This is the start of a second, fifteen-part series that highlights songs by the Canadian musical group, The Tragically Hip. *A simple scroll through my archives will reveal songs #s 1-15 in this series. In each post, I will focus on one song and will tell you the back story of how it came to be written, what the meaning is behind the lyrics and any other interesting tidbit that I think you might want to know. I wish to stress that I am just a fan of the band and not, in any way, an expert music journalist. The information I present will be my own thoughts, feelings and ideas with, two exceptions. I have learned lots about The Hip from two external sources; (1) The book, The Never Ending Present by author Michael Barclay (#NEP) and, 2- a website for Hip nerds like me called The Hip Museum (#HM). When I use information in a post that I obtained from either source, I will credit them accordingly. Other than that, I hope that you enjoy this post, my past Hip posts and all future Tragically Hip posts to come.
“Little Bones” is an interesting song in The Hip’s musical catalogue for several reasons. First of all, there is the story of the song’s lyrics, themselves. For that, I turn to (#NEP). “Little Bones” was part of an album called Road Apples. For those who may not be aware, the term “road apple” is uniquely Canadian and refers to frozen cow or horse dung which is, then used, as a hockey puck in pick-up hockey games. Now, I am a Canadian boy and I played my share of road hockey games in my youth and I can swear that I never played with frozen poop. But, in many rural, farming areas, where the games are played on frozen ponds or lakes, having access to cheap, disposable “pucks” is helpful and road apples are, indeed, a thing.
For many bands, the first album or two come to fruition in a burst of adrenaline and hopeful ambition. As bands tour with their early material and try to make a name for themselves in the public eye, they learn to hone their skills as individual players and then, collectively, as a unit. The Tragically Hip were no different. By the time this album came, The Hip had arrived at some important decisions; first of all, they decided that they were going to take control of the production of each album and, consequently, each song on each album. Secondly, the band members made a decision that, from our perspective seems obvious but, at the time, was a hold-your-breath moment for The Hip and that was, to let Gord Downie be the principal song writer. Up until then, Paul Langlois had written or co-written many of the early hits. But now, the poetic aura that emanated from Gord had become apparent to everyone. As Langlois stated, Gord had a way of taking the common, shared experiences of the group and then, creating universal messages out of it. He said, “Little Bones” was a prime example of how Gord worked his magic. Here is that story.
As part of the band’s decision to take control over the production of their work, the group scoured North America for a recording studio that was in sync with the mindset of the group at the time. The Hip settled on a gothic mansion in New Orleans that was being restored by Canadian producer, Daniel Lanois. At the time, Lanois was a hugely respected producer, having helped famous bands like U2 define their sound during the 80s and into the 90s. The mansion he was rehabilitating in New Orleans possessed interesting architecture and an even more interesting history….it was said to be haunted. The building was creaky and dark and had multiple floors, with rooms off of rooms that led in all manner of directions. It was an easy place to become lost. And The Hip loved it!
Anyway, in getting to know the city, the band members were all struck with the humidity and how it affected their ability to play their instruments, as well as, how much harder it was to play one of their favourite pastimes…pool! They were, also, becoming acquainted with the local cuisine and came to love Cajun dishes; especially those involving shrimp or chicken. From these everyday experiences sprang the inspiration within Gord Downie’s mind to write the lyrics that became, “Little Bones”.
“It gets so sticky down here, better butter your cue finger up. It’s the start of another new year, better call the newspaper up. Two-fifty for a hi-ball and a buck and a half for a beer. Happy hour, happy hour, happy hour is here.”
Out of the minutiae of life while recording an album in The Big Easy came “Little Bones”. Sources of inspiration appeared almost effortlessly for Downie. A book he was reading at the time, Last of the Crazy People, by Canadian author, Timothy Findlay, made it into the song. *(the cat in the story was actually named, Little Bones). As did a controversial news figure at the time, Dr. Shockley, who promoted a view of creating genetically superior babies by excluding, what he considered to be, “inferior” genes from society’s gene pool.
“The long days of Shockley are gone, so is football Kennedy style, famous last words taken all wrong, wind up on the very same pile. Two-fifty for a decade and a buck and a half for a year. Happy hour, happy hour happy hour is here.“
In addition to how Gord parsed together the lyrics for “Little Bones”, a second aspect of note about this song is its musical construction. Many fans consider the guitar work to have “an edge” to it that was new, at the time. Well, just as Gord Downie was soaking up the atmosphere of New Orleans for source material for his new songs, the rest of the band was revelling in the musical atmosphere of being in the home of The Blues, as well as, enjoying bands such as Red Hot Chili Peppers, who were breaking big with their funk-driven sound. When you listen to “Little Bones” in this context, it is easy to pick up on the funky, bluesy influences that made their way into the song. Between the lyrics and the music, “Little Bones” is one of The Hips least Canadian songs but, one of their most powerful and driving of rock songs. This is what comes from being open and receptive to new ideas, people, places and cultures.
The video for “Little Bones” can be viewed here.
As always, I welcome your comments about this post, the particulars of this song, about New Orleans, Gord’s writing style, the band’s musical leanings or whatever you wish to discuss. Thanks to The Tragically Hip for their openness to experience new ways of living and learning. The fruits of your labours are a joy for us all to behold.