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An American’s Perspective on Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip

[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.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38165 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

17 thoughts on “An American’s Perspective on Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip

  • Nice piece, however, to quote wikipedia: The Band was a Canadian-American roots rock group, originally consisting of four Canadians—Rick Danko (bass, vocals), Garth Hudson (keyboards), Richard Manuel (piano, vocals), and Robbie Robertson (guitar)—and one American, Levon Helm (drums, vocals).

    • I think you’re mistaken, perhaps you’re thinking of The Band. Levon Helm was never in the Hip; not his generation dude.

      • Read the piece. The author essentially described The Band as the quintessential American band. Fourth paragraph.

    • and the point made in the article is that, though 80% Canadian, The Band succeeded in the USA by being a mirror of American tastes and sounds…in other words, they “hid” their Canadian-ness and played up that which is musically common between the two countries.

    • Without quoting any source, mostbproudly knew way back on their Dylan supporting days that The Band were Canadian. We have been fortunate to share some great musicians between us.

  • I’m not sure I get why the politics of a person really relates to the enjoyment of The Tragically Hip or a band like U2. I’m loving the the talent.
    I’m from Tucson and have seen The Hip many times. Even met them back stage. Never once did I consider any of them to be anything other than patriotic and talented performers.

  • “they are a mile wide”

    “they are 1.6 kms wide” – fixed that for ya!

  • Nice article. But Canada already went through their conservative booby period with Stephen Harper. Now they are coming out of it.

    • Without being partisan, Harper and Trump might both lean right but the similarities end there. Harper was fairly well spoken and put actual thought into what he did. If anything Trudeau Jr’s hotheadedness and intelligence level resemble Trump more, though I’ll concede I’d still rather have Trudeau.

  • Thank you, Alan. As an American who ‘got’ the Hip two decades ago, I enjoyed your article and am happy to learn that you’ve been Hipnotized. Welcome to the brotherhood!

  • I first heard The Hip back around 85 I suppose. I was immediately drawn to the guitars and started later to decipher the lyrics. Without much luck, deciphering that is, I grew to only appreciate their talent and of course Downie’s ability to twist and turn his body, words & our minds…”what could he mean by using the town of Bobcayjon…etc?

    NO Politics, just Great Rock…

  • Great article. Only one confusing part was other than Levon, The Band were Canadian 🙂

  • There are many political but mostly Candian history anecdotes in Hip songs.
    Wheat Kings, Nautical disaster, 38 years, 50 mission cap to name a few. Most American writers write simple to understand yet meaningful lyrics is all, in plain English i.e. Springsteen
    But Gord Downie just adds some poetic refrains to give the listener an option in their mind to interpret each song similarly to other listeners, but with their own slightly different personal meaning. Still close to each others take on it but not 100% the same, I think giving it it’s uniqueness.
    One thing is for certain, We will all miss him together.
    A world without Gord is one a lot us never bothered to plan for.
    🙂 🙁

  • Gord Downie and The Hip wouldn’t be revered nearly as much if it wasn’t for his illness and Downie is stroking it for everything he’s got. The Hip are a marginal band and Downie has always been a dufus.

      • Other than the fact that his comment is pretty heartless in its execution; this dude is not alone in his sentiments. I appreciate that Gord’s music means a lot to so many people, but The Hip, like most art, doesn’t resonate with everybody, obviously myself included. I don’t get his “poetry”, and it’s only the rabid airplay on Canadian radio that their otherwise forgettable music is embedded into my DNA enough that I like some of their songs but, even then, only in a toe tappable “typical classic rock” sort of way. Yes, there are other Canadian acts that haven’t “made it” outside of Canada, but they still tend to impress wherever they play. The Hip rarely did. That indicates (to me) that it’s much more than simply “not being Canadian” at play here. Worldwide, those of us who don’t get it certainly are not alone. But it’s a drag to be berated regularly for our personal preferences here in Canada. Gord seemed like a genuinely nice guy, who incidentally likely wouldn’t treat the non-fans the way his fans tend to treat us. On the one hand, it’s nice that the music of one man can unite people in such a way. On the other hand, shouldn’t we be doing that anyway?

    • Gern, while I think I understand from your comment that you are likely not the biggest Hip fan… to each their own. The Hip have been a cherished part of the Canadian mosaic for several generations. There are those (like myself) who grew up with this band as a constant part of their backdrop, and over time, we simply conceded that they were and always would be there; they became, for a lot of us ‘just another friend that was invited to the party’.

      The Tragically Hip, and specifically Gord Downie, uniquely emboldened our quirky, goofy sense of Canadianness, more often misunderstood by outsiders. Our love for this homegrown, and authentically Canadian band was indeed re-stimulated with the sad news of Downie’s illness, not because they weren’t already massively revered, but because it reminded us of how much we love and albeit took for granted this treasure, that of its kind will almost certainly never transpire again.

      On another note… great article! And to the “shaman” of all “hosers” – R.I.P


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