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”…..as 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“.