Supreme Court refuses to halt the execution amid a lawsuit over the lethal injection protocol.
I can’t find the words right now to process the passing of Gord Downie. I need some time, and my deadline for submission was just too soon after hearing the news. So, let’s revisit some of my past words about the Hip.
The Tragically Hip
(MCA Records, 1987)
I’m looking back this week, feeling a bit nostalgic for early Tragically Hip. They were young and hungry, and chasing the dream. The first record grabbed me by the throat and shook me. Then everything grew exponentially with the release of Up to Here (1989). But before the big hits, it all started with the first EP. You need this one in your collection.
I was twelve years old in 1987 and just falling in love with the guitar. I was on a steady diet of Appetite for Destruction, playing Sweet Child of Mine, Mr. Brownstone and Paradise City until my delicate pre-teen fingers were raw.
A friend brought the new issue of Canadian Musician magazine to school with a story on The Tragically Hip. My initial judge-the-book-by-its-cover reaction was that they looked like average guys. No tattoos. No leather. Not Guns n Roses. Then I listened to the music. My world changed. That debut eponymous EP crept into my consciousness and took root.
Growing up in Gananoque, we were just a few kilometres from the Ivy Lea bridge to the USA. The song Last American Exit resonated with me because of that simple fact. Coming home from ski trips in New York State always planted that song in my head as we neared the “last American exit to my homeland.”
Small Town Bringdown had elements of Gan in it as well. Cemetery Sideroad was an instant classic and Highway Girl is timeless. There’s great guitar playing, solid rhythm and a young Gord Downie still cutting his teeth and developing his vocal style.
A favourite at parties was I’m a Werewolf, Baby. The catchy riff and expected howling were just the surface of something darker.
Singing that song at the top of my lungs around a bonfire with a cranked ghetto-blaster is a powerful memory. I nearly wore out my cassette listening to the album repeatedly.
After nearly thirty years, countless concerts and thousands of hours on the guitar, the Hip are firmly entrenched in the “soundtrack of my life.” (overused but appropriate description)
It all started with that little blue cassette. Now I just need to get a copy on vinyl.
Road Apples – Tragically Hip
The summer of 1991 was magical. I was sixteen years old and obsessed with music. When I consider that twenty-five years have passed, it is a bittersweet feeling.
Those glorious teenage summers were pure and passionate, and my memories of them are strong. Before mortgages, parenthood, unions, and cancer, the only concerns we had were simple and immediate.
Could I go out waterskiing one more time before dark? Is that a scratch on my Appetite For Destruction CD? Will Dad notice the dent in the car door from the stray basketball? Who is the musical guest on Saturday Night Live this week? Is there enough change in the cup holder of my mother’s station wagon to get ice cream after band practice?
I was in a rock n roll band called Total Harmonic Distortion. (Cool name, eh?)
We were huge fans of the Tragically Hip, and to this day they are a connecting tissue between us. As I watched the CBC broadcast of the Hip’s Kingston concert, I texted my former bandmates when the song Three Pistols came on. Even though we were in Foxboro, Kingston, Peterborough, Montreal and Canmore, we were together at that moment.
“thinking about you guys…”
“Long live the Hip.”
In the summer of 1991 we saw the Tragically Hip in concert with Blue Rodeo, inside Fort Henry. They built a stage right on the parade square. Dan Aykroyd was the MC. It was August 29, 1991. They played nearly every song on Road Apples and Up to Here in their 18-song set. We all bought the tour t-shirt. I proudly wore mine to school on the first day of grade eleven.
To this day, Road Apples is still one of my favourite albums. Every song on that record is fantastic, and we tried to play many of them in the music room at Gananoque Secondary School. We spent countless lunch-hours trying to figure out what Rob Baker and Paul Langlois were doing. These were not power chords. These were lines.
Little Bones, Three Pistols and Cordelia were instant band favourites, and acoustic renditions of Long Time Running and Fiddler’s Green were regularly sung around the campfire at my family cottage (and in the boys’ washroom, where the acoustics were fantastic). Take some time and really listen to Fight, Twist My Arm, Bring it All Back, On the Verge, the Luxury and Born in the Water. They are the overlooked tracks.
Gord Downie’s voice is strong yet sensitive on this record, and his lyrics are just starting to turn slightly more obscure. There are references to Tom Thomson, MacBeth, King Lear and Jacques Cousteau. There are stories of martyrs, lovers, cynics, thieves, mothers, undertakers, and a taxi driver giving advice on how to eat chicken.
The Last of the Unplucked Gems is a swirling, spontaneous moment of beauty that captured my attention and was often on repeat in my CD player. The lines of the two guitars and the meandering bass tangle and weave together like a thoughtful conversation.
I had Road Apples on CD and cassette (because Mum’s station wagon only had a cassette deck), and now I also have it on vinyl…and a second CD copy to leave in my jeep.
Buy Road Apples this week. You need it. You deserve it. You’ll love it.
Man Machine Poem – Tragically Hip
The most recent Tragically Hip record has been out since June, but I kept putting off reviewing it, as if committing my thoughts to text would cause the sky to fall with a crippling sense of finality. There has been a cloud of impending doom hanging over the nation all summer with the news of Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer.
Dave Bidini insightfully suggested that “most of us pretended that sorrow was joy” as we celebrated the Hip on what was assumed to be the final tour, but the band has never actually used the phrase “final tour.” I struggle to find adequate words to articulate my thoughts about the band and their legacy, so I choose to narrow my focus to this latest album.
Man Machine Poem sounds like the Tragically Hip, and yet it doesn’t. It is familiar and unfamiliar. Producers Kevin Drew (Broken Social Scene) and Dave Hamelin (the Stills) have dialed up some new sonic colours, added keyboards and percussion and created fresh-sounding mixes.
Fans of Road Apples and Fully Completely will find this album a bit out of their comfort zone, the way Day For Night was a departure for the band. Many of the songs here are mid-tempo tracks, thick with colours and textures like a Broken Social Scene record.
The opening track, Man, has drawn comparisons to Radiohead with pitch-shifted vocals and lots of effects. Great Soul has Drew’s fingerprints all over it with countless subtle layers underpinning and highlighting the apparent frustration in Downie’s lyrics. Hot Mic is heavy and pounding with tribal drums and lyrics inspired by WWI nurse Edith Cavell.
Tired as F— has been misinterpreted by many as a reaction to Downie’s diagnosis, but the album was completed before that. It is a tribute to determination and struggle when you’re at the ends of the proverbial rope. It’s a deceptively mellow track with interweaving guitars, propelling bass and driving drums riding waves of dynamic change.
In a World Posessed By the Human Mind was the leading single has also been misunderstood because the opening lines are “Just give me the news. It can all be lies.” The track is raucous and memorable with tangled guitars and a pounding beat.
Ocean Next is gentle and quiet with acoustic guitars that shift between 6/8 time and a syncopated 4/4 with eighth-note sub-divisons of 3+3+2. There is a watery vocal effect that perfectly suits the title. This track is an album highlight.
What Blue is a love song about choices and commitment with the lyrics “I love you so much that it distorts my life” and a smoldering guitar solo.
In Sarnia is yet another song in the Hip catalogue with a Canadian geography reference, along with Thompson, Bobcaygeon, Montreal, Toronto, Attawapiskat and numerous others. Sarnia becomes a metaphor for a woman and the gentle number grows into something more energetic.
Here, in the Dark is driven by Gord Sinclair’s bass line and Johnny Fay’s drumming. These two form the engine of the band, and this record showcases some of their finest playing throughout.
Rob Baker and Paul Langlois tangle and weave their guitar lines like Keith and Ronnie, finishing each others’ musical thoughts and perfectly complementing each other at all times.
Machine closes the album (bookended with Man), sharing lyric threads but riding heavier guitars and a groovy beat.
Man Machine Poem is an outstanding record with ten vital tracks and no filler. The 11 million Canadians who watched the CBC broadcast of the Kingston show should each purchase a copy of this album. Respect the band by actually purchasing this album. Audiophiles can find it on white vinyl.