"There's this fuckin' band you've gotta see, they used to scare the livin' shit outta me'" - An Inch An Hour
In March1988, The Tragically Hip was a band you had to see. The Kingston quintet's reputation had preceded it to Winnipeg, first stop on its inaugural cross-Canada tour. Having spent the previous two years barnstorming the pubs, clubs and beer halls of Ontario, the group had released an eight-song, eponymous mini-album. Smalltown Bringdown and Last American Exit were being played at local radio and a television feature on The New Music had prepped Prairie audiences for a young band that played no-frills rock 'n' roll. Rob Baker, Gordon Downie, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois and Gord Sinclair looked lean and mean, like a gang - they were a T-shirts and jeans act in an age of teased hair and spandex. Their sound was an improbable roar that left mouths agape.
When The Hip were booked into Winnipeg's Diamond Club, a nightspot that usually showcased Top 40 bands, I called the local agent to ask if he knew what he'd done. He said the Diamond's owners, an ambitious family of hoteliers, didn't want anyone else to have The Hip, the biggest buzz band from out East.
On Monday, March 14, 1988, John Cougar Mellencamp's Lonesome Jubilee tour played the Winnipeg Arena, a much-anticipated show that had sold-out the old hockey rink in record time. Just about every rock fan in Winnipeg was at that concert that night, meaning those interested in the Hip didn't get across town to the Diamond Club until 11:30 p.m. By the time they arrived, The Hip were done.
"Over? We were fired?"
Seventeen years later, Gordon Downie still rankles at the thought. The Diamond Club's manager had been horrified by the band's first set, their bum's eye for clothes and by Downie's performance, which included singing one tune while lying on his back.
A day later, the band was homeless, as they'd lost their hotel rooms with the firing. They faced a week in Winnipeg without a gig. I hadn't been at the show the night before but I'd heard what had happened, and I spoke to Rob Baker on the phone. The band was low, he said, consulting with the musicians' union and considering its options. Within hours, free hotel rooms had been procured at the Osborne Village Motor Inn and gas-money gigs were booked at Corner Boys, a rec-room-cum-lounge co-owned by boxer Donnie Lalonde, the WBF light heavyweight champ.
That Friday, my nightspots column in The Winnipeg Sun told The Hip's unlucky story. It was given the provocative headline 'Tragically gypped!' Less than a month later, as the band worked its way back East, it played a weekend at The Junkyard, a thank-you gig to the hotel owners who had provided rooms in March.
When I arrived at the club, there was a lineup out the door. The room was heaving. The rest is a familiar tale.
From his Toronto home in the autumn of 2005, Gordon Downie recalls the days of discovery and wonder that were the late '80s' for The Tragically Hip.
"We didn't have a lot of guile, and some say we still don't," he says. "Our needs were few. That was our first tour across the country. Like any rock band going across the country, everything was brand new and everything was possible. Every whiff of interest or approval distilled itself into confidence, and anything that wasn't confidence was just well disguised insecurity. We also had a very self-deprecating sense of humour, collectively, so we turned all those kinds of sad-sack stories into tales of triumph," he says.
"I don't think you can do that if you have an ounce of ambition or aspiration beyond just having fun. You're just blown away by the fact you're actually doing this. You're putting another load of gas in the tank to take you further away from home on a mission that is totally undefined and potentially endless, perhaps resulting in death or disfigurement - emotionally speaking, spiritually speaking and philosophically speaking," he says.
"Heading onto the stage then, we were grateful for every friend we had."
* * *
On Saturday, April 2, 2005, The Tragically Hip were inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame at the Winnipeg Convention Centre during Juno Weekend celebrations.
As an acceptance speech, Gordon Downie read an impassioned poem, We Are the Next Us, with his bandmates standing beside him. In it, he described the preparations for an imaginary gig, invoking visions of the disparate community that comes together to create a show by The Tragically Hip. Accepting a Hall of Fame induction, he said, was a way of honouring the Hip's families, friends, co-workers and their fans.
This band is still grateful to every friend it's ever had.
Hipeponymous, The Tragically Hip's 37-song, two-CD-and-two-DVD, limited edition boxed set is another thank you, a gift to the band's fans that includes two new tracks, No Threat and The New Maybe, 35 of the group's most popular songs, a full-length concert DVD entitled That Night in Toronto and a bonus DVD featuring all 23 of the band's videos, a 50-minute backstage film entitled Macroscopic, and The Right Whale, a collection of11 visual vignettes featuring scores from the group.
The two audio discs are pointedly titled Yer Favourites because the songs they contain were selected by Hip fans via an on-line poll. Because of this, the set is almost a gift from fans to the band, as it enabled the group to organize and put together a boxed set without the albatross of Career-retrospective collection haunting their every thought. It also enables The Hip to continue moving forward, as they are in the midst of a productive period, which should yield a new studio album, the bands 11th, in 2006.
"It really is a gift to the fans because they chose the songs," Downie says. "It's an abdication on our part which some may say is contravening the laws of art because you're supposed to give the people what you want, not what they want - at least according to Bono."
"To do a real career retrospective you really need a lot of time, energy and psychic currency and you need to have a knock-down, drag'em out to decide how to tell the story. We're not avoiding it; that's an essential thing and ultimately it will be very good for us when we go to do it - and good for the people that are interested because there is a literal mountain of tapes."
Downie says the band had an intimate hand in the making of That Night in Toronto and the new visual material on the bonus DVD because it wanted the package to be as current and as representative of the band's present and future as the Yer Favourites discs are representative of the band's past.
"Why is that? I think the reasons are obvious. It"s art and in making art you want to be of the future, of the now."
If anything, that is the message of Hipeponymous. The collection gives fans pause to reflect and revel in the band's 18 -year recording while at the same it gives Baker, Downie, Fay, Langlois and Sinclair a boost for continuing the uncharted journey it began almost 20 years ago.
For Downie, much of that journey has been an exploration of his views on what it means to be Canadian.
"I definitely wasn't aware of it until recently - which may just be selective memory - but I've just sort of watched it evolve in terms of the lyrics. As a young writer from small-town, middle-class Canada I think I started writing about, in my limited scope, Canada, and in a weird way, I guess what I'm thinking about is how it all unfolded and how a lot of people might attribute the band's popularity to a blatant nationalism.
"I think what I was trying to do (was say) I didn't have a patriotic view of Canada," he says. "In a weird way I actually started to question that a bit and if I've failed in that regard it's because I didn't commit enough."
"It would be my goal to really go further and I've never even come close to achieving it. We're still on that road that isn't even on the map and it's difficult to go down and it's at night and there's no lights."
But it must be nice to know there will be friends along the way.