A Poetry Machine Man, A History Boy, 25/05/2016

I was originally going to continue my reflections on the Bush Administration, then I heard that Gord Downie was dying,* so I put that on hold. 

Yeah, Gord is dying. But very slowly. More like dying, but on hold. Probably not going to see 60, which is a horribly young age to die. But he’s 52 right now. Still likely a few more years. And he's going on tour again soon, in a concert series that fucking everyone will want to see.

In the context of this strange year that’s already seen the premature deaths of two musical legends already – Bowie and Prince – hearing the news of Downie’s imminent mortality still made me reflect on his place in my life. 

The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie particularly have such a legendary place in contemporary Canadian culture that every person’s memories of them becomes a small part of the country’s entire tapestry. So a few strands for the occasion.

A friend of mine tweeted that, like a lot of Canadians, his first big rock show was a Tragically Hip concert. I can’t lay claim to that myself. My first big rock concert was Bob Dylan on the Time Out of Mind tour, watching him in a 2000-seat venue with festival seating so I could get right to the front of the stage. So fuck you.

But a few years later came my first Hip show, on the Music at Work tour in the 6000-seat venue the city built to replace the old 2000-seat place so they could attract bigger bands. Then the Tragically Hip finally came to St John’s. Gord’s laid-back, unpretentious pose in his striking music videos – Canada’s great television surrealist Bruce McCulloch behind the camera – always made me feel like this was a kindred voice.

I was a teenager still figuring out that I wanted to write for a living, to spend some of my time in life producing art that would bring people some pleasure, happiness, and make them think. I didn’t know anything else about what my voice would be. And maybe in Gord’s eerie lyricism, there was something I could start with.

They were cinematic in how often and profoundly Gord’s lyrics were poems of imagery than they were narratives. Images that were more like the filmmakers I admired most deeply at the time and as I grew older – Kubrick, Herzog, Murnau, Iñarritu, Burton. 

And I think all of us in Canada knew that too. It was why the more ambitious, smarter MuchMusic hosts – George in his prime, Sook-Yin, Bradford, even Bill Welychka, who I always thought was kind of a dick – loved interviewing him. Gord was more than just a typically empty-headed pale CanCon imitation of some American musical archetype.

Yet I had a sneaky suspicion for years that this is all most people thought of the Tragically Hip and Gord Downie. It first developed when I read through reviews of the band’s albums on AllMusic. They’ve since been rewritten with some actual critical knowledge of the band, but when I first found them, they were weirdly ignorant.

The reviewer loved early Hip albums, with their unapologetic middle-of-the-road riff rock musical style. Then the songs started sounding a little artier around the mid-1990s. Trouble at the Henhouse started giving the AllMusic reviewers some trouble. It was as if they never heard Gord’s poetry in the early records, as if the band’s ordinary-sounding bar rock obscured the artistry of the verse.

The intellect was always there, underneath the party rock and too-frequent Leafs references.** Could so many not see it?

** This is the 21st century, so new Canadian songs about sports legends need to include at least the Jays and the Raptors. This isn’t a white country anymore.

I really don’t think many could. At least, there were many who didn’t, even if many others could. Gord could release brilliantly abrasive solo records, they could make poetic, evocative videos like “Music @ Work,” “Bobcaygeon,” and “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken,” tour with more obviously smart artists like Sarah Harmer, bring their names to environmentalist politics. The Hip were a party band.

I suspect that Hip fandom, once you take samples from across the country, includes quite a few who are also enthusiastic Nickelback fans. They like simple songs with chugging, poppy, bar rock riffs. They also probably don’t bother with Gord’s solo albums or listen to that many songs the band made after 1998.

Or maybe all those other fans come home from the Nickelback concert and throw on Coke Machine Glow to chill with a joint, thinking to themselves, “I can’t ever let my friends know that I’m into this intellectual shit. The guys’ll never let me hear the end of it.”

I wonder if Canada will ever see a band like the Tragically Hip or a lyricist like Gord Downie after he dies. They seemed to articulate a kind of cross-Canadian identity that everyone could agree on. But maybe the times aren’t right for that kind of band right now.

Yeah, there are still a lot of people in this country who like Nickelback, which in the words of another famous Canadian, is both bogus and sad. But Canadian music has blossomed more than anyone three decades ago could have expected. Back when the Tragically Hip was the only popular band in the country that didn’t sound like some American band.

But there seems to be no one band now, in our embarrassment of musical riches, that can stand for all of Canada the way the Hip can in our culture. The huge number of bands and side projects around Vancouver’s New Pornographers, Toronto’s Broken Social Scene, or Montreal’s Wolf Parade, and all the social networks of awesome musicians that flow from those scenes. Our most popular rock exports Arcade Fire. 

But Canada is so much more than its rock music. Drake and the scene around him, like The Weeknd and everyone else with a vaguely defined contractual relationship with OVO or the Toronto Raptors, is a powerful statement of Canada and 21st century Canadiana globally. 

The triumphant rise of indigenous musicians and artists – and the political, social, and ethical messages they bring with them – likewise can’t be ignored. Indigenous musicians across the country have been catapulted to international visibility through the Idle No More movement. 

There is no sound on Earth like the joyous polar rage that screams from Tanya Tagaq. Buffy St Marie descends before them all like the resurrection of some Yoda of Saskatchewan. 

There’s never been anything quite like The Tragically Hip and Gordon Downie. When he’s gone, he will be missed. But the music of Canada is so much richer and bolder now than when he and his band began.

And I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time.

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