The Tragically Hip: Song #12- In A World Possessed By The Human Mind.

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.

Many people, fans and non-fans alike, are familiar with the fact that Gord Downie died of brain cancer. What few people know is that his very public struggle with the disease was, in fact, not his first experience with cancer. (#NEP) A few years earlier, Gord’s wife, Laura, contracted breast cancer. She went through all of the treatments and tests and, for awhile, Gord stopped writing and focussed on being a husband and father first. Luckily, thanks to the many advances that have been made in the treatment of cancer, Laura, survived.

When you first learn that a loved one may die, it changes your heart. For Gord, that change manifested itself in a change in the tone of the songs he wrote. He claimed that he didn’t want to write representational songs any longer. He wanted his songs to be more realistic and attuned to the world around him. 

“In A World Possessed By The Human Mind” is about being scared to your core about losing someone you love. It describes the haze one experiences during the testing phase when doctors offer their prognosis and everything spins in your mind. Mostly, this song is about Love.

“Everything is quiet.
A little Super-Dangerous.
Quiet enough to hear God rustling around in the bushes.
Oh, but it was you.
Girl, I was so afraid.
You said, “You shoulda seen the look on yer face.”

The video for this song is a true cinematic affair, as it were. It is lovely and can be found here.

As always, I welcome your comments on the contents of this post. Feel free to discuss any aspect of this song; its’ lyrics or musicianship, if you like. Also, if you feel brave, you may wish to tell your own stories about cancer and/or loss, of Love given or received or whatever your own heart may desire. Thanks for visiting my blog and reading this post and listening to “In A World Possessed By The Human Mind” by The Tragically Hip.

The Tragically Hip: Song #13- Poets

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.

I remember all the hoopla surrounding Y2K very well. For those who don’t, there was genuine concern all around the world that when the clocks ticked away those last few seconds of 1999, computers around the world were going to crash and all of the things that we use computers for were going to shut down. People stocked up on food and water, they took cash out of their bank accounts, they filled up on gasoline, too. The fear of the unknown was a very real thing for many people.

What I remember most about that night was that there was a world-wide concert being televised. This concert featured performers from every part of the planet. Canada was being represented by The Tragically Hip, who were performing live from Maple Leaf Gardens, I believe. I tuned in expecting them to play their hit song, “New Orleans is Sinking”, for a world wide audience but, instead, they played a song that I hadn’t heard of, up until then, called “Poets”. Initially, I was disappointed with their choice. But, over time, “Poets” has become one of my favourite songs.

One of the reasons that Gord was Gord and I was not, was because he saw the bigger picture better than me. He knew that, in times of darkness and doubt, it is the poets and artists and singers and playwrights that we can all depend upon to guide us into the light. He wasn’t wrong. We all survived Y2K. I did so by hearing “Poets” for the first time.

“Don’t tell me what the Poets are saying.
Don’t tell me that they’re talking tough.
Don’t tell me that they’re anti-social.
Sometimes, not anti-social enough.

*I could not find a video of that performance but, watching Poets performed live is a treat, no matter when it happens. So, enjoy Gord at his improvisational best at Barrie, Ontario. The link to this video is here.

As always, your comments on this post are most welcome. Feel free to comment specifically about this song, its’ lyrics, the musicianship or else, comment about your experiences during Y2K or about the importance of The Arts as a means of providing guidance and direction to us all in Life. Comment about anything you wish, actually. 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I hope you enjoyed listening to “Poets” by my Boys, The Tragically Hip.

The Tragically Hip: Song #15-Gus, the Polar Bear of Central Park

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.

This song is based on the true story of a polar bear named Gus. Gus was a featured attraction in the Central Park Zoo in NYC. After years in captivity, Gus began displaying signs of mental and emotional distress. King of the Tundra no longer, this majestic creature languished under the constant gaze of those who never knew he was in such pain. In this song, I swear Gord’s voice has an extra growl-like quality to it. I have always admired how the Tragically Hip so willingly gave voice to those unable to speak for themselves.

Whats troubling, Gus? Is it nothing goes quiet?
Is that what’s troubling you, Gus? The mere mention of the name
Used to be enough to make every bird stop singing.
Is that what’s troubling you, Gus? No one is afraid.”

A link to a video of the band performing this song live can be found here.

In this post, as in all others in this series, your comments on this song are most welcome. Feel free to talk about the lyrics, the musicianship, the subject matter of this song, your thoughts on zoos and/or animal rights……whatever your heart desires. Thanks for reading this post about Gus, the Polar Bear from Central Park by The Tragically Hip.

The Tragically Hip: Song #5- At Transformation

This is one post in a series of fifteen. 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.

Early on, when the band was just coming together as a unit and trying to discover the voice with which they should speak to the world, they made an important decision. They decided that every original song they produced and put on an album would be done with joint credit given to all five members. (#NEP) Although Gord Downie often did most of the writing of the lyrics, the process of creating a song often involved each member of the band having their input, as well as, adding their knowledge of the music their instruments produced and how they could add layers of meaning to Gord’s lyrics. As you may know, a strict reading of the lyrics to almost any Hip song does not give too many hints at what the song actually sounds like when it is performed by all five members of the band. Gord’s voice was as much an instrument as any guitar; his lyrics akin to the notes and chords of his bandmates, combining to produce a musical performance that was always unique, visceral and mesmerizing to behold. For that reason, I have always preferred watching The Hip perform in person (when they were still touring) or now, watching videos of live performances captured for posterity. The song, “At Transformation” is an exception to this rule.

All five members of The Tragically Hip were multi-talented men. Rob Baker was as talented an artist as he was a guitarist. Baker studied Visual Art at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario (where the band originated). He was responsible for designing most of The Hip’s album covers and t-shirts in the early days of their career. Baker even won a Juno Award for his work on the album cover to Phantom Power. Flash forward a few years……..when Gord Downie’s wife, Laura, was recovering from breast cancer, the band took a short hiatus from recording and performing. During that stretch of time, Rob Baker was able to indulge in his passion for Art by creating his own original work, as well as, taking in Art shows by other artists of interest to him. One such show was by a young man named Cameron Tomsett. Baker was impressed with Tomsett’s work and brought several pieces back for the boys in the band to look at. They were impressed enough that they commissioned Tomsett to create the album cover art for their new release, “In Between Evolution” (which can be seen at the top of this post). Tomsett’s art and sense of artistic expression were, also, incorporated into the video for “At Transformation”. In my opinion, the video is stunning! The song’s lyrics describe the battle to survive cancer and fight for life anew so, the words have an intensity all of their own. However, like all Hip songs, the introduction of the influences of the rest of the band take Gord’s lyrics to a new level of urgency and passion. Art and Music have a transformative effect on all of our lives, just as they did on each Tragically Hip song, just as they do in this Tomsett-inspired video.

Gently breathing
Lit by the morning sun.
Through the night,
It had been raining venom.I want to be kind,
Not a bullet in the right place
Or just of two minds,
More important than important.”

The brilliant video for “At Transformation” can be viewed here.

Thanks for visiting my blog and reading this post. Please feel free to comment on any aspect of this song, on Art that moves you or on the beauty of collaboration or anything else of interest to you now that you have read this post and watched this video and listened to these lyrics. Thanks to every member of The Tragically Hip for making such good Art.

Love is a Hockey Card

NHL legend, Leonard “Red” Kelly, passed away at age 91. A champion in life, Mr. Kelly, also, played a central role in helping my wife prove her love for me during the early days of our relationship. Thanks, Red! Rest in Peace, sir.

National Hockey League Hall of Famer, Leonard “Red” Kelly passed away yesterday at aged 91. Kelly was a member of eight Stanley Cup Championship teams over the course of his illustrious career; four with the Detroit Red Wings and four with my beloved Toronto Maple Leafs. Upon the completion of his playing career, Kelly served several terms as a member of Canada’s Parliament. He, then, returned to the NHL, holding several coaching positions before finally retiring for good while in his late 60s. I never met Mr. Kelly in person but, he came to be the central figure in one of my most cherished moments in life. This is the story of that moment and why Red Kelly’s passing holds such a special place in my heart.

If you look past the surface of most cliches, you will often find a grain of truth. For me, a Canadian boy growing up in the 1960s and 70s on Cape Breton Island, that cliched truth was that I loved hockey.

I loved playing road hockey with the guys who lived on my small street. Sticks with spear-like curved blades, taped just like our NHL heroes did. Playing on that street, I scored more goals than Gretzky ever did. So did everyone else, too. We shot! We scored! Tennis balls for pucks. We would play for hours on end, stopping only when our Moms would call us in for dinner.

I loved watching hockey on TV. Back in those days, we only had three tv channels; CBC English, CBC French and CTV. Hockey was only broadcast on CBC on Saturday nights. At 8:00pm, in living rooms all over town, the anthem of my youth….the opening theme to Hockey Night in Canada….would play. We would all be transported; one week, to the Forum in Montreal, where we would listen to the dulcet tones on Cape Breton’s own, play-by-play man, Danny Gallivan, as he described the exploits of the Flying Frenchman who wore the bleu, blanc et rouge of the Montreal Canadians. The next week, we would find ourselves listening to Bill Hewitt, “live from the Gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens”. I loved the Leafs. Being just a small boy, I am not sure if my attraction to the Leafs was more of a cultural one because, after all, I was English and the Leafs represented English-speaking Canada. But, never-the-less, the Leafs were my team and those Saturday nights, watching with my dad when they were shown on TV, were among my favourite childhood memories.

But, there were lots of days in the week that hockey wasn’t being shown on TV and that the boys weren’t gathering to play road hockey. On those days, I got my hockey “fix” from my hockey card collection. I was a big hockey card collector as a boy. Opee-Chee hockey cards, to be precise. They were sold, eight cards to a pack plus, one stick of hard, hard pink bubble gum, for ten cents a pack. I used to get $1.00 per week as an allowance, which was a King’s ransom in those days, and blow the whole dollar at Mary MacQuarrie’s corner store, buying ten packs of cards at a time. Without any exaggeration, the moments when I would start opening those packs were as exciting a few minutes as I had as a boy. Every pack contained the stories of my heroes. I opened each pack, hoping against hope, that I would find Toronto Maple Leaf players inside. Sometimes I was lucky and added to my collection. Sometimes, I just found cards I already had…or traders, as we all called them because, those would be the ones I would take to school the next day and trade with my friends or else, sacrifice while flicking them against the school wall….closest card to wall collected everyone’s cards. One time, for a couple of bucks, I sent away for a hockey card locker, as advertised on the Opee-Chee wrapper and kept all of my cards in that. The locker was cardboard and had storage slots for each team. I wore that cardboard locker out, to the point where the doors would fall off simply from being opened and shut so often.

As I left childhood and entered adulthood, my love of hockey stayed true. But now, there were mid-week hockey games to watch on TV. I joined organized hockey pools and placed small wagers on the outcome of games and of the scoring prowess of my favourite players. In my early twenties, I moved to Toronto and even got to see a few games at Maple Leaf Gardens. If hockey was my religion then, Maple Leaf Gardens was my church. Being there felt like history coming alive. My only regret about watching my Leafs play in person was that I was unable to share that experience with my father, who had passed away when I was eleven years old. He would have liked to have been there, I’m sure. In his memory, on the occasion of my first visit, I walked up and placed one hand upon the old building and thought about all of those evenings at home, sitting with dad in his Lazy-Boy chair, cigarette smoke curling skyward. The Leafs actually won that night. I credit my dad with having offered some Heavenly intervention on behalf of my team. The thought of it still makes me smile.

But, in my thirties, something happened that changed everything. In my thirties, I met my wife, Keri. She is my soul-mate and I knew that right from our very first dates. Everything was different with her. I recognized that right away and felt enriched beyond measure by her love for me. Love is a funny thing, though. It is the tsunami of emotions. It rolled through my life and obliterated all that had previously seemed so important….including hockey. I no longer hung on the plus/minus stats of certain players or what my position was in the pool. What I cared about was being with Keri and, believe it or not, I happily traded hockey for her and felt the better for it when it happened.

That brings to mind the opening stanzas to the song, Fireworks by Canadian band, The Tragically Hip.

“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers,
It was back in ol’ 72
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember is sitting beside you. You said you didn’t give a f*ck about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr.”

Keri didn’t give a hoot about hockey. Still doesn’t. But, she gave a hoot about me and, still does. Love works both ways; sometimes it is all about you adapting to the person you are with and, at other times, it is all about how your partner adapts to you. For Keri, falling in love with me meant falling in love with someone who loved hockey, even if my love for hockey was not as obsessive and all-encompassing as it had once been. She was hitching her wagon to a man who wore Toronto Maple Leaf socks and sweatpants and who, to this very day, wears a Toronto Maple Leaf ball cap. She knew I bled blue but, she loved me anyway. And love makes you do things you could never have imagined yourself doing.

For our first Christmas, we decided to set a small limit of $10-20 on our gift(s) for each other. I have no idea what I ended up getting her for Christmas but, from her, I got a gift that proved her love for me better than any words could do. For Christmas that year, Keri got me a hockey card.

In the Fall of that year, Keri had noticed an ad in our local newspaper that indicated that “Toronto Maple Leaf Hall of Fame legend, Leonard “Red” Kelly” was coming to a mall not far from our house and would be autographing hockey cards for a buck a piece. Keri did not have a clue who Red Kelly was nor did she care that he was a key member of the last Leafs team to win the Stanley Cup in 1967. No, all that Keri knew was that I loved the Leafs and this man was a Leaf. She rolled the dice and gambled that I would appreciate who this man was and that her gesture would bring about the desired result which was, that she would have been able to make me happy.

I did know who Red Kelly was. But, more than having an autographed card, her gift had meaning because of what she did to get it for me. My Love, who didn’t give a hoot about hockey, stood in a line for 45 minutes in a skanky little mall, surrounded by dozens of hockey nerds (like I used to be), all because she loved me and sought to make me happy. Her efforts resonated in my heart then and now, with Mr. Kelly’s passing, those pangs of love surface once again. I received this hockey card eighteen years ago. I have not felt the need to buy another since. My autographed Red Kelly card is the last hockey card I have needed.

Mr. Kelly’s passing is timely because it happened during the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. The dream of every hockey player is to win the Stanley Cup. Red Kelly did that eight times, which is an amazing number. Most players are lucky to win it once. Red Kelly is, indeed, a legend in the game of ice hockey and has more than earned his eternal rest. For a man who never crossed my path, Red Kelly sure left his mark on my life. For sometimes love takes the form of diamonds, roses or hearts and flowers. But, for me and my wife, love took the form of a hockey card. Thank you, Red Kelly. Rest in peace.

Throw Your Arms Around Me

We all have a song that we sing with our hearts, as much as we do, our mouths and lungs. This post is about those songs and the singers who sing them.

I just finished reading The Never-Ending Present: the Story of Gold Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay. What an excellent book. Not only a chronological look at the career of, arguably, Canada’s top rock band ever, this book also, dedicated several chapters to individual topics such as the kinship and camaraderie that existed between The Hip and many other bands in Canada and the U.S., the way certain Hip songs were crafted and came to be as we know them and, if you know the story of Gold Downie, you will not be surprised that there was a chapter dedicated to death. Not the death of Gold Downie per se but more, an examination of how various creative people handled the news of their own impending death. Reading about the final months of Johnny Cash, Prince, David Bowie, Warren Zevon and many more, offered a fascinating look into how mortality can fuel creativity but, also, how it can strengthen the bonds of Love with those closest to you.

We all have a song. A song that we sing as much with our hearts as we do with our mouths and our lungs. A song that, from its opening notes, instantly transports the whole of our being back in time to a transformational memory such as a first kiss, the achieving of a desired life goal or a shared moment with a loved one. Many people will say that The Tragically Hip songs take them back to that, most Canadian, of memories, which is sitting around camp fires, drinking beer and singing Hip songs by a Lake. Whatever the case, we all have a song.

For Keri and I, our song is not a Tragically Hip song. It is a Spirit of the West song called Home for a Rest. When we were planning our wedding, we were asked to make a myriad of decisions: about the date and location of the ceremony, what food would be served for supper, who would play or DJ our reception and so on. Our decisions were no different that those made by thousands of other newlywed couples. Being relatively well-organized individuals, we were fairly good at staying on top of the process of planning our wedding. There was only one thing that caused us any trepidation and that was what song would we choose for our “first dance” and how would we even do that first dance. You see, neither Keri nor I are, what I would dub, good dancers. Even while we were dating, we never really went out dancing because we are more awkward on the dance floor than graceful or cool. So, the thought of a hundred plus people watching us twirling in a circle for five minutes seemed almost unbearable to us. The whole topic became a source of stress and anxiety, as we auditioned several ballads in our living room, wearing a hole in the floor, clumsy as we were, endlessly circling on the same spot, round and round and round again.

Part of the problem for us was that we never wanted our wedding to be all about us. Instead, right from the very beginning of our planning, we wanted our wedding to be a shared experience between us and the ones we loved. So, for example, our idea for supper was never to have a fancy ball room, with slip covered chairs and ice sculptures and a ten-tier high wedding cake. That may be some couple’s dream but, it wasn’t ours. For us, we wanted to share a tasty meal with our family and friends and, oh yes, while we are at, let’s get married, too. The whole thing was always meant to be homey and low-key. Eventually, we solved our “first dance” anxiety by reminding ourselves that we could make this moment a shared moment, too, by inviting our guests to join us in the dance. Once we thought of that idea, we realized that by having everybody moving and grooving along with us, it would mean that they wouldn’t be staring at our sad selves as we spun slowly like a top. We, instantly, relaxed and tasked ourselves with finding a fun, upbeat song. That’s how we came to have Home for a Rest as our first dance song.

When we first told our DJs that Home for a Rest was our choice, they tried to talk us out of it. But, we reassured them that this is what we wanted and that we trusted our friends enough to know that most would join in and that our reception would get off to a flying start. If you don’t know the song, I will play it for you. As you listen to it and watch the video, pay attention to the lead singer, John Mann. At the time that this song was being released, John Mann was regarded as a wonderfully charismatic front man, second only to Gord Downie when it came to having a powerful stage presence. After watching the video, I think that you will agree with that assessment. What a singer! What a band! What a song!

Songs like this are a funny thing, sometime. Their role in the soundtrack of our lives often causes the song to become, somewhat, frozen in time, along with the band. The musicians remain ever young, ever vibrant, ever strong and forceful personalities, always ready at our beck and call, to play to our hearts when our hearts need our song. But musicians, like us, are mortal, too. They are real people. They experience the good and the bad in life, as we all do. It’s just that sometimes we, the audience, forget that our heroes are real. We expect them to be immortal. Thus, when news broke that someone like Gord Downie had cancer, it shook us to our core as a country. This couldn’t be real. Gord and The Hip were supposed to be around forever. And now, just like that, they weren’t. It is over. Gord is gone to walk among the stars, as it were.

As noted above, Gord Downie was not the only famous musician to be stricken by disease and taken from us too soon. Prince, Bowie, Cash……and, John Mann, too. The singer of “our” song, stricken, as well. For most of his career, John Mann and his band, Spirit of the West, existed in the shadow of The Tragically Hip. The parallels between Mann and Downie, The Hip and Spirit of the West, are numerous. Both Mann and Downie commanded every stage they played upon. Both Mann and Downie wrote songs about Canada and toured extensively from Sea to Sea to Sea, playing venues intimate as well as, cavernous. Both bands kept their lineups intact through their careers and fostered a family-like atmosphere during recording sessions, as well as, during tours. Finally, both Mann and Downie railed against the diseases that wracked their bodies by having one, final tour each. During both tours, both men failed, at times, but, both were surrounded by love in the form of band mates who were like family and who helped support their friend when support was needed most.

John Mann survived colorectal cancer in his forties, only to find his brain attacked by early onset Alzheimers as he turned fifty. Alzheimers is a degenerative disease that attacks the brain and is most famous for robbing its victims of their memories, even the memories of being loved by those closest to them. It is a tragic disease and there is no known cure. But, the human brain is a mysterious thing. As much as neurologists are coming to understand the effects of Alzheimers, it is still not fully understood why music seems to be one of the last aspects of recognition to go. In John Mann’s case, the vibrant, powerful, manic stage presence that you saw in the Home for a Rest video disappeared. He became dis-oriented, confused and helpless on stage. He required assistance to know what song was coming next, when he should start singing and what the lyrics were. But, he never lost his voice. John Mann could still sing, right up until his last performance. The clarity and range of his voice stayed with him, even when all else failed him at the end.

As Spirit of the West set out on their final tour, Mann’s bandmates transformed from being his musical equals to being his caretakers on stage and off-stage, too. Their hearts ached because their friend was suffering so greatly but, also, because he was fighting back with so much energy and vigour. He now read the lyrics to his songs from an iPad tablet secured to his microphone stand. He stayed rooted to his spot of the stage, lest he become lost and dis-oriented on the very stages that he pranced around like a whirling dervish. All that used to be was no more. All that remained was that voice and the love of his musical family.

For their closing number during each of their final shows, Spirit of the West, chose to cover an Australian song by a group called Hunters and Collectors, called Throw Your Arms Around Me. This is a lovely song that has been covered by numerous musicians and bands over the years, Now, it became John Mann’s song to sing. The video you will see is of Mann’s final performance on his final tour. The deterioration in his being is incredible but, instead of this being a sad moment captured, it is, actually, wonderfully-beautiful. Take note of how he relies on his bandmates; especially Geoffrey Kelly on flute, to know when to sing and when to stop. As well, note how Kelly watches over Mann as they assemble to take their bows and then, as they leave the stage. They are more than bandmates, they are family and the affection between them all is very real. I am sure that final performance of Throw Your Arms Around Me will become “that song” for many who were there to watch it or to be part of it on stage.

I can remember watching The Tragically Hip’s final show in Victoria Park, here in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario. There were several hundred of us gathered in front of the bandshell. We watched the three hour concert on an inflatable screen used to air summertime movies for children and their families. There was beer and warm summer breezes. And, during those times that Gord Downie faltered on stage, we threw our arms around him and sang aloud to fill the void, just as his bandmates did on stage in Kingston. Because, after all, that’s what you do when you are family and the music becomes your song.