This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, 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, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
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.