I’ve never owned a Tragically Hip or Gord Downie album. I never considered myself a fan. And yet the music Gord made with and without that band with the name we all wish we’d thought of ourselves has been a vivid part of the soundtrack to my life ever since I started navigating the strangeness of puberty.
I’m thinking now maybe that makes me a fan after all.
The first Hip song I was conscious of hearing was “Poets”. Seemed like that song was everywhere the summer I was about to turn fifteen. At first I thought it was a pretty typical rock song with a singer who didn’t feel like he really fit the music. He didn’t sound like a rock singer to me. He sounded like something new I hadn’t heard before.
Then I started paying attention to the lyrics.
Spring starts when a heartbeat’s pounding,
when the birds can be heard
above the reckoning carts
doing some final accounting.
Who writes words like that to kick off one of the catchiest songs in their catalogue and the leadoff single to their new album? That’s fucking insane. And it’s brilliant.
I have a memory that makes me smile every time it resurfaces, of dancing to that song at the campground in Lambton County and weirding out a girl who was a little younger than me.
“You like this music?” she said, making a face.
I guess I was supposed to be into Limp Bizkit or the Goo Goo Dolls or something. Who knows. I went on dancing and sang at her not to tell me what the poets were doing.
Not long after that, MuchMoreMusic developed a thing for playing the video for “Ahead by a Century” on an almost daily basis. If I timed it just right, my walk home from school would get me inside the house right around the time it started.
I loved that song. There was a hard-won beauty about it I didn’t know how to put into words then. All I knew was I could watch the music video a thousand times and never get tired of the music that drove it. When Gord smiled through his singing, it did something good to my heart.
I kept up with new albums from a bit of a distance, always drawn to the intelligence and surprising turns of Gord’s lyrics, but for some dumb reason never got around to buying a CD. I think I didn’t know where to start, when I should have just started anywhere.
Last year came the revelation that Gord had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. He followed up that jarring news by releasing Secret Path, a collaboration with Jeff Lemire that has to go down as some of the most emotionally lacerating, compelling, commendable work of his life. Just weeks ago came an announcement that another new solo album was on the way. And now comes the news that Gord is gone.
I think we knew this day was coming. We hoped the man’s mental acuity and continuing drive to work were signs pointing to a postponement of the inevitable, but cancer is the ultimate asshole. Too often it takes good people away from us long before they should be going anywhere.
The minute I read the news, I scrawled out the words to what’s been my favourite Tragically Hip song for fifteen years, went downstairs, sat at the piano, and recorded it in one take (the harmonies were added a few minutes later and also done in one take). I wanted to get down an emotional response without over-thinking it. Almost like a prayer. With my next-door neighbour having a whole lot of noisy work done on their house, leaving me with only small pockets of quiet here and there, I didn’t have much choice anyway.
I’m not one to record musical tributes. But there’s something in this song that’s always grabbed me.
It sounds simple. A few chords and a single long verse and chorus that come back a second time. Then you listen a little closer and notice the second time the verse comes around, there are subtle little changes that shift its meaning, and the second chorus is twice as long as the first, and then a miniature hook comes back and changes its colours too.
Great songwriters can do things like that without calling attention to the sleight of hand. Whether you knew it or not, Gord Downie was a great one.