Way back in 1995, riding in my Sensei’s car on the way home after a long night of Goju-Ryu, my twelve-year-old self naturally started rifling through his cassette collection. I lobbied for some So-Cal punk as I was a glutton for The Offspring’s new ground-breaking album Smash, but Sensei Joe pulled the tape after the conclusion of their anthem Self Esteem.
He had something else in mind.
“Here,” he said. “I’ve got something you’ll like. Have you heard of The Tragically Hip?”
Joe showed me the liner. Road Apples, it said. I spent the next half hour bored out of my preteen skull.
In Grey County, the cattle farming capital of backwater Ontario, we had two radio stations. One played Top 40 country, and I was no Garth fan.
The other rotated a not-so-wide variety of Canadian rock, folk, 80s ballads, and easy rock. Basically, the make-out soundtrack for denim-wearing, mullet brandishing teens; guys and girls alike.
At 15 years-old, when forced to listen to the FM dial, I opted for the latter station. It was not much of a choice for a teen sitting somewhere between his skater punk and nu-metal phases. Can you smell the teenage angst?
I would spend my summers down-rigging for salmon. These were my days off from my full-time summer jobs of lacrosse and being a frustrated teenager. Between reeling in tangled lines and the occasional battle with a fish, the calm moments were spent pounding back Timmy’s ham and Swiss sandwiches – they were better back then – and a good jolt of Pepsi.
In the background, the steady, low drone of the local easy rock station was just loud enough to overpower the trolling motor.
My parent’s house was full of CDs and cassettes from bands like Foreigner, Bryan Adams, Tom Cochrane, and the Scorpions. They had recently scored a copy of Blue Rodeo’s 5 Days in July. They were excited, but I couldn’t understand why.
I found their taste in music baffling, but the easy rock mix was right down their alley.
A song continued in the boredom background and I finally gave into listening to it. All I could make out was, “38 years old and never kissed a girl.” What a strangely morose lyric.
It was a real ear-worm and it stuck in my head.
The next day at school, humming along to the song’s melody, I typed those Hip lyrics into the AskJeeves search engine. Only a few weeks later I found the album Up To Here in the bargain bin at the Zellers in Hanover.
Zellers was the only place you could buy music in the 100 kilometer stretch between Listowel and Owen Sound. The average CD was generally over $20 before taxes, and Zellers really enjoyed their little monopoly. But, they only wanted $5 for Up To Here.
I didn’t know it yet, but I walked away with a fortune.
When I slipped what I thought was an overpriced beer coaster into my disc tray, I was honestly not expecting much. As Blow at High Dough fired up, I felt it yank my ear to the radio. An infectious mix of folky melody, bombastic riffing, and lyrical small-town reminiscence grabbed me and would not let go.
Around this time, Gord Downie and crew released Phantom Power. By the winter, all my hockey teammates were obsessed with it.
Although I thought the first single, Poets, was decent, it was not enough to engage me. Bobcaygeon, on the other hand, reminded me of the melancholy of small town and country living that I was desperate to get away from, and I was unable to get into it at the time.
Almost two decades on, Downie’s lyrics make the town of Bobcaygeon seem like faded memories of my town; slow and quiet, yet subtle and beautiful.
Now, with every listen, his words make me relive those late evening strolls under starlit sky on the edge of the cedars and the Saugeen River. And yet, it seems like he is singing about anywhere in cottage country; anywhere in Ontario.
It was a little too much for me at the time. It struck home a little too much and I was not comfortable with it. Canadian folk rock was not my thing as a teenager, but it left an impression on me.
By 16, I was too busy listening to Limp Bizkit, Korn, and The Deftones to really hone in on my new discovery. But, one event started the ball rolling.
I can thank my my mom and Blue Rodeo for my love for The Tragically Hip.
In the midst of everyone freaking out over the impending apocalypse known as the Y2K virus, for which I am still waiting to happen, Blue Rodeo were touring the ‘D’ markets of Canada. Somehow, they ended up in my town.
My parents, naturally, had tickets, but my father was stuck at an airport in Montreal and couldn’t make it. My mother dragged me to the concert despite my protests and, by the end, they too had left an impression on me.
By the time I left Rural Ontario for the big city, I owned a copy of Blue Rodeo’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 and found myself chilling to it on an overpriced train ride from Guelph. Blue Rodeo’s version of Canadiana left me daydreaming of lives that I never lived. The imagery felt like my own.
Songs like Try, Diamond Mine, and Bad Timing were particularly alluring, but Lost Together was a show-stopper.
After thoroughly consuming a large segment of the Blue Rodeo catalog over the next few years, I had a craving for more. Blue Rodeo had put me onto Canadian folk rock, but I wanted something a little edgier than their country-infused sound.
The Hip had put out their own greatest hits package in a double disc format a couple years before and, like Up to Here, I was able to find a rock-bottom deal for it at a local store.
The catalog seemed vast and complicated.
One night, to a glass of single malt, I put it in the noise machine and gave into it; full immersion. I started with the classics Ahead By A Century, New Orleans Is Sinking, and Three Pistols. I then delved deeper into Nautical Disaster, The Darkest One, Wheat Kings, and Grace, Too.
I found myself shocked by the honesty of their music, while Downie always seemed to keep his tongue firmly in his cheek.
Downie called out the Canadian justice system in Wheat Kings, saying about David Milgaard. “Twenty years for nothing, well that’s nothing new. Besides, no one’s interested in something you didn’t do.”
The morbid imagery of Nautical Disaster as a dreamed metaphor for a relationship gone bad stirs feelings of loss and despondency.
I found Downie’s fixation on Canadiana rather stimulating. I went back and studied the first Hip song that ever hooked me, educating myself on the Millhaven Penitentiary, escape of 1972. Although The Hip changed the number of prisoners in the escape for rhyming purposes, it gave me a feeling of connection.
Over time, I found myself surfing the used record shops across southern Ontario in search of more Hip. My search culminated in the discovery of other Canadian artists who sparked my imagination like (honourary Canadian) Ronnie Hawkins and Joel Plaskett.
As I uncovered more and more of The Hip’s early work, the more I wanted. I soon dove into In Violet Light and sunk my teeth into It’s a Good Life if You Don’t Weaken and Silver Jet.
I rediscovered Road Apples and fell in love with Cordelia, Little Bones, and Fiddler’s Green. I jumped into Fully Completely, getting caught up in Courage (For Hugh MacLellan), At The Hundredth Meridian, Locked in the Trunk of a Car, and the other hits I have already mentioned. I spent weeks on Day for Night, along with Trouble at the Henhouse with its hits.
Together with societal issues, the Hip’s love of hockey enamored me to their cause.
Their 50 Mission Cap encapsulated the story of doomed Toronto Maple Leafs star Bill Barilko, and his tragic fishing trip after scoring the 1951 Stanley Cup winner. Fireworks celebrated Canada’s greatest team and their win in the ’72 Series juxtaposed with a young man transitioning from his love of hockey to romance.
Also, The Lonely End of the Rink, told the story of Downie’s minor hockey days, as a goalie in Amherstview, with his father in the stands. As a fellow puck-stopper, it really struck a chord.
Gord Downie’s knack for storytelling blew me away. His semi-autobiographical style, anchored in our own country’s folklore, with a twinge of sarcasm, made his stories feel so much more real, so much more legitimate. It felt, sometimes, like the stories were told by your father, a good friend, or sometimes by a cynical, yet cool uncle.
When I found out Downie had terminal brain cancer in May I was instantly angry with myself. I had been meaning to see a Tragically Hip show for years. I was always too cheap or too busy.
When I found out there would be one last tour, I was excited; until I found out it would only be in major markets. As a busy father, worker, and sports coach with no free time, I was instantly kicking myself again. How could I justify such an expenditure?
Before I could spiral too far into depression there was a ray of hope. A petition was started by Kelly McAlpine of Orillia to push for the final show, in Kingston on August 20, to be broadcast live on the CBC. The CBC obliged as a chorus of fans rose to a deafening roar in response.
Downie, offstage, is not a rockstar. He leads a quiet life with his wife and does not make much public discussion about it.
In 2012, he shocked the viewers of the CBC when he disclosed to George Stroumboulopoulos that he had spent much of the previous year supporting his wife through cancer. Much of his album Now For Plan A was influenced by his wife’s battle. She survived the cancer only to now support Gord through his.
The country was rocked by the news of Downie’s illness. Many talked about it for weeks. Even casual fans seemed to be affected.
A good number of people I ran into had been pulling old Hip records out of their garage or basement and were reliving their youths through his words.
In the week leading up to the farewell show, it seemed that everyone I knew was settling in for a long and emotional Saturday.
Twenty years ago, if you told that twelve-year-old boy that he would someday get all emotional about a farewell to The Tragically Hip, he might have asked what you were on.
On August 20, at least a third of the country reflected on Gord Downie’s contribution to their lives. When he and his band stormed the stage in Kingston and sang about Bill Barilko’s final adventure, we all smiled.
When Gord serenaded us about the constellations, as seen from Bobcaygeon, and that boy in Fiddler’s Green, we all wistfully sang along.
And, when it finished, we all shed a tear when he shared, “You are ahead by a century and disappointing you is getting me down.”
I know I did.
Thank you Gord.