Been into the Reno and drives an El Camino, can you dig that style?
Hip canteen you always make the scene, you're a crazy child
It's a sad thing bourbons all around
To stop that feeling when you're living in a small town
You're long and lean, things don't get you down
You're a top ten kingpin in the borders of your hometown
Where does it all start and where have we found ourselves to date? Where did it begin for us and what cosmic event gave way to the insurgence of talent in space and time that left in its wake the tangible resulting Tragically Hip? Why were we the chosen ones to be blessed with such talent? – this is a question that will perhaps be the most asked as we remember the last 30 years of talent with our Pacific and Atlantic borders.
For me, the Tragically Hip have always held true to their course and this commitment to their craft has continually resonated within me. My first recollections of the Hip were on a cassette tape in 1987 on their self titled EP which belonged to my brother Mike. Eager to follow in my brother’s footsteps musically and learn the ways of his selections I remember playing the tape for the first time. It sounded unlike any music I had ever heard – “it made me feel at home - it made me want to dance - it made me feel proud – it made me feel proud to be Canadian”.
Over the years, I have had the distinct privilege of being a part of 30 Tragically Hip shows, from the first Another Roadside Attraction in High River, AB. The subsequent spin off events, the countless Rexall Place shows in Edmonton, AB. The CD Release at the then New City Likwid Lounge in Edmonton, AB on Jasper Ave. The Hip have always been there for me; unknowingly they were a bridge in strong musical relationship with my brother. Admittedly, my brother and I have drifted in recent years. I’m not sure why, but one thing came back to me on May 24, 2016 with Gord Downie’s public diagnosis, it was my brother that reached out to me – I answered and we talked about it “feeling equally shaken and broken inside”. We knew where we had to turn to find the help we needed and it was inward to the music that brought us together.
I never felt as close to complete strangers as I did at a Hip show, I’ve always been richer for having seen them – each time – every time. The Hip have grown beyond a simple band in my eyes, they have enjoyed a meteoric rise from humble beginnings, and in doing so have firmly shown us what it means to be proud of your roots and your heritage so much so that you are willing to dance without apology and sing off key or in plain view of others – they let us know it’s acceptable to be different and flow against the current and in doing so we will gravitate to those doing the same.
With all the Hip have been for me, I feel the need to give something back in recognition. The following is a lengthy review and blog of what simmers within my heart and soul and what has been borne and forged from a youth and adulthood with the Tragically Hip at my side. It is my opportunity to thank a band in the best way I know how, to write – to celebrate with photographic document and pay tribute a legendary front man with the elegance of Robertson Davies, the eloquence of Pierre Burton, the finesse of Gordie Howe, the Brute force of the Boston Bruins and the poise of any rivaled elder statesman. From long standing anthems of the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of David Milgaard, to the voyageur chronicles of Tom Thomsen, the invasion of the pristine Clayoquot Sound, and the tragedies of Attawapiskat – Downie is what we all long to find in our years on earth – a role model, historian, singer, songwriter, musician, documentarian and most importantly a patriotic Canadian.
The Hip formed in 1984 at Kingston Collegiate in Kingston, Ontario, where Gord Downie, Gord Sinclair and Rob Baker were students. Guitarist Paul Langlois joined in 1986; saxophonist Davis Manning left that same year. They took their name from a skit in the Michael Nesmith movie Elephant Parts.
In the mid 80s they performed in small music venues in Ontario until being discovered by then-MCA President Bruce Dickinson at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. They were then signed to a long-term record deal with MCA, and recorded the self-titled EP The Tragically Hip. The album produced two singles, "Small Town Bring-Down" and "Highway Girl".
From the first chords of “Small Town Bring-Down”, one would be hard pressed to argue the earthiness that accompanies this early classic Hip tune. This is the very foundation of the enormity to come with the exuberance of youth and unabashed, unapologetic errors surging beneath the surface of a band destined for greatness. “Small Town” speaks to us through early days in Kingston, ON – we can feel the sweltering, steamy, dark bars of the southern Ontario circuit. A small stage and the home town boys on the stage – “that’s the Tragically Hip! – they’re hometown boys!” – we hear the locals say as the folks from outside the city limits quietly murmur “the Tragically who?”. But we all start here – it’s about a deeper belief in what you’re doing as a performer is a calling; it’s the reasoning why we ply the tools of our trade against the fertile soil in hopes that someday, somewhere, some way – we might see a seed grow and burst forth from the overburden and overwhelming odds and reach tall into the light and bask in the afterglow. This is where it began. . .for them – for us and for history.
Through many roads and crisscrossing paths and venues between a stop here and a roadside breakdown and attraction there the Hip forged their craft along the road – that much has forever been clear. It is this unwavering approach to performance art which was first birthed in the early days of “Last American Exit” – this track cuts to the visceral core and bleeds the honest truth for all to see; exposed in a tangled foray are the mistakes, missteps, beautiful youthful choreographed dances, sleepless nights, empty stomachs, fortuitous blessings and cracked blacktop pavement leading them onward into the night.
With a familiar opening “twang” we hear Gord Downie launch into his earnest and explicit genuinely heartfelt departure; speaking to us as the performer, not the family man. Gord is speaking here of his need to “try” – to do what resolves to success for him. To feel the joy and satisfaction of what brings him peace, where he finds his rest and solstice.
You know the reasons I can't conceal
You know I'm leaving, you obviously you know how I feel
It's not as easy as calling out your name when I'm down
It's not a matter for wrong or right
It ain't much better that drinking and looking to fight
You know I'm tired of crawling 'hind my name among the crowd
I'm on the last American exit to the Northland
I'm on the last American exit to my homeland
I'm on the last American exit to my last chance
They keep calling out my name, I shout it down
This has always been the case with many musical acts, to find the grounding element we often seek and find it within their earliest untarnished and unpolished works – we find it here “solidly rooted and cemented with conviction and testimony”.
Know my savior, he knows you shakers
Know my pity, I'll see you later
I'd like to stay but I know it doesn't matter somehow
The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie made their first journey into the dark, tenuous waters of successful brooding and manifested foreshadowing with the track “Killing Time”. It’s here the Downie, reveals a gentle soul, with a gritty underbelly – a seething and unsettled personae that we rarely are privileged to bear witness except in the rare future tracks such as “Long Time Running” and “Bobcaygeon”. His throaty growl and Rob Baker’s guitar guide his unmistakable prowling vocal snare against the click of Fay’s cymbals and the drop of Gord Sinclair’s bass guitar. With a newborn shuffled step and a fledging relationship with the microphone stand, Downie is finding his space and defining his limitations albeit few and far between most.
I need your confidence need to know you're mine
When it gets right down to the killing time
I know your heart is bad but it's all
I've ever had we can live our lives on this righteous crime
I got kicked when I was down
And a sailor took my girl to town
Then she licked my wounds with the sea dog's salt I drank a
Half a bottle of jack swore I'd never take you back by the bottle's
End I was on that phone
What you call compromise I don't understand what you call compromise I don't understand
What is it that compels the gravitation of our front lobe to the ripping opening guitar chords of tracks such as “Highway Girl”. Why is the raw magnetism so strong and basic in tempo that we are drawn; primitively to the swaying guitar of Rob Baker. With Downie’s confluence of vocal talent, the plaintive lover’s tale unfurls beneath our brow, extending past our fingertips and enveloping our ears, hearts and minds – capturing at its deepest center our soul and endearing us to the Hip for years to come. These are the unsuspecting sleeper tracks that dwell deep in the rooted permanence of the Hip’s relationship with their fans – it was early on that we were immune, to the relevance of the acoustic experiment but with the passing of time and earnest determination of the artist we have grown attached deeper than any worded analogy. At the time Highway Girl was a track built in earnest, with precision arrangements, choreographed to an agreed upon “feel good” cosmetic. Beyond countless shows, thousands of road weary miles and journeys in between the Hip have left us in the enviable position of “beyond satisfaction” and yearning collectively for more – forever.
With the passage of time, the appreciation of talent, the recognition of time served this album has made its mark as the launching point for one of the most poignant and storied historical musical careers ever embarked upon within the Canadian landscape. With icons their focus for much of their career that include: Tom Thompson, David Milgaard, Farley Mowat, Foster Hewitt, Pierre Burton, Bill Barilko, Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies. With icons the focus of their study and musical mastery the Hip have transcended from artist into icon themselves. From early beginnings in the Horseshoe Tavern to the sellout coliseum shows today; the Hip have identified with Canadians the Canadiana culture within us all and awakened it for generations to come.
What have we lost you may ask yourself? What do you we have to lose? – the answer quite simply is -nothing. More importantly the question should be asked what have we gained? What have the Hip brought us as a nation and a people. The answer quite simply again is – everything. The Hip have brought us music and within that music – we have regained a disconnected cultured identity. We have strengthened our cultural compass and identified with the True North Strong & Free. Bonds between us have grown stronger because we ourselves are no longer shy to sing out loud, dance in a way not seen before, outstretch our arms and close our eyes and feel the music – to feel our inner child “release” and let go within a cherished few minutes of a song. Each song has a been a blessing, each moment a triumph – we are richer for having seen them.
Well I'm going down to see my highway girl
Yeh she just back from around the world
I'm gonna get me a gun, I'm gonna stand on guard
In a little white booth in her front yard
Throwing rocks at her window what could she do
If you throw enough rocks one might break through
Well she looked out her window when the police came
Yeh to see a big tin man dancing in the rain
Ah my little highway girl
Ah my little highway girl, yeah
Don't you think babe you push a bit too fast
I said, Slowing down gonna make it last
Yeh, she said “a memory's never gonna set you free
Ah go out and see that world and bring it home to me. . .”
Never truer words were spoken. A memory will not set us free, we must go out and see the world and bring it home to me.