Well after midnight, on a cold stretch of highway somewhere in British Columbia’s Cascade Mountains, a party is in progress. It’s mid-November, and members of the Tragically Hip, fresh off a successful tour opening in Vancouver, are celebrating as their bus whisks them northeastward overnight towards the Okanagan Valley.
The air is thick with smoke. “Pass me a beer?” asks drummer Johnny Fay, slipping a CD by the Asian Dub Foundation into the stereo system. As heavy rhythms flood out, heads nod appreciatively. The hypnotic instrumental number suits quiet conversation or zoning out. Several beers and too much David Bowie later, guitarist Robby Baker puts a more eclectic spin on things, playing tracks by everyone from Louis Armstrong to the Flying Burrito Brothers. Baker selects a cut from Wings’ Band on the Run. As the sleek bus glides through the B.C. night, the passengers sing along to Paul McCartney’s bluesy Let Me Roll It.
Eventually good sense prevails and the five musicians stagger off to their sleeping berths. Tomorrow’s another concert, and the members of the Hip possess an impeccable work ethic, having missed only one performance in 15 years. “We play, we go where we’re booked,” says singer Gord Downie matter-of-factly. With a note of late-night levity, he adds: “We go where we’re towed.”
There’s irony in the wordplay. Sure, they can be “towed” from town to town and from arena to arena to play for their legions of fans across the country. But no one tells the Tragically Hip what to do. Not their manager, not their record company. They are the masters of their own ship—small-town idealists from Kingston, Ont., who did it their way and grew to become nationalist icons and the most important Canadian rock outfit since the Guess Who or the Band. The polar opposite of Barenaked Ladies, currently Canada’s other most popular group, the Hip is huge at home and only so-so in the United States. But with its own recording studio, and with sales of the quintet’s seven studio albums, including the latest, Music @ Work, totalling more than five million copies, the Hip is hardly hurting, especially on the road. Although all five musicians are topflight, much of the Hip’s appeal can be traced to Downie. “He is one of the most dynamic, charismatic performers in the world,” Canadian actor-comedian Dan Aykroyd told Maclean's from his home in Los Angeles. “And the band is on a par with the Rolling Stones.” Buddies since childhood, the band members—who include bassist Gord Sinclair and guitarist Paul Langlois—still live in Kingston, with the exception of Downie, who has moved to Toronto. They thrive on loyalty, blood ties and home-town connections. “We’re very neighbourhood oriented,” says Sinclair. “Robby and I still live around the corner from each other, and our kids go to the same school we did. Our parents, who are all still together, raised us with similar values in a very stable environment. I guess that’s made us who we are.” The Hip has been managed by Jake Gold ever since he and his partner, former Tory pollster and now Song Corp. president Allan Gregg, first signed them back in 1986. And the band has stuck with the same Canadian record company, Universal Music, since its 1989 debut album, Up to Here.
By the time the tour winds up in Toronto on Dec. 23 after 22 dates from Vancouver to Corner Brook, Nfld., the group members will have lived together, cheek by jowl, for six weeks. More than 300,000 people will have heard them play and spent an estimated $12 million on tickets and merchandise, which includes everything from Hip hockey sweaters to custom rolling papers. Yet the group seems less commercially driven than most. “Other bands have different ambitions,” says Gold, “sometimes about money, sometimes about fame. But they’re just about music.”
Well, music and hockey. Like their CanRock heroes Rush, Hip members are die-hard fans of the game and part of a long tradition that has seen musicians lace up skates and sing about the sport. In Vancouver, the musicians rearranged their itinerary to take in the Canucks and New York Rangers game from a media box high above the rink at GM Place (the Canucks won 4-1). For the overnight trip to Kelowna, B.C., the bus was stocked with official player and stats guidebooks for every NHL team. And before the sound check in Kelowna, Downie, Baker, Fay and Sinclair nipped back to the bus to channel-hop between a Toronto Maple Leafs game and a Boston Bruins game (Downie is the Bruins fan). So it’s only natural that hockey figures in several Hip songs. One of the bands best known, Fifiy Mission Cap, conjures up the ghost of Maple Leaf legend Bill Barilko, while in the more recent Fireworks, Downie sings about a teenage romance with a girl who loosened his “grip on Bobby Orr.” Hockey isn’t the group’s only national obsession. While the Band’s Toronto-born Robbie Robertson writes lyrics that are steeped in Americana, Downie, the Hip’s sole lyricist, weaves Canadian characters from explorer Jacques Cartier and painter Tom Thomson to wrongfully convicted David Milgaard into his compositions. Churchill, Man., and Ontario’s Bobcaygeon and Algonquin Park are part of his landscape, while some songs are dedicated to Downie’s CanLit heroes, including poet AÍ Purdy and novelist Hugh MacLennan, who both thought Canada a place worth writing about. In Putting Down, one of the songs on Music @ Work, Downie is himself an observer of his Canadian surroundings, singing to “document the indigenous/paint and sketch/paint and sketch.” And Hip fans get it. “They’re my favourite band because their songs are so Canadian,” said Jeremy Abelnunk at Kelowna’s Skyreach Place arena. “And Canada kicks ass.” Observed self-employed 44-year-old Gary Lyndon: “It’s hard to translate into words, but their music stirs up real Trudeau-type feelings for me.”
Sitting backstage after the Kelowna concert, a 2 1/2-hour marathon featuring both old and new Hip material, a sweat-soaked Downie spoke about the cultural references in the band’s songs. “I really can’t help myself,” the 36-year-old says quietly, wiping his face with a towel. “That’s the Canada that I discovered from travelling it.” He adds: “As a writer, you’re always on the search for something new to say, or at least some new way to shed light on an old word. I’m pretty sure there haven’t been many rock songs written about these people, these events, these landscapes, these images. Yet there’s so much raw material to be mined.”
Back in Vancouver, the brotherhood known as the Hip is busy preparing for three important concerts. The intensely private musicians have invited Maclean's to spend several days with them for a rare glimpse of life on tour. A surprise gig is being held at the Commodore Ballroom to raise money for charity, promising to be an intimate showcase for a band that has long outgrown even large clubs at home. The Hip then plays two shows at Vancouver’s Pacific Coliseum to kick off their Canadian tour after a summer performing south of the border.
Anticipation is running high at the Commodore. The concert was only announced earlier in the day (to outwit scalpers), and many in the audience started lining up at dawn for tickets. “Hip! Hip! Hip! Hip!” chants the crowd, before breaking into a boisterous rendition of O Canada. Backstage, Langlois, 36, looks over the set list that Sinclair, 37, has written up, as he does before every show. Fay, 34, warms up on a miniature drum kit and a barefoot Baker, 38, visiting with his wife and six-year-old son, Boris, searches for socks. Downie stands in front of a mirror and adjusts the jacket of his brown pinstripe suit. Five minutes to stage call. “Everyone had a pee?” asks tour manager Bea Lorimer. At the side of the stage, the Hip share their pre-show ritual with guests Kate Fenner, a backup vocalist, and her keyboardist partner, Chris Brown. Smiling expectantly at each other, they shake hands and step onto the stage.
With a melodious bass and an insistent beat, the Hip launches into Grace, Too, from the groups 1994 album, Day for Night. “I come from downtown/born ready for you,” sings Downie, with the moshing crowd roaring along in unison. Over a sea of raised fists and index fingers, bodies surf dangerously forward, only to be rescued by a beachhead of Hip security guards at the foot of the stage. Band members are clearly enjoying themselves, feeding off one another’s playing and movements. An athletic Sinclair, buff in tight T-shirt and jeans, jousts with Baker, resplendent in a purple velvet shirt and swaying, shoulder-length hair. By the third song, Downie, looking delirious or drunk, is dripping with perspiration and throws off his jacket.
The band burns through early classics like the swampy New Orleans Is Sinking and such recent hits as the Stones-like rocker Poets. Downie, jerking spasmodically as if jolted by electric shocks, seems well and truly possessed. The band finishes in a frenzy with Fireworks, remming for a triumphant encore—an elegiac Bobcaygeon and a butt-wiggling At the Hundredth Meridian.
The house lights come up. The Hip retreats backstage and behind closed doors. Even the band’s closest crew members leave them alone, understanding the musicians’ need to decompress. When tour manager Lorimer and Ricky Wellington, the Hip’s full-time security guard, go into the dressing room, Downie is joking with the band. “I was pitching a perfect game,” he says, pretending to complain that he was yanked off the mound too soon. Everyone laughs. Downie has earned the affectionate nickname “The Gordfather” for his unassuming leadership role within the Hip’s community of friends and fellow travellers, a kind of benevolent Mafia. Downie’s brother Mike has worked as the band’s video director, and many of the Hip’s 45 crew members are old friends from Kingston. Tragically nepotistic? Perhaps. But with that secure fraternity around them, the Hip has had the confidence to take chances artistically.
A short while later, four-fifths of the Hip show up at a “meet ’n’ greet” party upstairs at the Commodore (Baker has returned to the hotel with his family). Langlois, Fay and Sinclair mingle freely in the crowd. A number of people introduce themselves as old friends or classmates from Kingston— something that happens to the band in most Canadian cities.
Downie, however, is trapped on the periphery of the gathering, surrounded by doting fans and members of a local band that opened the evening’s concert. Wellington watches close by. Downie rarely makes it past the entrance at such events because he gets swarmed the minute he appears. “It’s a shame,” says Wellington, who’s been looking after the band for five years. “Often Gord doesn’t get to see his own guests. Too many people want a piece of him.”
The following night, the band is relaxed and in good humour when it shows up at the Coliseum. Langlois and Sinclair have managed to squeeze in a round of golf, while Lay, the only unmarried member of the group, has gone shopping for his girlfriend. As Downie sits down to dinner with his sister-in-law and her husband, who live in Vancouver, Baker takes time out from helping Boris with his homework to talk about the Hip’s longevity. “I think a lot of bands have their eyes on a different prize than we do,” he says. “Our goal has always been to have a long career. Big hit singles and being on the covers of lots of magazines can work against you. People get tired of your mug and they get tired of hearing the same few songs. Our fans tend to be people who have been with us for a long time.”
Kingston—or K-Town, as the locals call it—seems to breed stability. One of Canada’s earliest colonial settlements, situated on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, the city of 116,000 has two institutional worlds at its base: education and correction. With that comes a diverse population. “You’ve got nine prisons in the area, which employ a lot of people and draw all the inmates’ families,” explains Lay. “And then you’ve got Queen’s University and the Royal Military College. It’s a weird demographic mix—two solitudes, really.”
Three of Lay’s bandmates, Downie, Baker and Sinclair, attended Queen’s, where Sinclair’s father, Duncan, has held various administrative positions (more recently he chaired Ontario’s Health Restructuring Commission). Langlois did one year at Ottawa’s Carleton University, and Lay, the youngest, had just finished high school when he joined the band.
Formed in 1985, the group took its name from a satirical reference in a video by ex-Monkee Mike Nesmith and began playing songs by Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones. “Wed play the townie pubs, places like the Manor, which was a biker bar,” recalls Fay. “But we'd also play campus joints like Alfie’s Pub. We were local boys who were also students, so we had a connection with both audiences.”
The band’s first break came when its friend, Fraser Armstrong, passed a demo tape on to his sister’s boyfriend, who happened to be Hugh Segal, policy adviser to the Progressive Conservative party. Normally, a Tory backroom pundit wouldn’t be of much use to a rock ’n’ roll band. But Segal forwarded a tape to the party’s pollster, Allan Gregg, who had just formed a music management company with Jake Gold. Gold and Gregg arranged to see the band in a Toronto bar and were instant believers. “I was mesmerized,” recalls Gregg. “I watched Gord Downie and said to Jake, ‘This guy is going to be a superstar.’ He was the most alluring human being he'd ever seen onstage.”
The band began writing its own material, and Downie developed his elliptical poetic voice. A recording deal with MCA (later Universal) soon followed, along with a string of top-selling albums, including Road Apples (1991), Fully Completely (1992), Trouble at the Henhouse (1996) and Phantom Power (1998). The year 1995 was a watershed for the Hip. The band’s Day for Night tour broke box-office records in all of the large hockey arenas across Canada. A chilling performance of Fifty Mission Cap at Maple Leaf Gardens became a part of Hip lore. The Gardens gig led to an invitation to open for the Rolling Stones in Europe and for ex-Zeppelin gods Robert Plant and Jimmy Page in a U.S. tour. Then, part-time Kingstonian Aykroyd brought the band into the spotlight of TV’s Saturday Night Live. “They were incredible,” recalls Aykroyd. “It’s a mystery why their music hasn’t translated more in the States. Americans are missing out on a truly great band.”
But the Tragically Hip doesn’t spend a lot of time bemoaning its lack of U.S. success. The members concentrate on creating music that doesn’t follow formulas or pop trends—and on giving dynamite shows. Any Hip fan will insist that even the best albums pale in comparison to the band’s incendiary live performances. The concerts change from night to night, depending on the musical jams or Downie’s mood, which can take listeners into rich storytelling or stream of consciousness. “A career out of our imaginations” is the band’s continuing mantra.
Downie’s fertile imagination can no longer be contained within the Hip alone. The musician, who lives in midtown Toronto with his wife, Laura, and three children aged 5, 3 and three months, has recently completed his first solo album, which includes contributions from filmmaker and friend Atom Egoyan, whose guitar playing accompanies Downie’s spoken verse on two tracks. The CD will be a companion to Downie’s first book, a collection of poetry to be published by Vintage/Knopf Canada next March. “Gord has carved out a place for himself in that pantheon of songwriters, like Leonard Cohen, who are also poets,” says publisher Louise Dennys. “In that respect, he has joined a great Canadian literary tradition.” News of Downie’s solo projects has produced predictable tremors among Hip faithful who, at concerts and in chat groups, worry whether this spells the end—something Downie is quick to deny. If the Hip is a hockey team, then he is the goalie, the linchpin on whom the game depends. In fact, Downie I did play goal in the Kingston junior leagues, took his bantam team to the provincial championship, and at one point considered trying for a hockey scholarship at a U.S. college before settling on English literature at Queen’s. “The goalie’s a fairly solitary figure within the team,” he says backstage at the Coliseum, “and very little understood, even by coaches. There’s no shortage of tips and pointers for the longhaired superstars up front, but for the goalies it’s just, ‘You just go out there, kid, and do whatever it is that you do.’ It can be a pretty gut-wrenching experience.”
As the caravan of four buses and six tractor-trailers sets off from Kelowna across Canada, following the familiar roads of the past 15 years, the Brotherhood of the Hip has never been stronger. With a brood of nine Hiplets—Sinclair, like Downie, has three children, while Langlois has two and Baker chases after rambunctious tour veteran Boris—the band’s growing family is now like a small town on wheels. Music remains the glue and driving force for this group of childhood friends, far more than fame or fortune. Not an ego-less band, but a band with less ego. Long may they run.
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