Skip to content

From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Ours, Not Theirs

The nationalism that a bluesy bar band from eastern Ontario built

Ryan McNutt

The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip

Michael Barclay

ECW Press

380 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 978I770414365

Most rock concerts, even farewell ones, don’t become a coast-to-coast event to which an estimated 12 million people tune in. But the Tragically Hip, over the course of a 32-year career, have been elevated to rarefied air among Canadian artists: not just a beloved band or a point of national pride, but a shorthand for explaining “who we are” in musical terms. At Halifax’s Grand Parade square, where fans like me gathered in August 2016 to watch the concert’s live broadcast, red-and-white Maple Leafs abounded. Multiple choruses of O Canada broke out, as they did at the K-Rock Centre in Kingston, Ontario, where the Hip were playing the final show of their Man Machine Poem tour, announced following singer Gord Downie’s diagnosis with terminal brain cancer. The CBC subtitled their live presentation of the concert “a national celebration.” It was a different flavour of Canadian moment from the more modern one embodied by the cadre of Grammy-friendly Canadian musicians topping charts that year. They included Drake, whose album Views—America’s most popular record of 2016—featured the rapper seated atop the CN Tower. The Hip’s national bona fides have tended to be subtler, articulated more in vocalist Gord Downie’s lyrical references, which lean to the viscerally local. And even for the Hip, this was a high-octane version, coming as it did in the last chapter of Downie’s life; he died a little more than a year later.

The story of how a bluesy bar band with an enigmatic front man ended up as “Canada’s band” is at the heart of Michael Barclay’s The Never-Ending Present, the first full-length book on Downie and the Tragically Hip. The Canadian question only takes centre stage in the book’s opening chapter, but it’s never far from the narrative, whether Barclay is considering the Tragically Hip’s contemporaries and the younger bands it took under its wing, or exploring why the Hip struggled to have comparable success in the United States. The prominence of the latter topic in popular discourse surrounding the band clearly bugs Barclay. “What kind of country wraps their heroes’ greatest accomplishment in an insecurity blanket?” he asks. Yet the Hip’s lack of American success also imbued the band with meaning for many—ours, not theirs—emblematic of the complicated relationship many Canadians have with national culture, seemingly seeking self-identity and external validation at the same time.

The intersection between Canadian identity and our country’s popular music is a subject Barclay previously explored as one of the authors of Have Not Been the Same, the definitive text on Canadian rock music in the 1980s and 1990s. Published in 2001 (the same year as Michael Azerrad’s comparable American survey, Our Band Could Be Your Life), the book documents how a burgeoning Canadian underground took root in scenes across the country—a second CanCon revolution, the first having occurred, of course, in the wake of the “new nationalism” of the 1960s and the Canadian content regulations it inspired. This new shift was buoyed by national platforms such as MuchMusic, and shows such as CBC’s Brand New Waves, where Barclay previously worked, which gave Canada’s emerging artists a national platform as well as prominent placement alongside international marquee names. I’m a child of that second CanCon revolution; I was nine years old when the Hip released perhaps its most beloved album, Fully Completely. When I started going to concerts, I took for granted that bands like the Hip were ­arena-level artists, deserving of their place alongside the biggest names in global popular music. My sense of what it meant to be Canadian, as a teenager, was intertwined with what it meant to be a fan of Canadian music.

The Never-Ending Present, like Have Not Been the Same before it, illuminates how this new fan paradigm and business model was forged by bands like the Hip. The earliest chapters of Barclay’s new book, exploring the band’s formation, highlight a Canadian live music infrastructure at the time better suited to cover bands. The band’s success didn’t come overnight by any stretch, but it is notable that the Hip’s full-length debut, Up to Here, went platinum in Canada just six months after its release. Early supporters speak of them as a band with almost instantly recognizable appeal, offering something Canadians were clearly hungry to hear.

The Never-Ending Present alternates between biographical chapters that chronicle the band’s career and chapters that offer thematic explorations of topics such as the Hip’s intersection with hockey or consideration of Downie’s work in the world of Canadian poetry. The book’s foreword suggests the reader can weave in and out of those thematic chapters as they wish, though there is some logic to their placement. For the most part, they offer welcome interjections of critical, thoughtful analysis in the band’s story, and present non-fans (or those less interested in a chronological history) with a secondary narrative. Even the best of them, admittedly, leave threads hanging as the book returns to the year-by-year story arc. When Barclay points out how Canada was “unusually interesting for a while there” in the early 1990s—a constitutional referendum, Quebec separatism, the Oka crisis—at the same time that the Hip were beginning to write songs that engaged with distinctly Canadian events and places, what could be read as a “eureka” moment instead comes across as a setup for an entirely different book. That book, as yet unwritten, might offer a fuller exploration of the intersection between the Hip and Canadian self-identity.

Not that the biographical portions of the book aren’t thoughtful. Barclay is a fine music critic, and some of the most rewarding writing in the book comes when he considers the band’s music itself. Some of this is in description, as when he draws the reader into the interplay between the “long, low, lurching and groaning” rhythm guitar and the “pointy teeth” of the lead riff in “Fire in the Hole,” from 1994’s Day for Night. And some of it is in his careful dissection of the band’s discography, in particular the detailed assessment he gives of later-career records such We Are the Same and Now for Plan A, laying bare their flaws but also giving more time to their virtues than many of the band’s fans likely have. (The Hip, for all their acclaim, still ran up against the hump faced by all long-running bands: new albums simply don’t get the traction of the old hits.) But The Never-Ending Present is predominantly a work of journalism, not criticism. Barclay’s own voice readily and frequently recedes into the background in favour of his interview subjects’: producers, peers, associates, and others whose insights add colour and context to the milestones of the Hip’s career.

Notably absent from that list of interviewees: the band. Barclay’s introduction makes it clear the surviving members of the Hip wanted nothing to do with this, or any, book, declining not only new interviews but even the opportunity to fact-check the text. (When asked about it by the Toronto Sun, guitarist Rob Baker said, “Anyone can write whatever they want to write. That’s fine with me. It’s just not our story as we would tell it,” adding that a narrative history of the band is of little interest to him.) The band’s voices are still prominent, thanks to copious quotes from media interviews with Downie, Baker, and the other band members (guitarist Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair, and drummer Johnny Fay) over the years. For the most part their incorporation is seamless, but the performative nature of interviews conducted during promotional cycles can’t quite conjure the candour and intimacy of Barclay’s other interviews. The resulting narrative thus focuses largely on the band’s discography, lacking the sorts of reflective insights that would shed new light on the band’s creative evolution.

For example, we get only the slightest glimpse into how Downie’s decision to release solo material—beginning with Coke Machine Glow in 2001 and continuing with five more albums, one in collaboration with the Sadies—affected the rest of the band. It’s a crucial point in the story, and Barclay suggests the tensions had a significant impact on the band’s post-millennium career, but they’re left largely unspoken. (When asked, Jake Gold, the band’s manager at the time and among the most forthcoming interviewees in the book, says emphatically, “I’m not going to talk about that.”) The Hip, as Barclay notes, have had a distinct and unique chemistry, reflected in the credit line for all of the band’s songs, which reads simply: “The Tragically Hip.” Downie’s solo material, by contrast, drew from a musical palette that often seemed more curious and playful than his work with the Hip, which suggests that he was hardly the only driving force in the band. Yet, by virtue of his remarkable presence and his status as the band’s lyricist, Downie could never quite keep from being seen as a force apart from the rest.

Of course, Downie’s work outside music contributed to this perception, most recently his efforts to lend a voice to Indigenous issues. A book and album, Secret Path, a project with the illustrator Jeff Lemire, were released shortly after the Hip’s final show, and launched the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund in support of reconciliation efforts. These, as much as his music, defined the final act of Downie’s public life, and in June 2017, Downie was presented with the Order of Canada (his bandmates received theirs near the end of the year), at a ceremony dedicated to leadership on Indigenous issues. Barclay resists easy hagiography in his consideration of Secret Path, highlighting critical voices such as Candy Palmater and Clayton Thomas-Müller in raising important points about the role that Downie’s celebrity and settler status played in how people consumed and interpreted the project. “Downie was the only white honouree that day,” Barclay notes, and he was being recognized “for work that he’d only been doing publicly for the last 10 months.” His chapter on Secret Path seems to conclude that Downie largely did right in using his post-cancer fame to raise awareness of the tragedy of Canada’s residential schools, but it also doesn’t deny the tensions inherent in Downie’s Indigenous activism.

Downie’s status in The Never-Ending Present itself isn’t without tension, either. It’s there in the book’s subtitle, where Downie gets top billing over his band, and even the title is borrowed from a lyric of one of Downie’s solo songs. In a sense this is understandable as a marketing decision; Downie’s passing still seems fresh and raw, and his cancer and death, as well as the ongoing profile of the Downie-Wenjack initiative, has only grown his personal celebrity. “The story of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip” reads better than the reverse, too. And yet separating Downie out for mention risks dating the book to a particular moment. Barclay’s biography of the Tragically Hip leaves Downie with a kind of elevated status in the band, which seems to run counter to how the band understood itself.

Maybe that was inevitable. It was Downie’s lyrics, after all, that seemed to give millions of Canadians permission to engage the Hip as the flag-bearers in what scholar Ryan Edwardson has called “the change from ‘music in Canada’ to ‘Canadian music’…an emotional, patriotic, and fraternal connection to music as a means of mediating a national sense of self.” It was his dark, mysterious charisma that separated the Hip from its similarly qualified CanRock peers. And though Downie’s own life as I wrote at the time of his passing seemed to end in ellipses, his cancer diagnosis and all that followed gave the Tragically Hip’s story an emphatic exclamation mark. The Never-Ending Present climaxes with that exclamation mark, that night in August 2016, and even though the material borrows heavily from Barclay’s in-depth reporting at the time for Maclean’s, I minded little; it was appointment reading for me then, and it is a full and evocative accounting of the occasion now. It helps to explain why an event that had every reason to seem sad and funereal instead ended up indeed feeling like “a national celebration.”

Ryan McNutt is a freelance music writer based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His work has appeared in The Walrus, Maisonneuve, Canadian Notes & Queries, and Exclaim!

Advertisement

Advertisement