A tribute to Canada's "The Tragically Hip" band
New Gord Downie work devoted to First Nations boy who died running away from residential school
A 12-year-old Ojibway boy who died from hunger and exposure after trying to find his way home from a residential school is the inspiration behind a new project from Gord Downie.
In 1966, Chanie (Charlie) Wenjack's body was found by the railway tracks near Kenora, Ontario.
It's a story that so affected Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie, he created a solo album, a graphic novel and an animated film to honour Wenjack's memory and educate other Canadians about the tragedy.
You may have heard their songs over the years and not realize it. Not necessarily their name though. The Tragically Hip has been somewhat low-key on the international music scene compared to other Canadian artists like superstars Neil Young and Rush. Yet it is unknown why they've remained a hidden national treasure.
Let me share this paragraph to explain more: Superstars at home, the Tragically Hip have never achieved fame beyond Canada’s borders. Nine of their albums have reached the top spot on Canadian music charts, but in the United States, the band has never broken the Top 100. "This band could have been U2, if not for some unlucky breaks," Barenaked Ladies singer-guitarist Ed Robertson told Rolling Stone. "The quality and the appreciation of this band is not unique to its Canadian-ness. It’s just happenstance that they’re not as big as the biggest bands in the world." ¹
Rock critic Robert Christgau once explained: Blame Canada, which gulls citizens into subsidizing local culture with the lure of universal health care. Fifteen years on, that northern nation's favorite rock band--led by deep thinker Gordon Downie, who ungratefully notes, "If I do believe in a country, it's the country of me"--has progressed from a passable "blues-based" literacy (imbued, of course, with the natural sense of rhythm for which Canadians are renowned) to candidly ornate and obscure art-rock.
It is a little known fact that in 1989 Nirvana was their opening act at a bar named O'Cayz Corral in Madison, Wisconsin.
I have a hunch that they will not fade into obscurity. When the band made the announcement on their website on May 24, 2016 that their frontman Gordon Downie has been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, this unfortunate turn of events pushed them into the media spotlight. Fans figured the summer 2016 Man Machine Poem Tour may be the band's final appearence, and a frenzy ensued. Tickets went fast for the pre-sales; scalpers scooped many and the resales were going for thousands of dollars. Frustrations were noted: new shows were added to the tour, more seats were offered. The band extended an invitation to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to the final show of the tour in their hometown Kingston, Ontario which he attended.
Their final concert was watched by 11.7 million people courtesy of CBC Television which provided live streaming worldwide. While thanking the crowd, Gord Downie remarked: “We started here, as you know, and opened up to 13 people. And at our next show, we had 28. And the next Kingston show after that, we had six."
It was a show of a lifetime. Downie gave it his all, an exuberant performance highlighted with his usual quirky theatrics -- almost non-stop for just under three hours, showing no sign of weary. "Thank you,” he said at one point, “for keeping me pushing and keeping me pushing." He didn’t talk about himself much otherwise. He did get a little political: "We’re in good hands, folks, real good hands. He cares about the people way up North, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there. And what’s going on up there ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been, so it’s not on the improve. We’re going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help. ••• You know, Prime Minister Trudeau's got me. His work with First Nations. He's got everybody. He's going to take us where we need to go."
The Tragically Hip skit from the Michael Nesmith show Elephant Parts
I'm one of the lucky ones to attend the Kingston show at the K-Rock Centre on August 20, 2016 -- so I'm told repeatedly. Still high from the show, they've made a die-hard fan out of me, mission accomplished. Their tunes have been background music to me, I never really listened closely or had any interest in the lyrics. I finally get what Rush's Geddy Lee was saying in an interview: "The first time you listen to one of their records it kind of sneaks up on you. It sounds simpler than it is. There is a particular way the power of those guitars work together.… [They] always sound sinewy and muscular. Then you put Gord's voice and his lyrics on top of that, and after repeated listening, you really start to love it. It just gets inside you. I think that's a trademark of the Hip." ²
The Tragically Hip was part of the alternative rock genre of the eighties along with 54-40, Sarah McLachlan, Spirit of the West and Cowboy Junkies. (It's speculated that their obscure name is taken from a skit in the show Elephant Parts -- a collection of comedy and music videos made in 1981 by Michael Nesmith, former member of the Monkees. ³) The band successfully evolved over the decades. They began with blues-tinged modern rock (Up to Here, Road Apples). In the following albums (Fully Completely, Day for NightTrouble at the Henhouse) their lyrics focused on themes of Canadian geography, history, water and land. And their music changed to an ethereal sound -- it is this moody feel along with Downie's sentimental poetry that became their signature. Over the years they carefully perfected their artistry. They created art: the more you listened, the more you appreciate.
Longtime fans will argue which album of theirs is the best. They've offered enough variety to keep things interesting while "keeping their integrity", a definite plus for "indie" fans. Perhaps their lack of reference to violence, sex and drugs in their lyrics held them back in certain ways. Yet it is this freshness that kept them above the fray -- something rock-loving parents can appreciate. Sadly there aren't enough bands out there that parents can proudly party to along with their kids.
I see The Hip as legends in the making. Their glory lies ahead. Bacause great art doesn't conform, it continues to move and inspire generation after generation.
But enough of my thoughts. Here are a few of their best tracks to get you going. For the newbies, keep an open mind and heart and you won't be disappointed. If become a fan overnight, don't be surprised.
Billboard magazine bio http://www.billboard.com/artist/419309/tragically-hip/biography
Tragically Hip Week: Borderline success http://news.nationalpost.com/arts/tragically-hip-week-borderline-success
How the Tragically Hip was always ahead by a century https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/music/2016/08/07/how-the-tragically-hip-was-always-ahead-by-a-century.html
Gord Downie brain cancer fund raises $265K, still growing http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/gord-downie-cancer-fund-1.3731107
Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research https://donate.sunnybrook.ca/braincancerresearch
The Tragically Hip Tops LyricFind Global Chart Following Possible Final Concert http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/7494718/the-tragically-hip-gord-downie-tops-lyricfind-global-chart-after-possible-final-concert