The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #13/250: Wheat Kings by The Tragically Hip

The stories behind great Canadian songs about great Canadian places and events.

Gail Miller wearing her Nursing uniform in 1969.

At 6:30 a.m. on a January morning in 1969, Saskatoon nursing student Gail Miller stepped out into the bone-chilling -40 degree winter air as she set out for her shift at the hospital. The bus stop was two blocks from her apartment. So, Miller wrapped herself up warmly, tucked her head down into her chest and took the shortest route possible to the bus stop through a well-traveled alleyway one block from home. Several hours later, her lifeless body was found in that alleyway. Miller had been sexually assaulted, stabbed over a dozen times and left to silently bleed out into the snow. It would take the Canadian justice system over three decades to determine that Gail Miller was killed by a serial rapist for the crime of walking while female. At the time, the investigation into her death would set off a chain reaction of events that would impact the lives of many people, including one man who holds the infamous record for the longest length of time served due to a wrongful criminal conviction, and one of Canada’s most famous bands, who would write a hit song based on this event and how it forever linked the cities of Saskatoon and Winnipeg together. That man was David Milgaard. The band was the Tragically Hip and the song was called “Wheat Kings”.

David Milgaard.

As Gail Miller was taking her final breaths in that alleyway in Saskatoon, a few blocks away, three teenagers from Winnipeg were having a rough start to their morning as well. While their problems were nothing compared to what Gail Miller was experiencing, the trio were nonetheless not happy. They had left Winnipeg a few days ago to escape what they perceived was the restrictive nature of having to follow family rules and the lack of opportunities for fun that Winnipeg presented to them. The three teens were David Milgaard, Ron Wilson and Nichol John. On that cold January morning, they discovered one of the facts of life on the Prairies in winter…their car would not start because of the cold. Being rambunctious teens, they were not quiet about their troubles, cursing loudly and trying the engine over and over again. At such an early time in the morning, their actions annoyed those locals in nearby homes who were attempting to sleep. After failing to start the car, the trio broke off and headed in different directions in search of someone who could give their car a boost.

When Saskatoon police arrived at Gail Miller’s crime scene a few hours into the morning, they quickly found evidence of blood, semen and pubic hair at, on and around her dead body. They managed to even locate a bloody paring knife that was shoved underneath her body by her killer. If such a crime had happened today, police would, no doubt, take the samples of semen and blood and perform a DNA analysis on it. They would then interview various suspects and take a DNA sample from them. This would allow them to compare the DNA found at the murder scene with that of each suspect. Hopefully, this would result in a match and the killer’s identity would have revealed itself. However, in 1969, DNA technology did not exist. Consequently, Saskatoon police bagged their evidence and then proceeded to do some old-fashioned investigative work by knocking on the doors of those who lived in the vicinity of the alleyway in which Gail Miller was murdered. When the police interviewed those who lived nearby, many spoke of a group of young people who were making a lot of noise at that early hour of the morning. They gave descriptions of the three youths to police who, in turn, put out an All Points Bulletin (an APB) across Canada to see if anyone had seen the trio since that January morning. As it turned out, David Milgaard had made it all the way to British Columbia by the time the APB was broadcast on the local television news. He had been completely unaware that anything as grisly as a murder had happened while he and his friends were looking for help with their car. But Milgaard knew from the news reports that he and his friends were considered suspects so he turned himself in to the local BC police so that he could clear his name and help Saskatoon police eliminate him as a suspect so they could focus on catching the real killer. Unbeknownst to Milgaard, it was to be the beginning of a thirty plus year odyssey to clear his name.

As one can imagine, the death of Gail Miller shocked the community of Saskatoon. Pressure mounted quickly to find her killer so that residents could go back to feeling safe in their homes and neighbourhoods. When Milgaard turned himself in, he quickly identified Wilson and John as his traveling companions that day so they were quickly rounded up as well. Because the police were under great public pressure, they applied a lot of force upon the three teenagers during interrogation. When it became clear that it was Milgaard who had walked off for help that morning in the direction where Miller’s body lay, the focus of the interrogations turned to pinning the blame on him. Even though neither Wilson nor John believed that their friend had anything to do with the murder, they both ended up giving statements to the police that pointed the finger of blame at Milgaard. So much so that he was officially charged with Gail Miller’s murder and held in custody to await trial. At that trial, Wilson and John repeated their false statements. Neighbours testified that they saw Milgaard heading toward the alleyway and that he was upset and cursing loudly. Milgaard never testified in his own defense. He was charged with murder and sentenced to life in prison. The Saskatoon police crowed about how quickly they had found their man. Gail Miller’s family expressed their gratitude for such expeditious efforts. The city of Saskatoon breathed a sigh of relief. The world continued to turn. David Milgaard began to serve his time in prison.

David Milgaard as he appeared on the CBC investigative journalism show, “The Fifth Estate”. Gillian Findlay was the reporter assigned to cover his story.

From the very first moment that he arrived in his cell, David Milgaard protested his innocence. Over the next thirty years, Milgaard and his family would write countless letters to lawyers, politicians, news reporters…anyone who they thought would help to reopen the investigation. Even though David Milgaard was a rebellious teenager, his mother knew (as mothers do) that he was not a violent young man. She became the public symbol of his protest, even going so far as to approach then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at a campaign event to plead her son’s case. He referred her to Justice Minister Kim Campbell who, in turn, launched an investigation which ended up claiming that Milgaard had been given a fair trial and there was nothing she could do. Milgaard’s appeal ended up all the way in the Supreme Court of Canada. But, he lost that case, too, as the Justices only looked to see whether or not there had been any procedural missteps along the way during the trial. There were not. So, Milgaard’s appeal was denied. One of the things that ended up tipping the scales of justice in Milgaard’s favour was an investigative journalism show on the CBC called “The FIfth Estate”. It was on this show that Milgaard’s case was given its first real public airing. The investigation done throughout this show indicated that there was plenty of reason to believe that Gail Miller’s killer was still at large and that the wrong man was languishing in prison. As this show was airing, the Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip were putting on a show in Winnipeg. David Milgaard’s mother asked for a meeting with the band to tell them her story. The Hip granted her a meeting and listened to her tell MIlgaard’s life story. Lead singer Gord Downie would leave that meeting with the inspiration to write a song about Milgaard and about the faith and love he felt from Milgaard’s mother that day. He also wanted to talk a bit about the history of the places that were connected in this story. Consequently, the song “Wheat Kings” opens with two lines that draw from the history of this part of Canada and which bind Winnipeg and Saskatoon together:

The Tragically Hip.

Sundown on the Paris of the prairies,

Wheat kings, all their treasures buried.”

Let’s take the opening line first. Waaaaay back when the Hudson’s Bay Company was leading the westward expansion into the wilds of Canada, land agents were charged with the task of encouraging settlers to come from Eastern Canada or from Europe to settle in these new communities that the company had established. In bringing settlers to these areas, the HBC hoped to create a workforce and a marketplace, all at the same time. They also hoped to solidify their claim to the land by discouraging the Indigenous Peoples who already lived there from coming back in any significant numbers. Each land agent was given a commission based upon each and every settler they managed to attract to these new settlements. Thus, many land agents resorted to fanciful advertising tactics in order to lure new settlers. As a result, Winnipeg was once referred to as being “the Paris of the prairies” by these land agents.

As for the second line, the prairie winters cause the growing season to be significantly shorter, so wheat farmers had to develop a strain of wheat that could grow more quickly. The type of wheat they managed to develop was called Marquis wheat. This wheat could grow twice as quickly as earlier varieties and survive droughts and cold snaps, too. As you may know, the term “marquis” denotes nobility. Thus, when The Hip sang of “Wheat kings, all their treasures buried” they were referring to the prairie wheat farmers and their new super wheat seed. Just like that, the song is two lines old and already Winnipeg and Saskatoon have been historically linked. The remainder of the song touches upon the atmosphere of the area during the time of Miller’s death and concludes with the line about the news of Milgaard’s exoneration coming via the CBC which, as you now know, was a tip of the hat to the CBC show, The Fifth Estate, that helped investigate Milgaard’s claims and made the case that a new trial was actually warranted.

A new trial was held almost thirty years after Milgaard’s initial conviction. Both Wilson and John recanted their testimony at this new trial. However, the biggest breakthrough came when the wife of a man named Larry Fisher came forward claiming that her husband was probably the killer. Apparently, she raised her suspicions with police in 1969 but her claims were never investigated. As it was, Fisher was a serial rapist and had already had several rapes against his name when he found Miller walking in that Saskatoon alleyway on that frigid January morning. At first, Fisher refused to admit that he had killed Miller but DNA technology linked him to the crime scene (and, at the same time, proved Milgaard’s innocence) and the case was officially solved. David Milgaard was released from prison after serving over thirty years for a crime he never committed. As a free man, Milgaard worked tirelessly to see reforms enacted in the criminal justice system so that others who claimed to be wrongfully convicted, like him, would have avenues of recourse available to them. Such reforms have been announced by current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In the end, much was lost because of the events in January, 1969, in Saskatoon. David Milgaard lost thirty years of freedom. His family lost the freedom to enjoy their lives as they were forced to fight endlessly for their son because no one else seemed to be on his side. But, in the end, David Milgaard was released from prison and completely exonerated. He was given a cash settlement from the Saskatchewan government. The Tragically Hip were able to write a song that has become one of their most popular tunes. They even had the opportunity to sing it live to David Milgaard and his family on one of their tour stops in Winnipeg after his release. As for the family of Gail Miller, they lost the most of all. Not only did they have their daughter stolen from them in the cruelest manner imaginable, they had to relive her death again and again because of how the criminal justice system rushed to judgment and unfairly convicted David Milgaard. To their credit, they have met with Mr. Milgaard and have offered him their support so that both families can begin the process of healing and of recovery. It was a long road to travel, but in the end, justice appears to have been served.

The link to the video for the song “Wheat Kings” by The Tragically Hip can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip can be found here.

The link to a documentary about the Miller/Milgaard story can be found here.

The link to the official website for the city of Winnipeg can be found here.

The link to the official website for the city of Saskatoon can be found here.

**The photo header at the top of this post shows the alleyway in Saskatoon in which Gail Miller was assaulted and murdered (as it appears today). The photo is a screen capture from Google Earth.

***As always, all original content found in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #8/250: Bobcaygeon by The Tragically Hip.

***Note: This post is from the archives. It was originally written as The Men They Couldn’t Hang in 2019. It is a post that describes an English band singing about France. It also mentions a Canadian band singing about cottage country (Bobcaygeon) as well as Canada’s biggest city (Toronto). But most of all, this post is about the joy of live music and one of the legendary places where it all comes together (The Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto). Enjoy.

I love live music. I love the energy of a band as they dive into a treasured song. I love the way a crowd of strangers unite in response: jumping and swaying and fist-pumping in time with each note. I love it when a crowd sings as a choir and becomes as one with the band, a shared journey made possible through the poetry of song. I have been to many concerts that have left me sweat soaked and emotionally drained. That is my kind of fun!

Iggy Pop in his prime!

The best concert I ever saw live was Iggy Pop at The Warehouse in Toronto in the mid-90s. Iggy ripped through a set dedicated to his seminal album, Raw Power! That music was as loud as I have ever experienced. My ears rang for days afterward. But, it was an amazing time, just the same. This concert was my first real experience with a mosh pit that teemed with violent mayhem. Sweat and beer and testosterone – a potent combination, especially when soundtracked by the driving beat of one of Rock’s sonic pioneers. I truly believe that a Rock n’ Roll show should have elements of violence and sex in it. After all, if you are not worn to the core by the end of it, then what really was the point of it all? Iggy Pop at The Warehouse was definitely a Rock show, in all regards. Music, as catharsis. Visceral and muscular. Fun beyond measure.

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. (CP PHOTO/Kevin Frayer)

When it comes to great Canadian live acts, the best I have seen in person was The Tragically Hip. They were a tight, five-piece band out of Kingston, Ontario. Some describe The Hip as playing straight-ahead guitar-oriented rock. But, that does the band a disservice. What elevated The Tragically Hip to the top of the musical mountain in Canada was a combination of the poetry of the lyrics to Hip songs and the showmanship of lead singer, Gord Downie. Simply put, Downie was one of the single most electrifying frontmen for any band, anywhere in the world. With Gord, you never quite knew what to expect on stage. He sang. He primped and pranced. He played excellent guitar. He offered monologues that may or may not have had anything to do with the song being played. He sweated and wiped that sweat away to theatrical effect. He made eye contact and bore his thoughts into our brains. He was amazing. A hint of the intensity of a Tragically Hip performance can be seen in their performance of “Grace, Too” from a concert in London, Ontario. That clip can be seen here.

A Tragically Hip performance was only part of their package. Their enduring legacy will be the songs they sang. It is, somewhat, cliche for us as Canadians to say that we have an unnatural relationship with that cultural juggernaut to the south of us called America. We bathe in their references, their personalities, while, at the same time, reveling in all that makes us different and separate from “them”. Gord Downie and The Hip wrote songs about Canada and about Canadian things in ways that made them seem like secrets that we could hoard. Like school children, we liked looking at the pictures of ourselves that The Hip painted. A Hip concert laid our Canadian souls bare. We danced to our History. We shouted out our stories. And, at the end of it all, as sweaty a mess as we physically were, we all felt proud of being who we were at the moment. We were Canadians in the presence of beautiful artists and storytellers. Like the weather, we were all affected by the experience.

So, in 2015, when it was announced that Gord Downie had an incurable brain tumor, it shook us all to our core. To have Gord taken away from us seemed unthinkable. As we digested the news reports, it was almost as if we could all hear the gods laughing. In response, Gord and the boys announced a final, cross-country, ten concert tour. It seemed equally unbelievable that someone with a brain tumor could still summon the massive amount of will and physical energy required to perform at the level of intensity that we had all come to expect from a Hip show. But, there he was. For ten nights, Gord Downie stood on that stage and gave every last bit of himself. At each venue, paramedics stood on guard should Downie collapse. But, at each venue, the band played on. Every song was a parting gift to a grateful nation. Canada was never more unified than on the night of The Hip’s final show. It was played in their home town of Kingston, Ontario, and was billed as a “National Celebration”. Our national TV broadcaster, the CBC, aired the three-hour concert commercial free. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau donned a Canadian tuxedo and attended in person. People gathered in arenas and parks, taverns and town squares, backyards and living rooms to give thanks for everything Gord Downie and The Hip had done. It was all coming to an end, and when it did, with “Ahead by a Century”, the tears were real and they flowed freely. Macleans magazine did a good job of capturing this emotion by filming the reactions of Canadians as they gathered in various locales across the country. This video ALWAYS makes me cry and leaves me spent, like all good music should, I suppose. It can be viewed here.

One of the things that happened during this farewell tour was that more scrutiny was given to the lyrics of The Hip songs. One of the most appealing aspects of their songwriting was that they often welcomed us, as an audience, into their stories by starting off with recognizable, universal truths. But, as often was the case, they would proceed to confound us with symbolism and/or obscure references that, at first blush, didn’t always connect with how the song began. Thus, their music invited you in, but if you stayed, you had to prepare yourself to think and engage. As a fan and as a reasonably intelligent person, I enjoyed learning more about these stories being shared. I will conclude this post by talking about one of their most popular songs, “Bobcaygeon”, and how I am still learning new things about it even now, long after Gord has gone to walk among the stars.

Like many of the people, events and settings referenced in Hip songs, Bobcaygeon is a real place. Located about two hours northeast of Toronto, Bobcaygeon is situated in a part of Ontario affectionately known as “Cottage Country”. The Kawartha Lakes region is where city dwellers come to get away from the noise and congestion of city life. As cultural myths go, Canada conjures images in the mind of lakes and forests, soundtracked by the cry of the loon, illuminated by a firework of sparks from a thousand campfires. Bobcaygeon is that myth brought to life.

The song “Bobcaygeon” contains one of the most beautiful and popular verses in their entire musical canon.

It was in Bobcaygeon

that I saw the constellations

reveal themselves,

one star at a time.

*(When I retired from teaching, the staff at my school gave me a framed print of those lines.) Even the most beer-swilling of Hip fans recognizes the beauty of those words. You only have to experience country darkness once in your life to know how lovely the stars can be. This was the universal truth that pulled listeners, like me, into this song. But then, as I said above, The Hip added elements to the second half of the song that had always puzzled me…until recently.

The first half to two-thirds of the song has a peaceful, cottage pace-of-life feel to it. But then, the final third roars to life,

That night in Toronto,

with its checkerboard floors,

riding on horseback,

keeping order restored,

until The Men They Couldn’t Hang,

strode to the mic and sang,

and their voices rang,

with that Aryan twang.”

I never knew what this had to do with being in Bobcaygeon, under the night sky. I had always thought the “Men they couldn’t hang” part and the “horseback/order restored” lines were talking about an outlaw and the police. I was wrong. Here is what I have learned about what they were really singing about. The Bobcaygeon video is here, for those who wish to view it.

HORSESHOE TAVERN. The bar and checkered floor of The ‘Shoe. The Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street East is 60 years old this year. The live music venue has been a standard for punk and country bands for years and who knows what the next 60 years will hold . (Rene Johnston/Toronto Star) rpj

In Toronto, there is a legendary bar called The Horseshoe Tavern. It has “checkerboard floors“, as you can see in the photo. Also, if you watched the Macleans Magazine video of The Hip’s final song, The Horseshoe Tavern was one of the spots they filmed at. Anyway, The Men They Couldn’t Hang is an actual musical group from the UK. They are described as being folk-punk. Like The Hip, they sing about history and real people, places and events. And, like The Tragically Hip, they are amazing live. I am going to share with you a live performance of theirs singing a song called “The Green Fields of France”. It is, simply put, one of the single best live performances I have ever seen! First of all, the song is gorgeously written and speaks of the senselessness of War, as seen from the perspective of a fallen soldier during The Battle of the Somme in World War One. I had never heard of this song before but I am certain that it is easily one of the best anti-war songs ever. But along with the glorious lyrics, if you watch this video, you will bear witness to a band and an audience as one…and, I don’t just mean singing along together. Such fantastic trust on display. You have to watch it for yourself to appreciate it. If they played at The Horseshoe Tavern for The Hip members, the way they do in this video, then I can see why The Hip name-dropped them in one of their most popular songs. You can watch this extraordinary video here. I get goosebumps watching this, especially the rousing chorus. This is what live music is all about.

The Men They Couldn’t Hang and their fans.

So, who inspires those who inspire us? For professional musicians at the level of an Iggy Pop or The Tragically Hip, or even The Men They Couldn’t Hang, they gain inspiration from their fellow musicians, as well as the time and the place in which they find themselves. “Bobcaygeon”, for me, is now a song about finding inspiration: be it from the stars above or from the close, sweaty confines of a tavern where the poetry of song oozes from every pore of every human there, as well as dropping down in balls of condensation from the ceiling to the floor. Inspiration sounds like a story and smells like beer. It is sticky and warm, and if you are fortunate at that moment, it will leave you changed.

I love live music. Do you? If so, what are some of your favourite memories of watching live music being performed? I would love to hear your stories. Feel free to leave them in the comment box below. Thanks for reading my work. Your willingness to do so inspires me.

The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Men They Could’t Hang can be found here.

The link to the official website for Iggy Pop can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto can be found here.

The link to the official website for the village of Bobcaygeon, Ontario can be found here.

***As always, all original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post can be reblogged, copied or shared in any form without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Great Canadian Road Trip: Song #6/250: Goodnight, Attawapiskat by The Tragically Hip

The journey across Turtle Island is long and never ending. We walk on the land, beside the water and beneath the sky. We share this journey with all manner of creatures and living things who swim or fly or burrow. Like them, we are part of everything and everything is part of us. Of all of the legacies Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip have left behind, their respect for the beauty and importance of Indigenous culture stands at the forefront. The Hip’s early musical catalogue didn’t necessarily reflect this; built as it was upon a foundation of images and history of the land we now call Canada. But as time went by, and Gord Downie, in particular, scratched beneath the surface of our cultural identity, he discovered much of it was built upon the ruins of many Indigenous cultures that came long before the first European settlers and colonizers appeared. Songs that once invited “Jacques Cartier” to “step this way” now became more reflective of our true role in the evolution of how this land of ours truly came to be. The more Gord Downie examined it all, the more he realized that there was great beauty and wisdom that had been pushed aside and ignored in our rush to create a new world in an ancient land. The Tragically Hip, as a band, became more reflective and Gord Downie, as a solo artist, became more willing to use his musical platform to draw attention to the many wrongs that had been done to Indigenous Peoples and why those actions were such a tragedy for everyone. There are many ways in which Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip brought the full weight of their place in the Canadian musical landscape to bear, but one of the first was by way of a song called “Goodnight, Attawapiskat”.

Attawapiskat First Nation.

Attawapiskat is a First Nations community that sits on the shores of the Attawapiskat River that flows into James Bay in Northern Ontario. Like many First Nations communities, Attawapiskat existed long before European settlers arrived, but its present designation as a community came about as a result of treaties that established trade routes for colonial organizations such as The Hudson Bay Company. Having access to waterways allowed those who worked for the Hudson Bay Company to acquire goods, such as beaver pelts, and move them easily for shipping overseas. Because of the new economy imposed upon them by settlers, many First Nations communities, such as those near Attawapiskat, attempted to adapt by using their trapping skills to procure inventory for the white traders who had set up shop on the land. For a while, this arrangement worked, but in time, once the supply of beaver pelts was exhausted, the traders moved on to new, resource-rich areas and left the Indigenous communities behind to survive as best they could. For many of these communities, survival was difficult and life became very hard. Consequently, the community of Attawapiskat has a long history of existing in substandard conditions. Basic rights such as access to clean drinking water have been issues for entire generations there. Many people suffered from addictions, the rate of teen suicide was higher there than the Canadian average, and many of the youth of the community saw little hope for themselves in the way of a brighter future. For many youth of Attawapiskat, growing up meant eventually leaving their community to attend school in settler communities such as Moosenee and Dryden. Being an Indigenous student far from home was hard for many of them who came down from Attawapiskat. Assimilation into white culture was a bizarre experience at best. For many, it scarred their lives forever. So, the idea that the community of Attawapiskat could build a school of their own and rebuild their culture through education was an important one. However, getting a new school built was proving to be difficult. This is where the Tragically Hip came in.

The Tragically Hip perform in Attawapiskat Community Centre.

The community of Attawapiskat decided to hold a concert as a way of raising money that would go toward the new school. Local youth were encouraged to form bands and participate. But, it was felt that the concert stood a better chance of raising more money if they could get someone “big” to play there. Gord Downie had already spent some time traveling in the northern regions of the land so he knew of Attawapiskat and what the community was attempting to do. So, The Hip agreed to come up to play at the benefit concert. They headlined a bill that included several bands composed entirely of local youth. At one point, Gord agreed to sing on stage with one of the bands. The female lead singer immediately stepped aside to give Gord the spotlight. Gord refused to let her sit any songs out, admonishing her band, good-naturedly, to never let anyone silence their singer. They performed “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” together. Gord claimed that being at Attawapiskat deepened the feelings of respect he had for Indigenous Peoples and that he took that feeling with him everywhere he went afterwards. From that point on, he was known to often close shows from all over North America with the words, “Goodnight, Attawapiskat!

Hello! Good evening, folks!

We are the silver poets

Here in our thousand mile suits.”

The journey toward reconciliation between settlers and Indigenous Peoples is long and remains far from complete. Many people have worked tirelessly to make such a journey happen. However, every movement tends to have someone who becomes its “face”, and for many, that face belongs to Gord Downie. Gord devoted much of the last few years of his life to raising awareness of the beauty of Indigenous culture and of our role in the history of what has happened to Indigenous Peoples all across this land. But, with every telling of Chanie Wenjack’s story via “The Secret Path”, with every National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, with every “Orange Shirt Day” held and every grave discovered at a former residential school…we all move forward together. The journey toward reconciliation is slow and it is painful, but it is necessary and it is happening. I am very grateful to folks such as Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip for shining their spotlight on this shameful aspect of my own cultural history. I am sad that the foundation of Canada…a country I take pride in being from…came to be because of exploitation and genocide. The soundtrack for my own road trip toward reconciliation starts with today’s song, “Goodnight, Attawapiskat”. Feel free to make it your song as well.

If you have any other songs that would work well on this shared journey of ours toward making things right, feel free to add them below. Until then, follow me if you wish as we walk across Turtle Island in search of peace and love and harmony. Here are the Tragically Hip and their great and important song “Goodnight Attawapiskat”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song “Goodnight, Attawapiskat” can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Tragically Hip can be found here.

The link to the official website for the community of Attawapiskat can be found here.

The link to the official website for the Downie-Wenjack Fund can be found here.

***As always, all original content found in this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post may be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2022

The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #100: Ahead By A Century by The Tragically Hip (KTOM)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #100: Ahead By A Century by The Tragically Hip.

As I type these words to you today, we are having a major snow storm roll through my area. All schools have been cancelled which means that for the children in my town, today has been declared as a “Snow Day”. I can remember the joy that I felt, as a child, whenever we would have a “Snow Day”. It meant freedom! It meant fun! It meant a complete break from the regular humdrum of everyday life. It was a glorious feeling. So, as I type these words to you this morning, I do so knowing that my own children lay asleep in their warm beds; blissfully unaware of the joy that awaits when they awaken. It isn’t quite same as Christmas morning but, it is close. Childhood should be a time of magical moments such as these. Yet, far too often we ask our children to bear the burden of adult decisions. Each time we do, we borrow from their bank of childhood innocence, robbing them of treasure that is rightfully theirs. But, on a day like today, we get to give our children a little of their precious childhood back.

We are 400 songs in on our countdown of the best songs of all-time and I can’t help but think that today’s song…..Song #100 on the list…is the perfect song for today. “Ahead By A Century” by The Tragically Hip, is a song whose premise is built upon the notion that there is beauty and magic and wonder in the innocent exploration of our world by children. By the time, “Ahead By A Century” came to be recorded and released, The Tragically Hip were on to their fifth studio album already. It was an album called, “Trouble At The Henhouse”. By this time, many of the members of the band (singer, Gord Downie, guitarists, Rob Baker, Paul Langlois and Gord Sinclair, along with drummer, Johnny Fay) were becoming fathers themselves and were well-versed in the worlds that very young children inhabit. So, who better to tell that tale than a man whose poetic version of Life became the lens through which so many of us, as Canadians, came to view life, too? Gord Downie was a story teller of unparalleled grace. He could make demands of our intelligence with his lyrics but, he could, also, touch our hearts, seemingly at will. And so it was when he came to write the lyrics for “Ahead By A Century”. This is a song that, for my money, has one of the best opening verses ever written. It is a masterclass in the #1 rule of story writing, which is: “Show. Don’t tell”. This is Gord’s take on childhood:

First thing we’d climb a tree

And maybe then we’d talk

or sit silently

and listen to our thoughts.

With illusions of someday

Cast in a golden light.

No dress re-hears-al

This is our life“.

“Ahead By A Century” went on to be The Tragically Hip’s first #1 song in Canada and it became a staple of all of their live shows. It is a song that is easy to love and to feel thus, it was, also, the most appropriate choice as the final song that The Tragically Hip ever sang together live.

In 2015, a news conference was called to announce that lead singer, Gord Downie, had developed a rare form of brain cancer and that, worst of all, his cancer was not curable. He was given less than a year to live…..if he was lucky. If we were lucky. In a Herculean feat for the ages, Gord Downie willed himself to go out with the band for one last, small tour of our country. It was a tour to say, “Thank you” to everyone who had been involved in the journey of the five guys from Kingston, Ontario. This tour involved all of us, as Canadians and united the country in a manner not seen since Terry Fox tried running across this great land using only one good leg. In Canada, our heroes rarely come Hollywood Handsome. In Gord, we had a man with a balding head and a sock, for warmth, wrapped around his neck. For this tour, he often wore a t-shirt with the shark from the movie, “Jaws” pictured on it, along with silver pants. He was quite a sight but we couldn’t have loved him more.

Before Gord could even think about touring, he had to re-teach himself his own songs, as brain surgery had impacted his memory. He, also, had to submit to a battery of fitness and other health-related tests each day in order to keep the liability lawyers and insurance agents at bay; each of whom was worried that our national hero might collapse from the strain of performing and actually die on stage in front of us all. His bandmates each told him that they would put down their instruments and walk off the stage at a moment’s notice….all he had to do was give them the word that he had had enough and couldn’t go on anymore. But, Gord kept on. He kept on all the way through ten shows in ten cities; culminating in one final concert in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario.

At this point, the mythic nature of what Gord had accomplished gave way to the personal. That final show was televised commercial-free by our national television broadcaster, the CBC. It was a Saturday night as Canadians gathered in arenas, in local parks, in basements and backyards….not to watch Hockey Night in Canada but, to watch Gord….one….last….time. We watched in groups that varied in size but, in reality, we watched alone; savouring each and every song that The Hip played….counting them down, marking them off our mental set-list until it came time for the final song which was, “Ahead By A Century”. A song written about the magic of childhood innocence became a song transformed into an anthem of gratitude and a new national hymn. To the crowd that assembled in that hockey rink in Kingston, Gord waved and made eye contact with as many as he could. The boys in the band played on. Then it ended. The boys embraced each other. Gord kissed them all. The crowd cheered and cried. I cheered and cried. Then we all went home.

Gord Downie died not too long after that night in 2016. In life, as in death, Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip always meant more to Canadians than simply being a rock n’ roll band. Whether it was their songs or their musicianship or the seemingly ordinary way their lived their lives as scandal-free, family men who gave back to their fellow musicians as easily as they gave back to us, as fans, The Tragically Hip were special. We knew that because we felt that. Our lives are meant to be lived as joyfully and as artfully as possible. Gord’s final tour was an example of what each of us are capable of. It was self-actualization on display for all to see. It was said by those who loved and admired him that he now walks among the stars. I believe that to be true.

I will play a number of videos below. The first will be the official video for “Ahead By A Century”. The second video will be one that I have shown before, on my own social media pages. It is the one that MacLean’s Magazine put together that showed people from all across Canada watching Gord and the boys play that final song. I will, also, play two videos that show how “Ahead By A Century” lives on after Gord’s death. The first is a TikTok video created by guitarist Rob Baker of The Hip in which he plays the chords to the opening verse of “Ahead By A Century” and invites viewers to submit videos of themselves singing the lyrics. It is wonderful. The joy is very real in all submissions. Finally, regular readers of these posts may be familiar with a man who makes these posts better with his insightful comments, Mr. Ian Jack. In 2016, Ian was teaching at a school not too far from here. He, along with some of his colleagues at the school, managed to record his entire school singing “Ahead By A Century” in tribute to Gord and the band and in recognition of how their music had touched all of our lives. That video went viral and became, what Ian describes as, “one of the highlights” of his life. I will play that video, too, with his kind permission.

As I end this post, I can hear some of the neighbourhood children beginning to head outside into the blizzard to play in the snow that is still falling in copious amounts. I can hear the sound of squeals and of laughter. That sounds like music to my ears. I will wake my own sleeping children in a few moments, too. I am looking forward to witnessing the happiness on their faces at the turn their world has taken for this day. Childhood should be filled with more feelings like that, don’t ya think? It’s a “Snow Day”! It’s, also, Tragically Hip day in the countdown.

Here they are, with a cast of thousands to follow, with their #1 hit song, and the final song they ever played, “Ahead By A Century”. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Ahead By A Century” by The Tragically Hip, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip, can be found here.

The link to the video by MacLean’s Magazine, showing Canadians watching Gord Downie sing “Ahead By A Century” one…last…time, their final concert in Kingston, Ontario, can be seen here. ***Be forewarned……I have watched this video countless times and I always, always am moved to tears.

The link to the video that shows guitarist Rob Baker’s TikTok tribute to “Ahead By A Century”, can be found here.

The link to the video for “Ahead By A Century”, as covered by the staff and students of Newcastle Public School, under the musical direction of Mr. Ian Jack, can be found here.

The Top 500 Song in Modern Music History…Honourable Mention Song #13: Fifty Mission Cap by The Tragically Hip (KTOM)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Honourable Mention Song #13: Fifty Mission Cap by The Tragically Hip.

In our previous Honourable mention Song post about the song, “Egg Man” by The Beastie Boys *(which you can read here), I introduced you all to one of my wife’s best friends, Jackie Pepper. Well today, you are going to meet the third member of their “ladies who lunch” trifecta and that is a woman named Siobhan Percolides. My wife met Siobhan and Jackie when our children were toddlers. All three ladies enjoyed each other’s company and have been able to be there for each other as their children have grown up (all three families have two children each). As well, all three women are married and, as couples, we have been able to share some enjoyable evenings of good food and good conversation together that, in these pandemic times, allow us all to feel as though we still have a bit of a social life outside of our homes. But, for the sake of this post, the third thing that Jackie and Siobhan share in common is that they both have a similar taste in music to me, rather than to my wife…..which amuses me. Siobhan, in particular, shares with me a love of the Canadian band, The Tragically Hip. We have both seen The Tragically Hip live several times and still enjoy listening to their music, even though they stopped releasing new material in 2016, with the death from cancer, of lead singer and songwriter, Gord Downie. So, when I put out the call for Honourable Mention songs, it didn’t surprise me at all that Siobhan came back with a Tragically Hip nomination which was, “Fifty Mission Cap”. Here is the story of a song which, in itself, tells a story that is as Canadian as could possibly be. Here is “Fifty Mission Cap” by The Tragically Hip.

When most people evaluate the legacy created by The Tragically Hip, one of the most common responses about the band is that they known for celebrating Canadian stories. That assessment is undeniable. When you go through The Hip’s musical catalogue, it is filled with references to noteworthy Canadians such as Tom Thomson, David Milgaard, Hugh McLennan, Bobby Orr and, in “Fifty Mission Cap”, Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player, Bill Barilko. The other thing that stands out about The Tragically Hip is that they loved a good story. So, when a noteworthy Canadian was, also, the subject of a good story in his/her real life, that subject matter was mined for gold. In Barilko’s case, his story became the hit song known as “Fifty Mission Cap”.

I really like this song for many reasons. First of all, the song is about hockey and, despite my love for Keri, I still love hockey. *(For those unaware, my wife is not a sports fan. Prior to meeting her, I was a hardcore fan who watched every game, kept track of player point totals, participated in sports pools and so on. Then, I met Keri and all of that changed. *You can read about how I knew Keri was the one, here. It is a sports-related post with a sweet twist).

Secondly, the song is about the Toronto Maple Leafs and I still love the Leafs, even though it is been over fifty years since they won The Cup, as the song points out.

But, mostly, I love this song because of a writing technique the band employs that helps to replicate the setting of the song within the lyrics of the song. Let me explain.

If you have ever found yourself somewhere where a group (of guys, probably) are talking hockey, the structure of their conversation is often the same no matter where you go. There is usually one guy with a bigger voice than the others who tends to use it to dominate the conversation with his stories and/or opinions. Then, his friends will interject their smaller thoughts when the dominant talker takes a breath. If you listen to “Fifty Mission Cap” and, specifically, to the interplay between Gord Downie (as the big voice in the room) and Paul Langlois (as the little friend who is trying to get a word in edge-wise) you will see that they have replicated the boys-in-the-bar style of talking hockey, perfectly. So, for me, it is not always the words that The Hip use in their songs that does it for me, it is, also, the way the lyrics are structured. In this case, a hockey tale is told for all to hear, as if the boys were in a basement rec. room watching the game on TV.

In this verse of the song, Gord sings the main words and Paul whispers the words in parenthesis. In doing so, they begin to tell the story of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman, Bill Barilko, who scored the winning goal in 1952 that helped my Leafs to win the Stanley Cup as champions of the league. That very summer, he was killed in a plane crash. His body wasn’t found for almost a decade.

“Bill Barilko disappeared that summer (in nineteen fifty-one)
He was on a fishing trip (in a plane)
The last goal he ever scored (in overtime)
Won the Leafs the Cup.
They didn’t win another ’til nineteen sixty-two
The year he was discovered.”

***A tiny bit of Tragically Hip trivia: Bill Barilko’s plane crashed in a deeply wooded area in the northern reaches of Canada. He was headed for a fishing lodge which was known as a fly-in lodge, accessible only via an airplane. Flash forward thirty years, when the band travelled up to Attawapiskat for a benefit concert, *(which you can read about here), they flew over the exact location where Bill Barilko’s plane had crashed. Do with that bit of trivia what you will. 🙂

Gord Downie adds an extra layer of Canadianna to “Fifty Mission Cap”, when he informs us that he “stole” the story of Bill Barilko from a hockey card that he kept tucked away in a cap. Collecting hockey cards was a huge part of my childhood. I spent every quarter I ever got for my weekly allowance (for doing chores around the house) at the convenience store at the end of my street buying Opee-Chee hockey card packs. They went for ten cents a pack and always came with eight hockey cards and one stick of rock hard pink bubble gum. The smell and feel of those freshly opened hockey cards is one of the things that most defines my childhood. And while I never had a Bill Barilko card, like the one shown to the right, I did have lots of other memorable cards, such as Wayne Gretzky’s Rookie Card, which is now worth several thousand dollars but, to me at the time, it was just another card to trade and play with and, eventually, to lose like it was no big deal. In fact, the story linked above about my wife and hockey is about a hockey card. It is one of my favourite stories of all time. Well worth checking out, if you haven’t read it already.

In closing, I am always grateful to live in a country like Canada. I live a safe and peaceful life here. I am safe and free to roam around without restriction or limitation. I, also, live in a country with a tremendous history of Art and Culture that takes many forms. One of the forms I like the best…..and Siobhan, too……is listening to storytellers like Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip. So, Siobhan, I thank you for nominating “Fifty Mission Cap” as your Honourable Mention Song. It fills me with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside, on multiple levels. I, also, want to thank you for all of the stories shared and comments made all throughout this musical countdown journey of ours. Your input was gratefully appreciated and helped make things way more interesting for me as this process unfolded.

So, without further delay, here is the classic Canadian song, “Fifty Mission Cap” by Canada’s own, The Tragically Hip. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song, “Fifty Mission Cap” by The Tragically Hip, can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip, can be found here.

The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History…Song #335: It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken by The Tragically Hip (featuring Leslie Feist) (KTOM)

This list of songs is inspired by lists published by radio station KEXP-FM from Seattle in 2010, as well as the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part I will faithfully countdown from their lists, starting at Song #500 and going until I reach Song #1. When you see the song title listed as something like: Song #XXX (KEXP)….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. Song XXX (RS) means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: Song #xxx (KTOM), it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In any case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, just so everyone is aware, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Here is the story behind today’s song. Enjoy.

KTOM: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.

Song #335: It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken by The Tragically Hip (featuring Leslie Feist).

I was going to do this as a post that was separate from the countdown but then, again, I remembered that I am the King and this is my musical castle and I can do what I want with these posts so, for today, I intend to veer away from the list and talk about a remarkable performance that happened this past weekend at the 50th Anniversary Show for The Juno Awards (which are Canada’s version of The Grammys, for those pals of mine from the US).

The theme of The Junos this past year was to honour those who have made an impact on Canada’s music scene over the last half-century. While there are many notable musicians and bands worthy of praise, the one that seems to still rise up above them all is The Tragically Hip. It has been almost five years since Gord Downie passed away and for many of us it still doesn’t seem real. His death remains a wound that has not quite healed. The remaining members of The Hip (Johnny Fay, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langois and Rob Baker) have busied themselves with some small, side projects but, for the most part, they have kept a respectfully small profile. So, it was with some excitement that it was announced that the remaining members would reunite on stage at The Junos, supported by Canadian singer Leslie Feist, who was standing in for Gord Downie.

The song they chose to sing was one of The Hip’s more quiet songs called, “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken”. The song was from a 2002 album called In Violet Light. Originally, the song was written as a response to the sombre atmosphere that ensued after the tragedy of 9/11. It is a song about recovery and about the importance of friendship. For that reason, it was a good choice of song for a moment in which we still grieve for Gord but acknowledge that we all need to move forward, too.

It was also no accident that the band asked someone like Leslie Feist to stand in Gord’s spot on this occasion. By her own admission, she was not there to replace Gord Downie but, instead, was there to help his friends to honour his memory. In that, she was a well-chosen representative. The story of this collaboration is one that was born several decades earlier and is filled with connections and relationships and friendships.

Let’s start with Leslie Feist. She has been a fixture on Canada’s music scene for over thirty years now. Feist’s first foray into professional music was at age 15 when she won a Battle of the Bands contest in Calgary. As a prize, she got to perform live at a festival that was being headlined by The Ramones. At this festival, she met a man named Brendan Canning who, at the time, was in a band called hHead. A decade later, Canning and Feist would play together in a Toronto-area collective called Broken Social Scene. Just prior to joining BSS, Feist toured with an Indie band called By Divine Right which, at one point in time, opened on tour for The Tragically Hip. The Hip were always known for being very good to their opening acts. They got to know Leslie Feist very well and came to respect her for her skill at songwriting and with playing the guitar.

While The Tragically Hip are regarded in Canada’s band, in practical reality, they were an Ontario band. Their studio was in Ontario. They networked with many local bands, including the many members of Broken Social Scene. Because of the inter-connectivity of the many moving pieces to the Ontario music community, it was to Broken Social Scene leader Kevin Drew that a dying Good Downie called upon for help producing his final solo albums. Drew helped shepherd Gord through the process of recording two dozen personal songs. Drew and Feist were once a couple, too. So, to review, Feist joined By Divine Right and toured with The Hip. Then Feist joined friend Brendan Canning and helped found Broken Social Scene in Toronto with Kevin Drew. Drew helped produce Gord Downie’s final solo albums as Gord was dying. Leslie Feist stands in for Gord at the 50th Anniversary Juno Show on the weekend. Sometimes, the dots connect themselves.

When you look at the video of that Juno performance, you are looking at a performance of a song about recovery from tragedy, while still in a state of grief. It is a song about friendship sung by people who know the true meaning of the word. It is Canada’s musical community coming together without a word about it having to be said. It just is. *(In the Comments section, I will post some bonus videos that relate to this post. Today seems like a good day to celebrate Canadian music and the Canadians who make it). First up, “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken” by The Tragically Hip (featuring, Leslie Feist), as introduced by the King of Massey Hall, Gordon Lightfoot. Enjoy.

The link to the video for the song “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken” by The Tragically Hip (Featuring Leslie Feist) can be found here.

The link to the video for the song “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken” by The Tragically Hip can be found here. ***The lyrics version (as sung by Gord Downie) can be found here.

The link to the video for the song, “1-2-3-4” by Leslie Feist can be found here.

The link to the official website for The Tragically Hip can be found here.

The link to the official website for Leslie Feist can be found here.

***All original content contained within this post remains the sole property of the author. No portion of this post shall be reblogged, copied or shared in any manner without the express written consent of the author. ©2021

The Tragically Hip: Song #20- Yer Not The Ocean

This is one post in a series. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

In 2005, The Tragically Hip released their best selling cd of all time, Yer Favourites. This 2-CD set was a collection of live performances, re-mixes and studio versions of their most popular songs to date. It says something about the success of The Hip up to that point that they had enough legitimate hit material to warrant a double CD. But, they did. Fans, like me, ate it up. Listening to Yer Favourites is like being at every Hip concert that they played. As fans, we like to hear the songs that we like and this collection tied the career of The Tragically Hip up neatly with a bow. It was every song that made The Hip seem like The Hip. It was a complete a collection of the songs that we really wanted to see them play live when we saw them in arenas or at festivals. Truth be told, if the members of The Hip had decided to stop creating new material and spent the rest of their career touring and simply playing their hits, no one would have minded.

But, Gord Downie and the rest of the members of the band were never ones to sit on their laurels. Coasting, in an artistic sense, went against the grain of who they saw themselves as artists. So, in 2006, they released an album of completely new material called World Container. Coming, as it did, on the heels of the wildly popular, Yer Favourites, many fans were not prepared to embrace this new material. In fact, many fans thought that The Hip had “sold out” because many of these songs sounded different. There was more instrumentation featured. Many of the songs had a Pop flavour. This wasn’t our Hip music. What actually had happened?

By the time World Container had been released, the members of The Tragically Hip had been together for almost twenty years as a band. They were no longer the young rockers touring the world, seeing the sights, meeting so many influential people. Life has a way of changing you over time, if you are open to the lessons it has to teach. Because The Hip viewed their world through a poet’s eye, each member of the band had grown as individual human beings and their lives had evolved. They weren’t young, single men anyone. Most were married by this point. Some were fathers now, too. I know that my outlook on Life changed as I grew from a child at home, to a young man out in the world for the first time, to a married man, to a father, to a retiree, which is where I stand now. I thought I knew a lot back in my twenties but, looking back from where I stand today, I didn’t know as much as I thought. For The Hip, the release of Yer Favourites was their way of saying that the fun times would always remain special but, that those days were over now. The release of World Container was the band announcing that it was time to grow up.

Most Hip fans did not want to grow up. The news that new music was being released meant that the band was moving on. While fans were certainly invited to continue the journey, many greeted the release of World Container with skepticism. One of the big reasons for that was that this album was being produced by a legendary figure in the Canadian music industry, Bob Rock. Mr. Rock first came to the attention of Canadian music fans as a member of a band called The Payolas. The Payolas featured singer, Paul Hyde and guitarist, Bob Rock. They had several hits, the biggest of which was called, Eyes of a Stranger. The video for that song can be viewed here. It is instructive to listen to this song because it is not a straight-ahead rock tune. It infuses elements of ska and reggae into the rock song format that was so prevalent at the time. The Payolas were a breath of fresh air that blew across Canada’s music scene in the 1980s. However, like many bands, longevity was not to be their calling card. Paul Hyde and Bob Rock soon went their separate ways. For Rock, that meant beginning a career as a producer. He gained lots of fame by sitting behind the control panel for some of the biggest selling albums of all time. Most notably, it was Bob Rock who produced Metallica’s Black Album. Prior to that album, Metallica had been, primarily, a speed metal, hardcore band. But, under Rock’s supervision, Metallica released songs that became big hits with non-metal fans. Songs such as Enter Sandman and Nothing Else Matters are terrific rock songs. Bob Rock helped make Metallica more accessible to a broader swath of the music-buying public. This did wonders for the financial success of Metallica and those involved in the business of promoting their music. But, to the original Metallica fans, the release of the Black Album was the signal that Metallica had officially sold out. That money seemed to matter more than artistry hit a nerve, even with Metalheads. Metallica’s fans directed their venom at Bob Rock, accusing him of ruining their favourite band. If those accusations hurt, Bob Rock didn’t show it.

(*THM) Bob Rock was introduced to The Tragically Hip by Canadian music promoter, Bruce Allen. Allen was one of the biggest names in Canadian music in the 80s and 90s. But, the scuttlebutt was that Allen didn’t think much of The Tragically Hip’s music. In fact, it is said that he felt they were over-rated and given far more credit than they deserved. In facilitating the connection between Bob Rock and The Tragically Hip, Allen may have been trying to perform a service that he felt was necessary for the band. Instead of singing about Jacques Cartier and small towns like Bobcaygeon, perhaps Bob Rock could bring them more out into the mainstream of Canada’s rock scene. Regardless of his motivation, Allen set in motion a collaboration that resulted in the musical release of World Container.

Not surprisingly, World Container was met with mixed emotions from fans and critics, alike. This did not sound like Road Apples or Fully Completely at all. It sounded more Popish, for sure. But, it, also, heralded a new focus from Downie on writing songs that better reflected the current states of their collective lives. The songs on World Container and those that followed on other albums, were far more personal; often dealing with marriage, children, health, death, the state of the environment…in other words, things that grown-ups tend to be thinking about. The first song on World Container is called Yer Not the Ocean. In short, this song is about looking back at your youth and realizing that many of the things you thought were significant and weighty, actually, were nothing of the sort at all compared to what awaits in the future. When I listen to this song, I can almost envision the conversations that went on in studio prior to recording it. I can imagine Gord Downie telling Bob Rock that the band wanted to explore weightier themes in their songs going forward and Rock replying that this was fine but, first, the band was going to have to explain this to their fanbase. Yer Not the Ocean is that explanation.

Yer Not the Ocean opens with the following lines:

Again I’m talking to the lake, I’m standing on the rocks
You’re not the ocean, I’m better to watch
Britney Invisible or The Stranger In Myself
Than a wall of water just hitting the shelf

“Britney invisible” is a nautical reference that refers to sailors watching the sea with interest, waiting for something to happen, like the wind to pick up and a storm to come in. “The Stranger in Myself” refers to a book about a German soldier in WWII. Willy Peter Reese was in his late teens when he found himself at the Russian Front. He was a Nazi but, he had a poetic side and, as a result, he kept a diary of what he saw and felt. His diary was found upon his death in battle. In his poems, Reese often commented upon the inhumanity of war and of the nobility of a life dedicated to something larger than himself, in this case, the Fatherland. Many who have read this book have commented that Reese sure had a lot to say about Life when, in reality, he knew so little about all that it had to offer. I can certainly remember being 20 years old and thinking I had all of the answers, too.

When Gord Downie references A Stranger in Myself or “Britney invisible”, he is telling his fans that what the band had talked about in their music before…..on Yer Favourites….was important but that the band knows so much more about Life now and has so much more to say. Of course, Gord says that in his own poetic way but, none the less, World Container was the start of, what has come to be known as, the second half of The Hip’s career. Some fans stopped their Tragically Hip journey with the hits on Yer Favourites. But, thanks to the influence of Bob Rock, as well as, an outlook dedicated to more mature issues by the band, I find much of the material from the second half of their career to be very interesting. I love the hits, don’t get me wrong but, I enjoy their “new” stuff, just as much. I hope that you will think so, too.

The video for Yer Not the Ocean can be found here.

Thanks, as always, for reading my words. I hope that you enjoyed this post. If you wish to comment on anything I have said or to talk about the quality of Yer Not the Ocean or to pass on any great lessons in life that you have learned along the way, please feel free to do so in the comment box below. Thanks to Bob Rock, The Tragically hip and to The Hip Museum for the content of this post.

Bye for now.

The Tragically Hip: Song #19- Pigeon Camera

This is one post in a series. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

One of the most influential books ever written in history is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It is a book of military strategies for use by generals in times of war. Not surprisingly, over the centuries, The Art of War has, also, become a favoured resource for high-rolling business executives, as well as, politicians. The cut-throat corporate world that initiates battles for market share, marshals and organizes resources for a cause, mobilizes large numbers of people to carry out a plan of attack, all draw inspiration from The Art of War.

To win any battle during war time, any election, any race for ratings or profits, there needs to be a complete and maximized level of personal commitment. In The Art of War, one strategy used to entice full commitment from soldiers/workers is called “Burn the Boats”. The “Burn the Boats” strategy has been employed many times throughout History and, essentially, it occurs when an invading army purposely cuts off its own means of escape thus, forcing everyone involved to focus on advancing forward. One of the most famous examples of this military strategy being used was in the early 1500s, when Spanish conquistador/colonizer, Hernan Cortes invaded Mexico. His first order upon landing was to burn his fleet. This galvanized the commitment level of his soldiers who, now finding themselves stranded in a new and unfamiliar land, had no choice but to band together and move inland as a united force. They were fully committed to their cause and conquered and plundered the Aztec Empire in short order, as a result.

This brings us to Pigeon Camera by The Tragically Hip.

Pigeon Camera is not one of The Hip’s most famous songs but, it is a favourite of those who are fans of the band. The song was featured on the album, Fully, Completely and more than holds its own against such standard bearer songs as Courage, At The Hundredth Meridian, Fifty Mission Cap, The Wherewithal, Looking for a Place to Happen and, of course, Fully Completely, itself. All throughout this album, The Hip explore themes of commitment (such as what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, staying true to their artistic roots as Canadians, maintaining the highly literate level of their songwriting in the face of those fans who just want to dance and drink their beer while listening to the band), as well as, themes of the breaking down of boundaries (personal, sexual and cultural).

The song, Pigeon Camera, touches on various themes such as war and incest but, regardless of who views the song and how they view it, the over-arching idea at play is that, if boundaries are to be broken then, one has to be fully-committed for whatever follows. For those unaware, a pigeon camera was a real thing and served, at one time, as a way for armies to spy on one another. They were, in a sense, the precursor to drones. Carrier pigeons were trained to carry mounted cameras that clicked automatically at regular intervals and fly over enemy territory. They were used as recently as in the Vietnam War by the U.S. But, like anything, when you spy on an enemy or spy on your neighbours, you gain new information and are forced to deal with what you have just learned. This often causes you to change the personal dynamic of how you interact with the world around you. To start down the road to personal growth requires commitment on your part to follow wherever that journey may take you, which is kinda/sorta what this song is about.

Where’s our pigeon camera? By now, he could be anywhere. And, after all that training. And, after all that training, with something we could no longer contain.”

Gord Downie must have been thinking of Cortes and his colonization of the Aztecs during the making of this album because he mentions “They don’t know how old I am, they found armour in my belly, a sixteenth century conquistador, I think.” in Locked in the Trunk of a Car and then, he closes Pigeon Camera, with his own take on the Cortes/Art of War-inspired line, “Its like we burned our boots with no contingency plan.”

But, even if exploring sexual boundaries or spying on other nations isn’t your thing, please give Pigeon Camera a listen here. It is a gorgeous sounding song. Each note by Rob Baker is lush, like painting a picture in warm colours. It sounds like a Hip song, if such a claim can be staked. If nothing else, listening to a song that you may not have heard before could be the catalyst for personal growth and changes that, like the song says, “we can no longer contain.” It could lead to something wonderful.

Thanks, as always, for reading this post. I appreciate the past few minutes of your life that you so willingly gave to read my words. If you have any comments about this song or the themes of privacy, expanding boundaries, personal growth or the commitment it takes to be fully-actualized, please leave your words in the comment box below. Thanks to The Hip for creating such a musical gem in Pigeon Camera. It is, easily, one of my favourite Hip songs. I hope that you like it, too.

The Tragically Hip: Song #18- Long Time Running

This is one post in a series. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

What comes of being together with another? To share our space in this world with another takes a special kind of commitment. It isn’t for everyone. But, it is for some. At a distance, we tend to view those couples or groups with envy or admiration. We enjoy hearing their story. But, sometimes, the story we tell ourselves about others isn’t the real story. Sometimes, the real story is different. What is real and what is a facade? Sometimes, only the couple knows the truth.

Long Time Running by The Tragically Hip is, ostensibly, a song about a relationship that has run its course. There is bitterness in the lyrics. Yet, this song has been the chosen “first dance” song at many a wedding in Canada, too. It is a song that hints at divorce and infidelity but one that people admire for its commitment to longevity. There are no Hallmark moments here unless you count lyrical gems like, “We don’t go anywhere, just on trips” as being your version of romance. Long Time Running ends with a line that has sparked a variety of interpretations. “It’s well worth the wait” has been described as meaning the relief one feels when the pretending is finally over and a relationship that has gone on too long can finally be declared dead. Some prefer the line to mean the satisfaction one feels from a relationship that has stood the test of time, survived the ups and downs of life and has emerged intact. The Hip have never definitively said, one way or the other, what the line means. We are left to draw our own conclusions; each of us viewing the song through the lens of our own experiences.

One of the reasons Long Time Running is such a well-received song is because of the way the structure of the song mirrors its meaning. A song that ruminates over the validity of marrying our lives together over time should be told at a relaxed, leisurely pace. From the opening guitar notes that seem to hover in mid-air and then, slowly move forward like steps on a stairway, Long Time Running meanders its way along, unfolding its layers in a measured, deliberate way. The bluesy, country-esque nature of the music gives the song the feeling of hearing a tale told on a hot summer day, when everything and everyone moves slowly. There are no unnecessary movements on such days yet, you can feel each rivulet of sweat trickling from the nape of your neck, down your spine to the small of your back. Even when Gord belts out the closing line, he focuses on the word, well,….stretching it out as far and for as long as his voice will allow. Everything about the structure of this song is built upon a foundation of length and endurance and the shimmering heat rising from a path that heads out into the distance.

Long Time Running was popular when it was first released and had remained popular throughout the course of their career. In a way, the song came to represent how many people felt about The Hip. The Hip were a group of people who seemed well-suited for each other and were thriving over time. One of reasons for this feeling was the intensely private way all five guys went about living their lives. There were never any scandals. There were never any public spats or disagreements. The band seemed to be like the brothers that they claimed they were. They were school-aged friends who had each other’s back. Egos were parked outside. The Hip were quietly professional in all of their endeavours. Which is why, when it was announced that Gord Downie had cancer, it came as such a shock. For a band that had kept their lives so close to the vest for so many years, Gord’s announcement was not the sneak peak anyone was expecting nor, wanting.

So, when it was announced that the band would do one last tour and that a documentary movie was going to be shot during it, many people were pleased that Long Time Running was chosen as the soundtrack anthem. It seemed a very appropriate choice; being as it touched on relationships and longevity. As fans, we had enjoyed a loving relationship with The Hip for over three decades by the time 2016 rolled around. It was an emotional time for all. It felt like family. It felt like loss. It felt like a celebration of life, too. In the end, the documentary gave us a look behind the curtain, as it were, and revealed a band that were, for the most part, as we expected them to be. They proved to be a brotherhood, in the truest sense of the world. As saddened as we all were by Gord’s demise, we were filled with admiration for the strength of his courage. When the tour ended in real-time, as well as when the documentary ended, the feeling we were left with was one of, dare I say it, satisfaction. It was very re-affirming to see the love that existed between them and to note the pride each felt for having made the shared journey from childhood to adulthood on their own terms.

In my own lifetime, the only legitimate comparison I can offer for the outpouring of affection for Gord and The Hip during that final tour was how Canadians reacted when Terry Fox was forced to halt his run across our country because of cancer. It was big, big news and we all felt it. Between writing letters, creating poetry, promising to work toward Reconciliation and much, much more, people from all walks of life reacted to Gord’s passing with hearts full. So, naturally, when it was announced that Canada’s sweethearts, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, were going to dedicate a performance to Gord at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, a nation waited with bated breath.

Much like members of The Tragically Hip, Scott and Tessa had known each other since childhood. From the very earliest of their days skating together, Scott and Tessa possessed a chemistry that was noticeable to everyone who watched them perform. As the pair grew into teenagers and then, young adults, we grew with them. Their journey became our journey, too. We followed their successes through the ranks and, as a nation, we were extremely proud of them, both.

But, more than just having pride in their athletic accomplishments, we, as fans, were heavily invested in the relationship they portrayed. The smouldering looks they gave to each other. The gentle caresses. The loving embraces that, inevitably, gave way to broad smiles and hugs and her head resting on his shoulder. It was a fairy tale romance being played out before our very eyes. They were the most popular couple in Canada. Everyone was convinced that their love was a love for the ages. Wedding fever consumed us all. A Tessa and Scott engagement announcement following the Olympics was what many Canadians were expecting and/or hoping for. So, in this context, when the duo announced that they would skate to Long Time Running and that there would be a denim jacket present (Gord Downie often wore a denim jacket. It became one of his trademarks), it was almost too much to imagine. Canada’s sweethearts honouring Canada’s band and its poetic heart, Gord Downie. The video can be seen here. I will admit to crying freely while Tessa and Scott performed.

Relationships are funny things, sometimes. When The Hip revealed themselves in their documentary, we found what we had hoped to find and we were pleased. After the Olympics, when Scott and Tessa came back to Canada, they revealed a secret, too. It came to light that Scott Moir had had a girlfriend, not named Tessa, for quite some time. The relationship portrayed onscreen and on ice by Tessa and Scott was, simply that, a portrayal. It was a staged play. It wasn’t real. Our collective hearts cratered. Through no fault of her own, Scott’s girlfriend, who Tessa was intimately familiar with, instantly became the most hated woman in Canada. Since that time, she and Scott have kept a very low profile. Meanwhile, Tessa has been attempting to establish a career for herself in broadcasting. She has appeared as host on talk shows and is the product spokesperson in several advertising campaigns. But, each time we see her alone, it reinforces the feeling of heartbreak that resides within us. There is no wrong in this situation. There was no infidelity on Scott’s part. It is simply that the reality for us was not what we were expecting and we can’t help feeling somewhat disappointed.

As it turns out, what comes of being with another is unique to those involved. That was the essence of the song, Long Time Running. Sometimes it actually is well worth the wait and, sometimes, it isn’t.

Thank you for taking the time to read this post. If you have any comments to make regarding the song, Long Time Running or the documentary or how you feel about how The Hip ended it all as a band and/or how Scott and Tessa ended up as a team and as real people, please feel free to leave them in the comment box below. As always, I appreciate the time you spent reading my words. Take care and bye for now.

The Tragically Hip: Song #17- Grace, Too.

This is one post in a series. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.

The Tragically Hip were about to experience their big moment in the spotlight of American television. They were the musical guests on Saturday Night Live, hosted by their friend and fellow Canadian from Kingston, Ontario, Dan Ackroyd. It was a star turn, ten years in the making by that point. Yet, for the most part, it was their national debut in the United States. For a band that had always believed that they would forge their creative identity by sticking to the roots of Rock n’ Roll….“The Blues are still required”… it were, appearing on SNL was a pivotal moment in their career. As it turned out, it was a moment that is remembered by many who watched them that night as the time when Gord Downie appeared to muff the opening line of “Grace, Too”. Canada’s rising musical stars appeared nervous as the cameras rolled and a continent watched. But, in reality, how Gord opened “Grace, Too” was as crafted as anything he had ever done on any stage. He was the master of calculated improvisations for a reason. On this night, the reason had something to do with a birthday party for his eleven year old nephew. For Gord Downie and The Hip, family always mattered, even on that night in Manhattan.

Dan Ackroyd was one of the original members of SNL when it debuted waaaay back in the 1975. He is a cast member emeritus. Consequently, when he agreed to come back and host the show it 1994, it was with one condition…..that The Tragically Hip would be the musical guests. Traditionally, the music slot on SNL is reserved for a big name act and/or a hot new act that has a lot of momentum or cache associated with their name. The Tragically Hip checked none of those boxes. In Canada, they were coming off of the huge success of the Fully, Completely album. They were something special back home. But, with the exception of some U.S. border towns like Buffalo and Detroit, The Hip were relatively unknown in America. But, thanks to Dan Ackroyd, there they were as the musical guest on the biggest stage in Television.

There are many ways for a band to approach such a moment. They could have prepped and preened and put on the kind of rock set that they felt an American audience would accept and understand. They could have played safe hits such as “New Orleans is Sinking”, which had received moderate airplay south of the border. But, instead, they stuck to their roots and their penchant for being somewhat contrarian when it came to the U.S. and decided to debut a new song. That song was “Grace, Too“.

Grace, Too” was the opening track on their new album called, “Day for Night”. The second song they played during the show was “Nautical Disaster”, also from their new album. It was a bold, risky move to use their golden moment on the biggest stage of their careers to debut two unknown songs. But, sometimes, the biggest statement any creative person or group can make is to have confidence in their work, regardless of how well it is known. The Hip had been rehearsing “Grace, Too” for awhile and they knew they had a powerful song on their hands. So, they opted to trust their own instincts and go with the best and freshest music they had. As a band, The Hip always played their best music and gave every audience their best show. That night in Manhattan would be no different. New song or old, The Hip took the SNL stage prepared to take on America on their own terms. They trusted that they, and their new songs, would be enough.

SNL came back out of commercial. Dan Ackroyd appeared wearing a white shirt with a huge red word CANADA emblazoned across his chest. He smiled and staked our national claim to that 30 Rock stage. He introduced, with pride, his friends from Kingston, Ontario, The Tragically Hip. The audience applauded then, grew silent in anticipation of what was to come from this unknown band. The now familiar opening guitar chords of “Grace, Too” were struck, Gord approached the microphone and launched into the song. Only, he said the opening line wrong! In the video of this performance, you can see Gord shake his head afterwards, as if to say, what the heck did I just do.

The opening lyrics go, as follows: “He said, I’m fabulously rich! C’mon, just let’s go! She kinda bit her lip, Geez, I don’t know“. When Gord’s opening words were, “He said, I’m Tragically Hip” it seemed almost cringeworthy. It reeked of the opposite of confidence. To name-drop yourself is the height of self-absorption. I can remember watching this at home, being so disappointed and thinking that The Hip’s moment was over before it had even really began.

But I was wrong.

In interviews afterwards, Gord admitted to being distracted prior to the start of his performance. Gord had always been a good family man. He was very loyal to those he loved. His personal generosity and charitable nature were legendary. So, it was in 1994, as The Tragically Hip were about to be given, potentially, the biggest opportunity of their career, that Gord Downie made a promise to his nephew. His nephew was about to turn eleven years old. Gord would have been there for the party if time had allowed but, he was to be in New York instead. So, he promised his nephew a secret shout-out from the SNL stage. Among the million and one thoughts coursing through his head as he hit the stage and listened to Dan Ackroyd’s introduction, was that he had to, had to, had to remember his nephew off of the top of the song. When you watch the video, you will see Gord bring his fingers together to make an “11”. That was the shout-out. That was what he was thinking most about as he mindlessly repeated Ackroyd’s final words.

As Gord realized his error, he quickly regrouped and gave a ferocious performance. Gord is at his finest, frenetic self throughout the remainder of the song. How he fails to bang his head into the microphone in all his flailing about is amazing to me. It is a showcase performance for everything that made Gord Downie the mesmerizing front man he was. While Gord thrashed about the space in front of the mic stand, the band played on. “Grace, Too” is a song filled with powerful, growling, driving guitar chords. Rob Baker turns in a virtuoso performance on stage-right from Gord; his notes revving Gord’s vocal engine from the start to the finish. One of the hallmarks of all great bands is the level of collective skill that the band brings to bear but, also, how well the individual talent of the players serves to raise everyone’s game. On a night when Gord experienced a rare stumble out of the gate, the band picked him up and helped Gord right himself and then, rise up above it all. At the time, I thought the SNL performance was a disaster but now, looking back at it with more mature eyes, it has become, for me, the definitive live performance of “Grace, Too“.

On the Monday morning following the SNL show, I was driving to work and listening to the radio. The Toronto-area DJ was raving about how The Hip had “killed it” on Saturday Night Live and that all of Canada must be so very proud of how they did. At the time, I had tuned into the SNL show because I wanted to see a Canadian band do well in America. Many Canadians felt the same way because that was an inherent measure of the worth of any of our creative talents. We appreciated them at home but, if they made it big in the U.S. then, we would reeeeeeally love them. The fact of the matter was that The Tragically Hip sought to change the metric by which success was measured for Canadian acts. They did this all throughout their career. They did it on that night in Manhattan, too. They took to the biggest stage in America and trusted themselves, as musicians, as songwriters and as performers. The lessons embedded in this translate nicely to real life for all of us. If we want to be liked then, the best way for that to happen is to be ourselves. We need to trust that who we are is enough for others. Those who like who we really are will be the ones to become our good friends and our family. Those will be the people whose opinion matters in the end.

The video for this great song, “Grace, Too” can be found here. Remember to watch for the secret shout-out as Gord starts to speak and then, the shake of his head and the roll of his eyes as he realizes his opening error. Then watch him work. What a tremendous live performance!

As always, I thank you for reading my words. If you have any comments to make about this song, this particular performance on SNL, on what you think this song is actually about (because it has been the subject of more debate than most Hip songs) or whatever you heart desires, feel free to do so in the comments box below. If nothing else, always remember that the essence of who you are is more than good enough to be welcomed into the lives of others. You are worthy simply because you exist. That, for me, is the lesson of “Grace, Too“.