Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip
The Tragically Hip performing at the 2009 Juno Awards
On May 25th 2016, Canada awoke to the news that one of her beloved sons, Gordon Downie, frontman for The Tragically Hip, had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. During a news conference the previous day, the group’s managers and Downie's oncologist disclosed that Gord has already undergone surgery, chemo and radiation therapy. But this cancer, glioblastoma, has no cure. It will be back.
The good news, if there is any good news in this, is that Gord is currently healthy, and the doctors have given him the green light to go out on the road. Nobody is calling this a farewell tour, but that’s essentially what it will be. And like pretty much every Hip show for eons, it will be sold out. This time though, there is a real poignant reason to go and see this band…one last time.
Who are The Tragically Hip?
To try to describe to a non-Canadian what makes The Tragically Hip – simply “The Hip” – so quintessentially Canadian, would be impossible. They are like mosquitoes and blackflies, maple syrup and Mounties. They are part of us and we are part of them.
The boys hail from Kingston, Ontario, a place that was once the home of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A Macdonald. This university town on the shores of Lake Ontario is known for its gardens, 19th century buildings and now closed federal penitentiary. It was here in 1984 that the band got its start, when Downie, Rob Baker and Gord Sinclair met at school, and like so many other young men in those days, decided to form a band. They played their very first gig at a party in Kingston, and by 1986 were on the road, part of the club scene playing dances and small venues all over the province of Ontario. They were discovered by an executive from MCA records during a gig at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern, and signed to a multi-year deal.
In 1987, the guys released their debut, an EP that featured the song “Small Town Bringdown.” Though the song got some airplay, especially on university FM stations, it really didn't have much commercial success. That was to change when the band released its first full-length LP called Up To Here, featuring the songs “Blow At High Dough” and “New Orleans Is Sinking.” The album sold over one million copies, and earned the guys their first of 14 Juno awards, Canada’s version of the Grammy Awards.
Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip in 2003
New Orleans Is Sinking
This song, from the group's first album, was the one that really put them on the map. It still gets a lot of airplay in Canada, and is one of the band's most instantly recognized songs. If you say the words "New Orleans Is Sinking" to a Canadian, chances are they will come right back with "I don't want to swim."
The song was actually voted one of the best Canadian songs ever, coming in at #16 in a list put together by the CBC in 2005. So, why is a song about New Orleans one of the top Canadian songs ever? It's complicated...
Performed live, the song morphs into an opportunity for Gord to explore other songs and stories. The live version is always an extended version, often having other songs kind of stuck in the middle of it. Often, Gord will tell a story. Sometimes, you get a song and a story. We eat it up, either way.
After hurricane Katrina devastated the Big Easy in 2005, Canadian stations temporarily stopped playing the song out of respect for the people impacted by that terribly tragedy. The song took on a life of its own when relief sites for the disaster started playing it.
Tragically Hip performing "New Orleans Is Sinking"
38 Years Old
Another hit from the album Up To Here, this single from 1990 is about a prison break in Kingston. It is based on a true story, though the boys took some artistic license with the story and changed some details so the lyrics would rhyme.
The song tells the tale of one of the escaped convicts paying a visit to his family's home in the middle of the night. A tap on the glass lets the family know that Mike is home after 20 years in jail for killing a man who raped his sister. But the Mounties are in pursuit, and take Mike back home to prison.
"He's thirty eight years old, never kissed a girl."
The Tragically Hip "38 Years Old"
This is one of those songs that is simply identified with summer in Canada, right up there with Max Webster's "Million Vacations". Named after one of the major cottage areas north of the city of Toronto, the song just fits with time at the cottage, though the lyrics really have nothing at all to do with that. This one, like so many Hip songs, is a bit of a mystery, and references the checkerboard flooring at Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern and a local band called "The Men They Couldn't Hang" that used to play the club scene in that city.
Tragically Hip's "Bobcaygeon"
Ahead By A Century
This much-loved song is from the band's fifth studio album, Trouble at the Henhouse. It contains references to being stung by a hornet, the resulting feverish dream, and then getting rid of the hornets' nest by "smoking it out", best done at night. The video contains images that help tell the story best.
See? I told you it was complicated.
Tragically Hip "Ahead By A Cantury"
The name of the song that declares "Happy Hour is Here" is taken from the name of a cat in a book Gord was reading when he wrote the song. The little bones reference also came from a taxi driver warning Gord to eat his chicken slowly, because of the little bones. Gord loved the double reference, and worked it into a song.
The song also has references to New Orleans, a place Gord has always been intrigued by.
The Hip "Little Bones"
What is your favorite Hip Song?
Gord's death was announced on October 18, 2017. The news said he was surrounded by family and friends.
I hope Gord knew we were all there with him too.
"...'Cause these are the days worth livin'
These are the years we're given
And these are the moments
These are the times
Let's make the best out of our lives..."
© 2016 Kaili Bisson