Just last week it was announced that Gordon Downie, lead singer of acclaimed Canadian band The Tragically Hip, has terminal brain cancer. None of the major rock deaths from the past year—David Bowie, Prince, Merle Haggard, Glen Frey—had any personal effect on me, but Gord Downie will affect me a bit. He’s one of my favourite voices in rock music and the music of the Tragically Hip was a soundtrack running underneath the formative years of my life and beyond.
They’re doing a final tour this summer. I’m thinking of going when they hit Edmonton in July. I saw them in Saskatoon nearly 20 years ago, and it was disappointing (poor sound—but I know better now: sound is rarely great at a rock show).
Matt Gurney, columnist at The National Post, gets it: …”the Tragically Hip has been a big, big part of the soundtrack of my life for decades. I strongly associate periods with the music I was into at that time. I had Elvis Costello years. A long Collective Soul period. Went full Johnny Cash for a while. But throughout it all, there’s been Tragically Hip…” I had a long U2 period that overlapped other periods for a while, an R.E.M. period, a brief 54-40 (also Canadian!) period, a Sloan (Canadian!) period, an Arcade Fire (Canadian!) period, but throughout it all were The Tragically Hip.
So the last little while I’ve been listening to The Hip again and reflecting on all the different stages of my life with which they are associated—mental pictures and memories of people, places, activities, and journeys. It’s all a bit melancholy now with the news about Downie. But here are some of the memories, meaningless to you the reader, poignant for me.
“New Orleans is Sinking” (from their first full-length album, Up to Here [released 1989]) – It’s elementary school, I’m in a buddy’s driveway. The high school principal’s son is playing this song across the road.
Road Apples (released 1991) – I would later come to love this album, but first knew it only because “Little Bones” was the song for the opening credits for a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) music television show.
Fully Completely (1992) – I’m in high school. It’s a hot summer day, I’m on a secondary highway north of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan in a buddy’s car, going to fish in Buffalo Pound Lake. We listen to this album there and back. “Courage” and “Pigeon Camera” always bring that day to mind. He would be killed in a work accident several years later.
Day for Night (1994) – The first Hip album I bought when it was released, making me officially caught up to the times as a Hip fan. High school: my fishing friend plays me this new album on his portable CD player on the bus to a soccer tournament. College: a buddy plays “Scared” on his guitar in the yearbook office, next to the student lounge.
Trouble at the Henhouse (1996) – “Ahead By a Century” is the first Hip song I learn on guitar.Legendary Canadian comedy troupe The Kids in the Hall, which I loved at the time, used one of the songs from this album for the soundtrack to their cult-favourite movie Brain Candy. I have a t-shirt with the album cover on it. My older brother gave me that shirt for my 19th birthday in December 1997. I still have that shirt. It is in perfect condition. Dixie hates it and wants to get rid of it because it’s so old. Along with the shirt, my brother gave me a ticket for the Hip’s concert for their new album.
Live Between Us (Live, 1997)
Phantom Power (1998) – the first single from this album “Poets” was released in the spring of 1998. I was in the middle front seat of a Ford F-350, somewhere in the wilds of northern British Columbia with my tree planting crew. Everyone else was unimpressed, but I was delighted. That August I would see them live in Saskatoon with the ticket my brother had bought me. The concert was disappointing—my expectations were high, the sound was poor. I bought a t-shirt there. It did not last more than a year or two.
Music @ Work (2000) – This album was released in the spring of 2000. I remember this because I paid twice as much for it as I should have at a local music store in Whitecourt, Alberta—again with my fishing buddy from Fully Completely—because I couldn’t wait for the tree planting season to be over to buy it at a chain store at a lower price. We again listened to it in the cab of a Ford F-350 on the way back to our camp north of Whitecourt. This album was a huge departure for The Hip, but I loved most of this album from the start. I would get married that August.
“It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken” (from In Violet Light ) – I’m sitting at the second desk at the front of my father-in-law’s law office. My pregnant-for-the-first time wife is probably in the back working. I stream this song from The Hip’s website and instantly love it. In fact, it is one of my favourite Hip songs of all time. The rest of the album would take some time to grow on me.
After this album, I checked out of The Tragically Hip’s world for a couple of years: In Between Evolution (2004); Yer Favourites (2005); That Night in Toronto (Live) (2005); World Container (2006); then…
We are the Same (2009) – spring or summer: I’m with my wife and three kids in our 1992 Honda Accord waiting in line at the drive-through car wash in Prince Albert. We’re listening to this album, which I’ve just purchased, and I’m delighted. The Hip seem back on form. Later that summer we would move to Manitoba to attend seminary.
Then: Now for Plan A (2012) – I stream this album on Rdio, but am disappointed.
So, I’ve drifted away from the Hip these last years, but the old soundtrack still hums in the background. It’s strange: I was a huge U2 fan, and I still love their earlier albums, but they mostly stay on the shelf, not listened to. Same with R.E.M. and Arcade Fire. I listened to these groups for hours and hours over and over again, but at some point I moved on to something else, and while they still have a place in my heart and I would still list them among my all-time favourites, it is only to The Tragically Hip that I return regularly. At the very least, a summer road-trip needs at least one listen to Fully Completely.