Canada's Band: The Tragically Hip

January 1, 2019

Michael Barclay’s biography of The Tragically Hip, published by ECW last year, is a comprehensive tome about one of Canada’s favorite rock groups and Gord Downie, the band’s popular front man and lyricist, whose final years battling cancer made front-page news. Barclay takes a holistic approach to the tale and invites his reader to think about his book with a smaller narrative arc. He states from the top that “half of this book is a chronological history…the other half [sic] extrapolates on various themes throughout the band’s 32-year career…all chapters are written in a way that they can be read in isolation…in whatever order you like.” I’m sure the author had good intentions by setting up his history in this fashion, but it’s bad advice. By creating a split-focus, right down to non-sequential chapters, he weakens the impact of the book and the importance of the band’s story overall. That said, the book has some good information and an appreciation for its subject.

            Barclay’s opening salvo is a successful dissertation on “what makes a band, and especially The Hip, ‘Canadian’”. This particular notion of a so-called Canadian sound continues to be fodder for Canadian critics who need to discuss such things and Barclay is no exception. For him the band’s “Canadianness” is not only based on their subject matter, but on their lifestyle as well; the group relishes its privacy and is friendly to the point of “doing the dishes” at house parties. In a way, this reduces what being Canadian is to a stereotype because the members of the Hip are polite to a fault. 

            Using extensive interviews, as he often does in the 400-plus pages, Barclay occasionally leaves the talking to someone else while being careful about his own point-of-view. After surveying his experts, he finally settles on Gord Downie’s definition of the band, “we’re basically fairly dull and regular and ordinary in the hope that we may be violent and original in our work.” It’s a bold statement typical of Downie’s wry humour, but Barclay leaves it dangling on the page without any further explanation. By failing to exploit Downie’s notion as a way of understanding the Hip and their music, Barclay maintains a journalist’s distance from his subject. That’s fine, but it creates a distracted and maddening read not only in chapter 1, but also in the succeeding chapters that “extrapolate on various themes in the band’s 32-year career”. Those extrapolations are interesting on their own, but don’t enhance or enrich my appreciation for the band.

            The parts of the Tragically Hip’s story I found most engaging was how they came together as young men looking to express themselves through music. Growing up in Kingston, Ontario, they came together as a band in high school and played a mix of R&B, Rock and Pop cover songs. They had no agenda for fame and fortunes, seeking only to have a good time, smoke pot and play music. Barclay tells this part of the story within the first couple of chapters, but then he detours on topics related to the Hip and their cultural impact, returning to pick up the story using the band’s discography as a guide. These extrapolations, which, in sum, eventually weigh down the flow of the narrative, includes a look at cover bands in chapter 3, the importance of the sport of hockey to the band’s unity in chapter 7 and the all-important, myth-shattering chapter 9, proving that the band did, in fact, have great financial and artistic success in the United States. 

            Chapter 13, slugged as “a Band of Ringos” seeks to put the band into the proper context of Music history and why the Hip matters to some fans, and not to others. Barclay’s argumentative chapters such as this one are effective to a point, but I got tired of the endless explorations of what makes “culture” and what it means for the fans of The Tragically Hip. The endless quotations about Another Roadside Attraction, the national tour that entrenched the band into Canadian music history, were particularly redundant. 

           Regarding the band’s management changes over the years, Barclay leaves no stone unturned. His book reveals the fascinating inside story of the group’s first managers, Jake Gold and Allan Gregg whose confused set of business acumen and personal feelings for the group disintegrated over time. The band’s first label, MCA records get a fair shake, as they meddled in the band’s early commercial intentions, but the details leave me cold. Similarly, do I really need to know that Downie took choreography from Shannon Cooney? Or that his last record came in a long-line of final recordings by ill-musicians such as David Bowie, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Sharon Jones? What was the point of writing so much about the failing health and tragic ends to stars like Glen Campbell in Chapter 22? 

          Chapter 23 is exclusively about Canada’s treatment of our First Nations in context with Gord Downie’s last album, the sublime Secret Path, but it was over the top for anyone well versed in our country’s shameful record on the treatment of its aboriginal peoples. Barclay’s long and unfair diatribe about writer Joseph Boyden’s questionable roots regarding “suspicion in Indigenous circles” goes too far, in my opinion. Again, the author’s splintered focus takes the reader down so many rabbit holes as to be a distraction rather than to supplement the story. The real value of his writing is when Barclay discusses the music and how both The Hip’s and Downie’s solo albums were written and produced. 

I gained considerable insight into the music when Barclay took the time to interview the recording engineers and producers associated with each album. This is the kind of stuff I live for, such as the story of Road Apples (MCA) released in 1991. It was the band’s first number one album, recorded not in Canada, but in New Orleans, under the eyes of Don Smith, who produced their first release, Up To Here (MCA)in Memphis. Their sophomore effort spawned the singles “Little Bones” and “Long Time Running”, which was also the name of the documentaryon the band, by Jennifer Baichwal. I liked reading about the band’s experiences in New Orleans, one of my favourite cities, as they soaked up the spirit of the place and reflected it in their music. When Steve Berlin, of Los Lobos, was hired to produce Phantom Power (Universal) and Music@Work (Universal) two of the group’s biggest sellers, his organic methodology was essential to understanding The Tragically Hip’s songs, “Poets” and “My Music At Work”. But the author doesn’t think every Hip album was great and I respect him for not giving false praise to the recordings he didn’t particularly like. Unfortunately, Barclay seems more intent on getting the facts right with a steady flow of eyewitness accounts, than holding a mirror up to the artist and their work with any detail.

          By the end of the book I felt a little overwhelmed by the density of the information and its split focus. So the question becomes, is it possible to tell the rich and fateful story of Gord Downie withoutThe Tragically Hip? Is it possible to articulate the impact of one of Canada’s most successful and beloved Rock bands withoutdetouring into the life and times of Gord Downie? I’m not so sure. Clearly for Barclay these stories aren’t mutually exclusive. But by giving them equal weight, as he has done in The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip 

(ECW), I’m left with too many facts and not enough insight into what makes them tick, individually and collectively. Nevertheless, as a detailed chronicle of one of Canada’s best rock groups and their front man, Barclay’s well-researched biography should remain the go-to resource for all things “Hip” in years to come. First Pubished on Critics At Large, July, 2018.

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