[John Duffy is an American who just happens to be a major Tragically Hip fan. Here’s his take on Canada’s House Band™. – AC]
Years ago, I sat with Greg Keelor in an empty New York basement bar, listening as he explained why Canadian culture doesn’t automatically resonate with Americans. I was writing one of those stories where the bemused American scribe tries to wrap his head around why Blue Rodeo couldn’t find the success down here that seemed easy for Rush or (if we must go there) Alanis or the Barenaked Ladies.
It seems it had something to do with Canadian identity being different than that of America. I didn’t get it. He continued. “Never assume it translates just because it’s in the same language,” Keelor explained. “Take Gord Downie as an example. Most Americans see this guy onstage and they cannot understand it, so they reject it. They don’t get that it’s not a put on: he really he is this sort of hoser shaman acting out the dichotomies of Canadian-ness.”
Canadians, he explained, see themselves in Downie. But more than that, they see what it means to be Canadian in the Tragically Hip and in his performance.
I nodded, but not being Canadian, I guess I just didn’t know the code. I followed the Tragically Hip more closely after that but never dove in deep. What The Band accomplished by holding up a mirror to American identity, it seems the Hip were doing for their own country. And while I could enjoy them as simply being a great, poetic rock band, I never really got a handle on what Keelor meant.
Then this past summer, three seemingly unrelated things happened: for the first time in a decade I started running again, America began the long spiral toward choosing a dangerously unqualified narcissist as president, and—in the wake of Gord Downie’s shocking health announcement—I rediscovered the music of the Hip. And boy did I need to at that moment.
It’s cliché that running gives you time to think, but it does. As I passed sweaty summer evenings trotting along corn-shaded farm roads trying to mentally process what my country was doing to itself, the Hip increasingly served as the soundtrack. Man Machine, Henhouse, In Violet Light, and Phantom Power seemed to get the most spins.
But running also gives you time to not think, to be blank and open to the suggestions of whatever is stimulating you at that breathless moment; the sounds in your ears, or the slow-moving landscape under your pounding feet.
And as I forged a personal intimacy with the music for the first time, the depth of Downie’s complicated relationship with his country became clear in a way it might not have been without the hours I spent running. Without knowing it perhaps, we all invest meaning in the geography of our personal and civic experience. Gord has spent his creative life exploring this, and what it means to a country whose very nature includes a perennial search for its own identity.
“It’s a beautiful country, it’s a big country, and it’s a free country, and it’s a place where you get to decide what the country is.” That’s how Downie once described Canada. The United States is those things, and many others as well. These are the same ideals that countless surveys show Canadians and Americans share equally, if not in the same order: multiculturalism, civil rights, a fair justice system, democracy, equal opportunity, or a general sense of welfare for all. And sometimes, even a few of those things are true.
But too often, America seems far too eager to abandon them. As Toronto writer Stephen Marche said of Canada’s sense of global openness following the American election, “We are increasingly alone.”
Somehow Canada has been very different. Special. And though for thirty years he has successfully resisted triumphalism in exploring, name-dropping, criticizing, and celebrating Canada’s landscape and iconography, Downie knows it too. And in every one of his performances, there is a clear message: the minute you revere something you MUST also be prepared to see the absurdity in it, including him.
When he sings the Bill Barilko story you must also recognize the silliness of what it implies. There is no meaning at all behind the choosing town Bobcaygeon other than its rhyming possibilities. But don’t the stars coming out one at a time in both the most mundane and the most beautiful of places just the same? Even just dropping the name of a town, a lake, an explorer, a painter into a song is an invitation from Downie to imprint meaning, to make that country one’s own.
I’m not sure if the fact that a country welcomes refugees with cheers and hugs at the airport instead of threats of interment has something to do with it being a place of immense size with only 33 million people. Is being a place that has never turned its mysterious relationship with its frontier into fetish the reason a band chooses films of storm-ravaged boreal lakes to cover a set changeover? “This too makes us special,” it says.
Or is being a country that enshrined multiculturalism in its constitution (and indeed its soul) the reason people feel free to fly massive flags and sing the national anthem unprompted at rock concerts? By the way that hasn’t happened outside of country music here since 1984, when the irony of “Born in the U.S.A.” took us a good decade to catch. Likewise artists who hold up the mirror to our national disgraces don’t generally get lauded as “patriotic” or “poet laureate.” They get told “shut up and sing!”
There are serious differences between Canadian and America cultural and political identity. They may be just below the surface but they are a mile wide and they go deeper that the greatest of lakes. And they have profound implications for the very idea of liberal democracy.
The United States now enters a period of profound political absurdity. Wish us luck. And it’s an ill-wind blowing northward. Canada has thankfully so far avoided the nasty populism that seems to have swept western democracies. But make no mistake, it’s coming for you Canada.
This summer I became more than just a Hip fan. I became a disciple. Anyone who asks me about the “In Gord We Trust” sticker on my laptop better be ready to give up the next twenty minutes of their day. By the end, they will understand. I just wish for me it had happened been sooner. For that I accept the guilt.
But as the group’s final concert in Kingston on a perfect August night unfolded on my computer screen, I realized that Downie and the Tragically Hip have accomplished nothing short of helping to redefine nationalism itself. When a rock band can bring a third of the nation together and turn a concert into a profound statement of inclusive civic identity, there is comfort to be found.
I feel better knowing our neighbors to the north are better prepared to resist. It is Canada itself, I believe, that is ahead by a century. At least.