We have a lost an important Canadian voice today. In tribute, this is a repost of something a wrote a year ago for Anne Theriault's compilation of essays on the man himself, Gord Downie, and the songs that have inspired us. You can read all the essays here: For Gord: 27 Short Essays About The Tragically Hip, Plus One Poem
I've posted my essay on the song 38 Years Old in full below, followed by a cover of Gord's tune "Trick Rider"
I don't remember a time when the Tragically Hip weren't in my life. Their first LP (1989's Up To Here) was released at the beginning of my early musical exploration. When I was asked to sing in my first high school band, we learned 5 or 6 tunes, including "New Orleans Is Sinking" and "Blow At High Dough". They were the soundtrack to bush parties, high school basketball games, long car drives, proms, they were everywhere.
And I hated them.
Let's talk about a song, though. Actually let's talk about songwriting. Even in the days when I hated the Hip the most, I always had this nagging inner voice telling me that I might be making a horrible mistake in harbouring such a negative (and unpopular) opinion about the band. Eventually that voice became too loud to ignore, and at that point I began to pay attention to what these tunes were actually about:
They were telling their Canadian audience that there was no shame in telling Canadian stories, and they're right. There isn't.
Jeez, Gord. I'm sorry I didn't see this earlier.
In 1989, when Kim Mitchell was vapidly lamenting his "Rock And Roll Duty", and long-forgotten chanteuse Candi was reminding us that "Love Makes No Promises", The Tragically Hip were singing about The Millhaven prison break ("38 Years Old"). That particular story is just as interesting as anything from San Quentin or Folsom, but what made Downie's telling of it extraordinary was the choice he made in focusing on the emotional and the familiar instead of the sensational. And, with all due respect to Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, that's what holds this song above your average prison song. Downie creates an empathy for the song's protagonist, Mike, that I've never felt for Cash's chain gang murderer. But at the same time, Downie manages to avoid the weepy sentimentality of a "Moma Tried"; When Mike's mother cries that "the horror has finally ceased," the scene is played in such a matter-of-fact way that it feels real. It feels like it could be my family.
"38 Years Old" is just one example of Gord's genius for combining Canadiana with brilliant storytelling. Since that first LP, The Tragically Hip have told the stories of Bobcaygeon, The Isle Aux Morts, Sault Sainte Marie, Niagara Falls, Toronto, a lake in Quebec, Algonquin Park, The Prairies, the 100th Meridian, a cemetery in Kingston, hockey, bears, CBC, Canada — just to name a few. Put it this way: if it's a Canadian event, place or feeling, the Hip have probably sung about it. And all of this has paved the way for other Canadian singer-songwriters to explore their own relationship with this country and its history.
Jeez, Gord. I'm sorry I didn't see these things earlier.