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- Posted on Jun 24th 2011 1:00PM by Have Not Been The Same
Courtesy of the Tragically Hip
Suddenly they were ubiquitous: on the radio, on Canada's TV music station MuchMusic, in every bar, blaring out of cars and dorm rooms, sung around campfires. They won the fan-voted Entertainer of the Year at the Junos. The mayor of their hometown, Kingston, Ontario, gave them the key to the city. Their appeal lay not just in their visceral take on blues rock -- as different and original as the Rolling Stones' relationship to the music in the '60s -- but the way singer/lyricist Gord Downie created a poetic, abstract mythology, rich with Canadian imagery, the likes of which were previously unheard in lyrics from any Canadian rock musician. 'Road Apples' was their first No. 1 album; its follow-up, 1992's 'Fully Completely,' would go on to sell a million copies. Both feats, however, were restricted to Canada, where the more popular the band became, the more their fans wanted to see the Tragically Hip succeed around the world. Read on for an excerpt from 'Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995,' which is currently out in its revised 10th anniversary edition.
In 1991, fans of the Tragically Hip seemed so secure in their idols' representation of Canada that it became almost necessary for the Tragically Hip to carry the banner in other parts of the world. Bearing that responsibility came easiest in northern U.S. border cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Seattle where the buzz was easily translatable, yet cities like Tucson and Dallas embraced the Hip as well. Their early touring experience in the U.S. was just as hit-and-miss as it had been early on in Canada. Stories had filtered back since their first forays south in 1989; like the night in Bloomington, Indiana, when the total number of musicians and crew more than outnumbered the five people in the audience.
At a club in Madison, Wisconsin, the entourage arrived to find they had been mistakenly double-booked with an indie band called Nirvana. The road-weary young trio was there to meet with local producer Butch Vig before beginning work on their first major-label album, and agreed to open the show. Downie recalls, "I remember playing pinball in the back after soundcheck, and what-would-be Kurt Cobain was lying on a table curled up in a ball. I was trying to make conversation -- 'Pretty tired, huh?' They attracted a crowd of about 150, which dwindled down to about 40 when we went on. That was yet another of life's cruel lessons; never go on after a band from Seattle!"
The Hip found a more receptive response in Europe, where they played before their biggest audience to that point at the Pink Pop Festival in Holland, and took the first of many trips to Germany and Scandinavia. As the Hip prepared to record its next album, MCA America was counting on it to match Canadian sales with equivalent U.S. numbers. The songs were once again being written on the road. Much of Downie's travelling time was passed with his nose buried in books, and two in particular had made a strong impact on him during the 'Road Apples' tour. One, Milan Kundera's 'The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,' spurred Downie's stream-of-consciousness writing. It would directly contribute to a new song that built on a simple one-chord riff. 'Fully Completely' was a logical extension of the ephemeral qualities of 'Last of the Unplucked Gems,' although here the band sounded entirely uninhibited. The song became a cornerstone of the sessions, eventually earning its place as the title track.
Another was created after Downie read Hugh MacLennan's 'The Watch That Ends the Night,' the story of a love triangle set in pre- and post-Second World War Montreal. MacLennan had been one of the first internationally known Canadian novelists, revered for his grasp of the country's ingrained socio-political attitudes in other books such as Two Solitudes. Watch inspired Downie's writing of 'Courage' to the point that the song would not only bear a personal dedication to MacLennan, but also paraphrased one of the text's key paragraphs: "There is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them."
"I lifted that passage. I just couldn't resist," Downie says. "Right or wrong, I put it in. There are some nights when I sing it and think, it's inappropriate because you're placing the words way above the music." Other songs sprung from unusual sources. While visiting the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum on tour, the band saw an exhibit about the tiny cameras that were mounted on pigeons to take aerial photographs during the First World War. This formed the basis of the song 'Pigeon Camera,' which examined human beings as similarly unmanageable objects sent out into the world.
Also at the Smithsonian they saw the hat that bomber pilots in the Second World War earned for successfully completing fifty missions. Over a crunching rhythm that recalled the Stooges' 'Down In the Street,' Downie somehow combined that piece of contemporary archaeology with a straight re-telling of how young Toronto Maple Leaf defenceman Bill Barilko became an unlikely hero by scoring the 1951 Stanley Cup–winning goal, only to disappear that August as he flew home to Timmins, Ontario from a fishing trip on James Bay. He and the pilot would not be located until 11 years later, when the wreckage of their plane was found 100 km north of Cochrane. As the lyric describes, Downie took the story almost verbatim from a Barilko hockey card, but it was a legend that already loomed large in the annals of hockey history. Among the rumours that circulated prior to 1962 was a story that Barilko, of Russian heritage, had ordered the pilot to fly to the Soviet Union where he began coaching young players the hard-hitting Canadian style.
The eventual song that emerged from these two ideas, 'Fifty Mission Cap,' would indelibly align the Tragically Hip to Canada's game, reinforced by their presence at a ceremony honouring the 50th anniversary of Barilko's historic goal. But for those who had been following Downie's evolution as a writer, the juxtaposition of images revealed a lot more. "'Fifty Mission Cap' and 'Courage' are pretty good examples of an attractive image, or a salient idea, and trying to make a song out of it -- and not necessarily succeeding; just the constant singing of it is all that's necessary for it to exist," Downie explains. "A fifty mission cap on its own signifies experience, talent, and luck. Then I put that together with the Bill Barilko story. Generally we'll throw everything into the mix and start seeing what happens. I probably put both images in and just couldn't take either out, so I had to figure a way to loosely stitch these things together. It's the stitching that provides any kind of meaning.
"[Barilko's story] is almost the greatest example of being struck down in your prime after you do something great and unique. Then you have this idea of a kid having a fifty mission cap, and wanting to get to fifty missions faster than it actually takes, but working it in to look like it is; to look like you've had that experience and to appear to be beyond your years."
Coincidentally, the Toronto Maple Leafs retired Barilko's number on October 6, 1992, one week before his story would be presented to a wider audience with the release of 'Fully Completely.'
'Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995' was written by Michael Barclay, Ian A.D. Jack and Jason Schneider. It was first published in 2001.