried in snow/poetically/one weekend, it began. I went home with you/one weekend/and never went back, it ended. It would quote the Hip, though a different song: & the Tragically Hip sang “words cannot touch beauty.”
I wrote “1996” in 2011, twelve years after we broke up, eleven years after I moved out, two years after we last talked; now it’s seventeen, sixteen, and seven, respectively. But we were on South Street that night, and despite the fact that she was a Philadelphia Flyers fan and BARILKO #51 was back (and maybe CLARK #17 as well), she enjoyed herself. I on the other hand was restless. I wanted more. I wanted more raw, more punk, more hypnotic energy, a dark cocoon, something to scare the living shit outta me.
[W]hen you’re 23/& the rest of the world is a moment/we can never outrun, I wrote in “1996” in 2011. But at the time I never stopped running.
* * *
I became more obsessed with the Hip.
It happened slowly, as my other obsessions, both musical (the Pixies, Alex Chilton) and non-musical (the Calgary Fantasy Hockey League, virtual home of 1995-96 regular season champion Hop’s Frogs, which folded in 2000 as a result of fatherhood (the founder’s, not mine)), faded by degrees. 1997’s Live Between Us gave the world an official, live Hip concert on CD, with Gord references and allusions that could be tracked and interpreted and reinterpreted, like a Canadian Torah. More importantly, the World Wide Web was available, and with it fan message boards and facts both obscure and less-than-obscure about the Hip, who they were (mostly Gord), what they wrote about and how they wrote it (exclusively Gord).
Thanks to various websites, but mostly Stephen Dame’s terrific A Museum After Dark, I found out that“I ponder the endlessness of the stars,/ignoring said same of my father” came from Milan Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting: “We ponder the endlessness of the stars but ignore the endlessness our father has within him.” (I would borrow both in a 2013 essay about my own father.) Similarly, “Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)” quotes, almost verbatim, the Canadian writer’s 1957 novel The Watch That Ends the Night (“there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and…the human tragedy…consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them”), which I found used at the Book Trader on South Street and read one summer.
Even the other music on my Walkman was somehow Hip-related, from Rheostatics, whose “Bad Time To Be Poor” the Hip sampled on Live Between Us, to Material Issue, for whom the Hip wrote “Escape Is At Hand For the Travellin’ Man,” my favorite song from Phantom Power and arguably my favorite overall Hip song, as a tribute after lead singer Jim Ellison killed himself. Not to mention, of course, the Hip, who returned to TLA in October 1998 for the Phantom Power tour, as did we.
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We moved in 1999 and I moved out in 2000. We split up, as Gord Downie wrote in 2001’s Coke Machine Glow, the book of poems I bought along with the CD of the same name the following summer. I’m on a train to Montreal,/though it could be going/anywhere now,/I suppose.
I wasn’t on a train to Montreal, but in a bookstore in Calgary during Stampede Week for a sports medicine journal meeting; I was there as the publisher. I was with someone else now, romantically, someone I had recently met and would be with on and off for the next six, or seven, or maybe ten years.
She wasn’t much of a Hip fan, or a hockey fan, but during our years together we would see Gord twice, once at the Tin Angel “acoustic café” in Old City Philadelphia for the Coke Machine Glow tour in 2001 and once back at the TLA with the same non-Hip backing band, now officially named the Country of Miracles, for their followup Battle of the Nudes tour in 2003. Gord would autograph my Battle of the Nudes CD after the TLA concert, after we discussed the Canada Day concert in Central Park I had been to three years before. “Have a heckuva summer,” he would write over the lyrics to “Figment”: You know my name is Figment,/I’m not who you think I am.
* * *
Ducunt volentem fata, nolentum trahunt.
And I found the end of the world, of course,
but it’s not the end of the world, of course.
–Gord Downie, “Vancouver Divorce”
2003 was also the year I began working with a Jungian. He was a referral, meant to help a difficult relationship and resolve some perpetually unresolved issues. Seneca’s words—Some the fates take willingly, others have to be dragged—hung ornately above his door. We connected immediately: my father was from Zurich, he had lived in, romanticized, and still wrote about Zurich.
We met weekly, on rare occasions twice a week, for four years. I resolved my issues, but in the worst way. I became more obsessed with Los Angeles, where I went to college briefly during the Rodney King riots before transferring back east, more obsessed with moving back out west and with becoming a writer. Writing was loaded for me, since my father (three marriages, two divorces with a third pending at the time he died) whom I barely knew growing up was a writer, and writers were in many ways and for many reasons rock stars to me. (Don’t tell me how the universe is altered/when you find out it’s the writers who get laid, as Gord would often sing in live versions of “Poets.”)
I took an Erotica writing night class, taught by a former mentor, during which I would write among other short stories “Daredevil,” whose title was an allusion to the Tragically Hip song of the same name but which here referred to the Daredevil Motel, where rendezvous occurred, with its odor of tobacco and wool and wood. I celebrated dark places, as I had before, but they were no longer the dark places I had shared with a woman who loved me as I loved her. I was now the darkest one, and my dark places were only my own.
* * *
My Hip obsession waned—2002’s In Violet Light was dependable enough (“a pleasing LP of R.E.M.-style guitar rock,” in the words of Uncut), 2004’s In Between Evolution a decent album but more uneven overall, and 2006’s World Container their worst effort so far—as my Gord obsession became more intense.
Maple Music released 29 live recordings from his 2003 tour as digital bootlegs at $10 CDN each on their website. During the summer of 2006, I would order 26—Detroit and Philadelphia were unavailable because of technical issues and one of the Ottawa concerts was in my opinion redundant—and play them constantly.
In San Francisco for a plastic surgery journal meeting that October, I would book two nights at the Tenderloin’s Phoenix Hotel, where the narrator walked past those suits with wet hair at the breakfast buffet in “SF Song (San Francisco/The Phoenix Hotel)” (none of whom were there at the time).
More troubling was “11th Fret,” Gord’s my-woman’s-doing-me-wrong-but-at-least-she’s-still-with-me honky-tonk blues that reflected where I was from the other end: beginning to see someone else, withdrawing from my own relationship but unwilling to end it. His words—So this is fucking off by degrees/and I suppose we turned out to be not-quite-Hawaii/but I can float back to sleep/‘cause at least you’re lying to me—weren’t only poetry or mystery, for once. They were prophecy.
* * *
Eventually I moved on from the Tragically Hip and Gord Downie, not to other bands or other relationships or, so far, to other towns; I won’t be there when the wisteria fades/and falls on LA. I moved on to mortgages and unemployment, recessions and paralegal school and law school and law school debt, Occupys and Mummers Parades and a Fight for 15. But if the Hip were never so much of who I was again—and at times they were, or Gord was—neither would they become Nirvana, a band that no longer existed for a moment that no longer existed, what the 1990s were once that nothing will or can be now, neither for better nor for worse, verse chorus verse. The Hip weren’t that. Eight concerts, two solo Gord concerts, over 100 bootlegs, countless references, a conversation that just keeps coming up again and again. Every day I’m dumping the body, indeed.
* * *
I mean, I don’t know how you feel about Amsterdam—maybe you heard a little too much about it, but—man, that fuckin’ Vondelpark, that is somethin’ else. It made me want to take all my clothes off and walk naked through it. So I did. I was thrown in jail for four days—sodomized, victimized, circumsized—but still, this song is worth it. All the pain and all the suffering—this song is worth it.
–Gord Downie, introduction to “Flamenco,” from the Tragically Hip, Utrecht, May 1997 bootleg
This past February I was in Amsterdam for work for the first time ever. I arrived on a Wednesday night at 10 pm, welcomed by snow flurries and two catcalling drunks on the train from Schiphol; I would depart by Friday at noon. The only thing I wanted to see was the Vondelpark, where Gord wrote what he often referred to in concert as “the most beautiful song we know.” I didn’t—I never even made it out of Sloterdijk, where my hotel was, and it was too cold to walk that far regardless—but Friday mid-morning, waiting on the platform for the NS (Nederlandse Spoorwegen) train to take me back to Schiphol and then a layover in London and eventually to Philadelphia, I glanced at the map and noticed stops at three stations an hour and a half away whose name any Tragically Hip fan would recognize: Hengelo, site of a memorable 1991 concert subsequently immortalized in “At the Hundredth Meridian.” And with that, Amsterdam was worth the trip.
Three months later my writer friend in Flagstaff emailed me as I was on my way home from work. Subject heading: Sad news about Gord Downie. “Came across this while looking for something else,” it read, with a link to the CBC website.
I remember Buffalo/and I remember Hengelo,/It would seem to me/I remember every single fucking thing I know.
* * *
We don’t go to hell,/just our memories do, Gord sang 22 years ago, a memory of a memory now, but he was wrong. It isn’t that our memories are in hell. It’s that hell is knowing that the past is only ever memories, that we’ll never get it back.
* * *
Thanks for everything, Gord. It’s been a heckuva trip.
* * *
Gord Downie photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Source: Sarah Naegels, Ottawa. Available under a CC BY 2.0 license at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Hip_03.jpg.