The Tragically Hip shows I saw in Canada on August 8 and 10 were more than I could’ve hoped for. The band played magnificently and singer Gord Downie went from Canadian rock star to national folk hero with courageous performances just seven months after two brain surgeries and first round of chemo/radiation. I came early at each show to hang with the crowd, though most of them were in long lines to buy t-shirts of this historic Man Machine Poem tour.
Like many of you, I was stunned with sadness and, yes, a little guilt that it wasn’t me, when news broke about Gord’s illness. I decided to drive up from Texas to Canada to catch a couple shows on the band’s impending farewell tour. And to see Gord and catch up with the guys. Along the way, I thought a lot about our time together. When I’d wake up in the morning at the motel, I’d write up what I had been thinking about. That’s this journal.
PART I: I can get behind anything
I met the Tragically Hip in Chicago in 1989. They had just been signed in the U.S. to MCA Records and their publicist Susan Levy said I just had to check them out at a club called the Avalon on Belmont Avenue. The upstairs rock box had been famous as the Quiet Knight years earlier, hosting the likes of Bob Marley and Bruce Springsteen on the rise in the ’70s, but in ’89 it was mainly local rock bands. Nobody cool played the Avalon.
Though they were starting to get big in Canada thanks to massive radio airplay for “New Orleans Is Sinking,” the Hip were completely unknown in the U.S. (a dynamic that continues to exist 27 years later, though they now sell out 20,000-seaters up north and play 1,500-cap rooms in the States.) There were maybe 100 people at the Avalon when the band opened with “Blow At High Dough.” The singer Gord Downie started it off, “They shot a movie once, in my home town/ Everybody was in it, for miles around,” and the guitars gathered softly. Gord paced the stage like he lost something, but couldn’t remember what. “Well I ain’t no movie star, but I can get behind anything.” And then the drums and bass kicked in and the guitars blazed. That did it for me. Levy said I put down my beer halfway through the first song and said “These guys are fucking great!”
It’s the middle, the center that holds it all together. The singer with his grand vibrato, bouncing off the rhythm section, which in this band includes the guitar players to a point. The engine analogy is overused to describe bands locked in (also overused), but to me that was the beauty of the Tragically Hip, who take their name from a Michael Nesmith skit on Elephant Parts. This was classic rock without solos, with a Royal Canadian Patti Smith at the front. It all revolved around Gord 1 (Gord 2 is bassist Sinclair), but without that band he would’ve fallen on his face.
It just so happened that they were staying at the Comfort Inn on Diversey Street, almost directly across the street from where I lived, so we hung out for hours in their room after the show, drinking beers and arguing about hockey, which I called soccer on ice and they raved about as the greatest of sports. They were really cool guys, not pretentious or overly ambitious, but a pleasant group to hang out with. They were curious and wanted to know what records they should buy at the record store next door.
Ten years later, when Toronto’s Air Canada Center opened, the Tragically Hip were the first band to play, selling out 20,000 tickets with ease. They’re the Canadian Pearl Jam, only they’ve had the same drummer, Johnny Fay, all these years. The same five guys are the same five guys. In Canada, they had nine #1 albums, while in the States they’ve never cracked the Billboard Top 100.
But they kept coming, kept trying. I saw so many shows in clubs, in Atlanta, New York, Austin five or six times, plus Dallas a bunch, as I’ve watched from afar their ascent to superstardom in the Great White North. An ongoing joke with the band is that I don’t believe that they’re actually popular in Canada, never having seen them there. Like, when some minor league hockey player in the U.S. (I’ve met them ALL through the Hip), tells the band they saw them at this or that Enormodome I make the “he must be high” sign, which is puffing an imaginary joint.
But I’ve been so proud of their success up north and did my best to see that people in Canada’s Mexico know them as well. And I have failed miserably.
I’ve been thinking about those early shows a lot since May came the news that Gord Downie, 52, has terminal brain cancer. I always thought we were about the same age, but he’s always been 8 years younger. A brother more than any other musician, especially of his stature, I’ve ever met. And he’s a true artist, getting as close to the fire as he can without getting burned.
The band is in the midst of what could be their final tour, with a last show at the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario Aug. 20. I’m driving up from Austin to see them in London, Ontario Aug. 8. Along the way I’ll be thinking about my friends and all the shows and all the laughs and all the human hospitality of the past 27 years. I’ll ask for a corner room at cheap motels and write about our adventures together. And post them here.
PART II: On the verge
Naming Road Apples as your favorite Hip album is like saying chocolate is your favorite ice cream flavor. It’s a classic blues-rock album that never fails to satisfy, but seems kinda bland when you think about all the swirls that came later. The band was just starting to build on their Stones/ REM foundation. On the basis of an article I wrote on the band in Creem magazine- their first big U.S. feature- I was sent to New Orleans by MCA to write the bio for Road Apples (which was my favorite THLP until about a month ago, I must admit).
Canadians in the U.S. stick together like they all went to the same high school and so Daniel Lanois offered up his world class studio in the French Quarter to the band and producer Don Smith, who’d helmed Up To Here in Memphis a couple years earlier. OK, you figure rock band on a major label budget in the Big Easy, it’s gonna be party central. Instead the band mostly watched VHS tapes in their rented apartment and ate at Coop’s Place on Decatur Street quite a bit. Lots of beer, of course, but the whole time I’ve known the Hip, 80% have been married and loyal, which led to the band’s only single member at the time, Johnny Fay, to earn the nickname “Johnny Tang.” Well, actually only I called him that, and even referred to him as “J.T.” in national magazines, which always cracked up the Gords.
Road Apples, which for our American readers is slang for frozen cow patties, which were used as hockey pucks, sure seemed like it was going to be the record that broke the band in the States. Paul Langlois and Robby Baker were getting into some serious guitar tangling, though I could never tell which one was Keith and which was Mick Taylor. And the real driving force was bassist Gord Sinclair, especially on “Born In the Water,” “Three Pistols,” “On the Verge” and “Little Bones.” The hard rock stuff was kicking my ass.
I felt bad about smoking so much of the band’s weed that I went out one night and bought a $50 chunk of hash off the street. I’m from the U.S. I don’t know from hash. When I proudly presented the brown ball to the band and they looked it over, I knew I had been ripped off. I shrunk when someone said, “Does anyone want to smoke this sweater?”
PART III: Shoes at the door
We hardly ever talked about music. It was mainly sports and movies. When a band is on tour, there’s tons of downtime and it can get boring. Trying to fill the days can be as challenging as finishing a song. “Have you ever seen In Cold Blood?” I asked during one of these bull sessions. It was my favorite movie, from the Truman Capote book, where each scene was shot exactly where it happened in real life, right down to the Clutter house, where Dick and Perry murdered a family for nothing.
“OK, next time you’re in Chicago, I’ll rent it and we can watch it at my friend’s house.” There were these two women from Austin, Laura Veselka and Lindsay Ford, whom I’d become good friends with. They had a list of things they wanted to do before they died (pre-“Bucket List”) and #57 was “try heroin.” They were about 21 and as far from druggies as you could imagine, so that was cute more than sad.
The Hip played a great set at the Riviera, I think opening for Eric Johnson, and afterwards we took a cab to the girls’ apartment nearby. The band watched the film in silence, then five thumbs went up as the credits rolled. And the next day, I called Lindsay to say thank you. “They all took off their shoes before they came inside!” she said, incredulously.
Q- How do you get 29 Canadians out of the swimming pool?
A- Yell, “everybody out of the pool!”
I got that joke right away.
PART IV: Victoria
Don’t you just hate when bands put their artistic aspirations over the expectations of fans? But some of your alltime favorite records are the ones that you didn’t like at first. It’s a challenge, like changing your golf grip from just grasping the club to interlocking fingers. The first couple times you’re gonna want to go back, but if you stick it out better things will come. That’s how I felt about Fully Completely, which the Hip recorded in London with a new producer.
But by the time the band played Deep Ellum Live in Dallas in December ’92to promote the album I was into the new sound, which found Gord’s lyrics coming to the fore and the players creating a more exploratory soundscape around the weird poetry. Live, the singer was becoming a riveting maniac.
While I was in Dallas writing for the Morning News, I interviewed an old black jazz musician who told me about a place called Cade’s Bowl O’ Beans that would Cajun-fry a turkey for you for $15 if you brought in the bird. It was the best thing I’d ever put into my mouth that didn’t immediately come out and I told my friends from Canada, who aquired a taste for New Orleans food during their time recording Road Apples that the next time they came to Dallas, I’d have a little fried turkey party the next day.
My apartment wasn’t big enough, so we had it at my editor Lisa Broadwater’s house. I brought the band, she brought her friend Victoria. While the boys were outside playing basketball and Lisa was in the kitchen reheating the turkey, I was alone with Victoria, who was thumbing through a book of Robert Frank photos. This was one of the most plainly attractive women I’d ever seen. Think Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown. She was looking at one particular photo a long time. It was a carnival truck and didn’t look special to me. “What’s so great about that photo?” said I, the wizard of ice-breakers. And she showed me the story the photo told of a couple with young children who traveled in a converted bus from town to town to make money. None of this was apparent to my Philistine eyes until she showed me the subtle signs- the small shoes on the fender, the ”
do not disturb” sign in French. The guys had returned and Victoria left. “That’s the woman I’m going to marry,” I announced. And two months later I did.
We watched a big Dallas Cowboys game that afternoon, as they beat the favored San Francisco 49-ers to reach the Super Bowl. This was big news in Dallas, perhaps the biggest since November 1963, and the paper sent me to Pasadena for two weeks to cover the entertainment periphery of the game, including Michael Jackson’s halftime show. I got Victoria’s address from Lisa and sent her a postcard. Then I sent her a longer letter. When I got back on Feb. 4, 1993, we had our first date. Ten days later, on Valentine’s Day, we were married by her father, a Church of Christ minister.
It wasn’t just Victoria’s beauty that had drawn me. She taught me something, showed me a way to see something I didn’t know was there. That’s what I truly wanted from a life mate. To keep growing intellectually through each other. Though we split up 21 years ago, that’s the last time I fell in love. But I learned a hell of a lot.
And if you don’t think this part is also about the Tragically Hip, you’re wrong.
PART V: Courage (For Gord, For Me)
It was all fun and games in the beginning, like the time the Hip was opening for Eric Johnson in Atlanta and I came into the dressing room with a cooler full of beer. After their set, the band was disappointed that only a few beers were there for them. I knew Eric didn’t drink, so I went over his dressing room and asked if we could have some of theirs. I knew Bondo, the tour manager, and he said, “Here, take ’em all. Nobody in the band drinks,” and so I was the hero that night. (Also, I may have had something to do with the scarcity of beers for T. Hip in the first place.)
But, through the years the guys in the Hip witnessed my steady descent into alcoholism. Oh, man, did I get plastered when they came to town. Nothing tastes better than backstage beer. Correction: tour bus beer tastes best of all. And you’re all kinda wired about being in the special group, so you don’t really feel all that drunk until it’s time to leave.
On one tour in particular, the band had a female tour manager, and they don’t mess around or they won’t be around for long because folks will walk all over them. It was at the Austin Music Hall around 2000 and I was on the bus, as usual. When I got up to get another beer I lost my balance for a second and she came over to lead me off. Gord Downie lifted his hand just enough to let her know it was cool, but she was eyeballing me so hard after that I let myself off the bus and looked for a cab. The next year, same venue I think, the band said they were staying at the Doubletree, which was two blocks from where I lived, at 13th and Guadalupe, so I said can I get a ride with you guys? Of course, they said. When we got to the hotel, it was the other Doubletree, the one off I-35, about two miles northwest. It was two steps forward, one step back, all the way home.
The next time I saw the Tragically Hip, I was on the wagon and worried about triggers, so I just came to the soundcheck at La Zona Rosa to say “Hi” and skipped the show. Gord was sober, too. We talked about it a bit and I thought maybe I could come after all, but I think I stayed home and got drunk again.
I’m in a crappy Days Inn in Lebanon, MO right now, and it’s 5 a.m. and I can’t sleep. After three and a half years without alcohol in my life I started drinking again two months ago. I’m just so lonely in Smithville that I started chipping, with a six-pack once a week, just to get my head in a different place every once in a while. All I do is work. Need to get into a different mindset or I’m gonna go crazy. But in the last few weeks it’s been beer every day, working up to a 12-pack. I’m just disgusted with myself. One of the reasons I’m driving to Canada is because I have a choice and I don’t want to die. I think about what my dear friend is going through, with the brain cancer, yet still continuing with his gift of inspiration. I think about the 19-year-old kid in the army who almost killed himself after his fellow soldiers beat him in his sleep Full Metal Jacket style. He heard the Day For Night album in the hospital and the music and lyrics gave him a way out.
I listened to the Hip for five hours on the drive and remembered how much I loved “38 Years Old (Never Kissed a Girl)” the first time I heard it. So many great songs and that quiver of a voice sticking like an arrow.
Haven’t had a beer since Monday and I’m feeling a lot better. I needed to do this for myself. I love you, Gord Downie.
OK, I think I can sleep now. Will delete this when I wake up.
PART VI: Music is the poetry of rhythm and melody
Listened to the latest Tragically Hip LP Man Machine Poem on the drive from Indianapolis to last night’s resting spot of Richmond, Indiana. It’s by far the least accessible (i.e. weirdest) Hip album ever. Looking forward to hearing it again today, as I drive to Cleveland to look for the ghost of Arizona Dranes, the 1920s gospel singer/ pianist, who helped open Williams Temple Church of God In Christ in 1933. Downie’s voice is broken at some points, operatic in others. I couldn’t listen without imagining the quizzical looks of the other four as Gord brought them this challenging material and described their parts. Oh, yeah, there’s some real Brian Wilson shit going on.
But there’s one song, “In a World Possessed By the Human Mind,” that is the most goddamned beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. Played it again three times in a row after I checked into the motel. I don’t know if it was written before or after the cancer diagnosis, but I hear what Gord is going through in the song and it makes me so sad. His voice has just been told he has a terminal disease. But it also meets the news with such strength that it gives me chills. It’s a masterpiece, a track that people will listen to 100 years from now to learn more about how we were. And that’s really the goal of any artist, to have your work live on.
Why are the Tragically Hip so phenomenally popular in Canada, but not in the U.S.? Certainly radio has a lot to do with that. The Canadian content laws (a certain percentage of airplay has to be of material with Canadian ties) had DJs looking for something besides that fucking Jane Siberry to play when Up To Here came out in the late ’80s. Certain bands become wildly popular with people whose favorite music is something else. Like LCD Sound System is dance music for indie rockers and the Tragically Hip is art rock for kids who grew up on Rush and Kiss. But in the States, we had Seattle grunge and Smashing Pumpkins and the Hip were never that.
Anyone who makes any kind of living expressing themselves artistically is successful. The Hip made it beyond the wildest. Their drummer owns an island in the Virgin Islands, or maybe it’s a condo. Either way, that’s all you need to know. They’ve made it big. But I think it always kinda hurt that they didn’t break in the U.S. They played mid-sized halls, but most of the crowd was from that most civilized country in North America. It was lack of airplay. Tragically Hip requires active listening, not one time at 15 seconds. There are a lot of really interesting things going on.
I wanted to mention something I forget about in the band’s early days. They were in Chicago with a night off and I took Gord Downie and maybe Sinclair, too, to see Uncle Tupelo at Lounge Ax. This was late ’90, I believe. I was raving about this rock band that reminded me of a southern Husker Du and we get to the club and Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy and the other guys were sitting down, playing coalminer songs. Some muthafucker was playing a banjo for godsakes! I was, like, I’m sorry, I don’t know what happened, let’s go. But Gord loved it! Made us stay the entire set. Now that I think about it, Gord Sinclair was definitely not there.
PART VII: Getting there
What kind of parent delivers a baby to the other parent with a dirty diaper? I’ve been stewing about this for twenty-some years, but one reason I like to take long drives, as opposed to flying, is that you get to work shit out. Finally realize that Jack made while his mom drove him from their house to the hotel, so what’s she gonna do.
The Tragically Hip played a great show in Austin at SXSW 1995, on a Saturday night bill at Liberty Lunch with Wilco, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo and Blues Traveler. Not a bad lineup. The next night was in Dallas so I got a ride with them on the bus, to get my one-year-old and fly back to Austin.
The band had to hear all about my ridiculous marriage (which I blamed them for, in part- Cajun turkey!) all the way up. Yes, I was a helicopter parent, but my kid grew up in the midst of warfare.
But, time, man. Time is the greatest thing there is. It’s all we have, really. Time fixed things with me and Jack’s mother Victoria. They recently took a roadtrip on a route similar to mine, ending in Detroit and heading back, and I followed them on “Find my iPhone” and delighted in every positive text. Spiritually, I was on vacation with them.
The thing that sucks most is that we all have limited time. I’m 60 and think I’m dying at least once a week. Always been obsessed with death. As a youngster I was afraid of dying a virgin. Then my fear was I would go before I wrote anything anyone cared about. Luckily, those goals were reached on the same day. Not as long ago as I had hoped for.
Fear is the biggest killer, even if not many people die physically from it. Going through the worst case scenario in your mind over and over again is like going through it in real life. Who has time for that?
Tonight will be my first Tragically Hip on Canadian soil. Twenty-seven years after I saw the fivesome in some Chicago chithole. The members are still the same. I’ll finally see the widespread love they’ve created with their music.
Just as dancing is a representation of sex, a roadtrip is a symbol of life. And getting there is really the destination.
Part VIII: No one’s interested in what you didn’t do
Have a voice. Tell a story. When I get back to Texas I have to address a college journalism class and I’ve been running the lecture through my head on the drive from Cleveland to Detroit- which is only a little longer than Austin to Waco. Imagine Gord Downie discovering that he had a voice when he sang along to the Stones and REM and Tom Petty and Neil Young. But I’m talking about the artistic voice, the one that made him interesting. His story continues to inspire tonight. I’m going to be feeling so many things at once, which would’ve made me afraid until fairly recently, but now I can’t wait.
Think of that old Sunday School recitation as a riddle. God is all-powerful and all-knowing. He always was and always will be. He’s inside every one of us. Could it be that God is music? I think so. How many times in your life have you been going through something heavy and then a song comes on the radio just for you? Powerful? I thought my head was going to explode when I drove out of the parking lot of a dreadful Missouri motel blasting “North American Scum.” If music is God, tonight’s concert is going to be more like a religious revival.
The show started with the five band members huddled together like the old days of the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. Eight songs like that, then a break, and then the full on rock show. Before the show, Gord told me that he’s finally found the perfect stagewear- a series of satin suits and a plumed fedora. He worked it all night and sang magnificently. At the end it was just Gord Downie onstage, with the 10,000 in attendance going berserk with their appreciation for all he’s given them. He stood at all four corners and waved, but it wasn’t sad. Not with the show he’d just put on. Seven months after two brain surgeries and then chemo and radiation. In April, the rest of the band thought there’s no way Gord can perform in such frail condition. But by the first shows in July, he’d regain a lot of strength. Last night you couldn’t see any drop-off at all in intensity.
I don’t think this is the last month we’ll see Gord onstage with the Hip. More chemo is planned, and all sorts of experimental treatments are in the offing. We’ll see. But last night was one of the most inspiring things I’ve ever seen in an arena. A fantastic show!
PART IX: Trouble at the border
Had a little bit of trouble crossing the Canadian border the morning of the London, Ontario show. They pulled me out of the line to search my car, which was cool, because I spent the night in Port Huron, MI making sure I was clean. Then I had to go into the customs office and wait about an hour before my number was called. You know all that stuff you hear about Canadians being polite, efficient, reasonable? Try rude, clueless and superior at the border leading into Sarnia.
Finally got up to the window and the agent asked me all kinds of questions. Have you ever been arrested? Handcuffed? Fingerprints taken? I thought about it a bit and said “No, I don’t think so.”
Then, questions about why I wanted to go to Canada, and how long I’d be there. I said I came from Texas to see the Tragically Hip on what could be their final tour. “You drove all the way from Texas?” Yeah, I pointed out that I had seen the band in the U.S. many times, and was a good friend of the singer Gord Downie and the rest of the guys, but I’d never seen them in Canada, where they’re bigger than Pearl Jam.
The supervisor heard this and came over. “What shows are you going to?,” he asked. “Tickets are mighty hard to come by.” The entire tour sold out in minutes and many of the tickets were put on the secondary market at four times face. I said I have a ticket to the London, Ontario concert that night, then I was going to head on to the first Toronto show and hopefully find a way in. “No ticket to Toronto? Why don’t you just get on the phone and call your big friend Gord Downie?” he said, sarcastically, in one of those “Fargo” accents. Big smile on the face of the agent, stifling a giggle. At that point, I realized that, with my shabby demeanor and U.S. mail crate luggage, I must’ve seemed like a homeless man who claimed to know Mick Jagger. It was at that instant I understood just how big of a band were my friends who played to 1,000 folks (if lucky) in Texas. “I don’t like to bother him on the phone,” I said.
The agent sternly pointed to the row of chairs where I would spend the next half hour waiting to be called.
You know when you’re young and you do something stupid and they tell you to just plead guilty and do the community service and the conviction will be wiped clean from your record if you keep your nose clean? Canada don’t play that. They found, in my records, a 1983 conviction for possession of marijuana. “Why did you lie about that?” The agent said the conviction and the deception could prevent me from entering Canada.
Taking my phone out of my pocket, I said, “well, now I will call my good friend Gord Downie.”
Not really. I just swallowed hard and took my tongue-lashing and was sent off to the Great White North.
I told Gord the story that night, but he didn’t think it was funny. “I’m sorry you had to go through that. Come to the Toronto show and we’ll take care of you.” It was all-access, catered dinner, VIP platform for the show. I thought about getting someone to take a picture of me, wearing my laminate pass, with the Hip performing in the background 20 yards away in the 20,000-seat Air Canada Centre, and sending it to the border supervisor. Nah, high road. Those border patrol cops were just busting my balls, and who gets to have that kind of experience in Canada?
Meet Mike Cormier, who has two clients: Charlie Watts and Johnny Fay
I’m always interested in how rock n’ roll crew members (Cameron Crowe has ruined that other name for them) got their gigs. Got to know Mike Cormier a little up in Canada, where he’s Johnny Fay of the Tragically Hip’s drum tech. He’s had only one road job previously. “I was working as a local stage hand in 1994 when the Stones were in Toronto rehearsing (for the Voodoo Lounge tour),” he said. “One day Keith (Richard) came up to me and said ‘You’ve been working hard and you seem to get along with everyone, why don’t you come out on the road with us as Charlie’s drum tech?’” Mike’s a drummer himself, so he took to the gig easily. Over 20 years later, that’s still his main job, though he’s slumming it with Johnny at the moment.
Another essential member of the Hip team on this tour is sound man Mark Vreeken, who was also recruited as a stage hand. “We saw this kid who seemed to really know what he was doing,” said Hip guitarist Paul Langlois, “so we hired him as a guitar tech.” That was 25 years ago, when Mark was barely 20.
“He was so sharp, he worked his way up to sound man and even produced one of our records (Trouble In the Henhouse, one of their best.) Mark has to leave the Hip after tomorrow to fulfill a previous commitment running sound for King Crimson. He’s also been Leonard Cohen’s front-of-house guy for several years, where he works closely with Austin’s Roscoe Beck, Lenny’s musical director.
That’s how it’s done, kids. You work your ass off and hope someone notices.