It started when Catherine and I saw The Sweet Hereafter at the Ritz. We actually used to learn about new movies from Siskel and Elbert and I think that's where we learned that Sarah Polley, who will forever be in the Catherine and Aidan Pantheon (there are lots of Pantheons), had reemerged. I'm pretty sure we saw it in the theater and were immediately struck by the music. Courage appears in the film, sung by Polley ("Their poetry is staggering" she said in the Times), and I think it also plays over a boom box that her character carries at one point in the film. The Hugh MacLennan quotation that is adapted for the song conveys the theme of the film pretty well:
there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.
That was my, our, first encounter with Gord and The Hip.
Pretty simple trajectory from there on out: work to decipher the references and places in Fully Completely, wrap head around the complete tonal shift in Day for Night, start to figure this band out. I bought a stereo at Best Buy the summer of '98 and I picked up the just released Phantom Power on the same trip. Poets was the first song that played through those speakers (for some reason it came with four speakers). I must have played that album hundreds of times that summer. My ticket stubs tell me that we saw the band at the TLA in November of that year, and I saw them again, with Reese, in 2000, a month after the release of Music@Work. Without Youtube, I'm not sure I'd seen Good in action before the shows, or had any idea how he operated. I remember him shaking a banana and pretending to play guitar, and I think this was his short sleeved button down and tie phase. I also remember not having seen anyone like him before. I haven't since. I saw them again in Rochester in '04, but those Philly shows, packed and loud, were different. In Canada you'd probably have to go back 15 years to be able to see the band in that setting, but I never really got into those early bar rock albums. Seeing the band in Philadelphia was the best of both worlds.
Then you turned all Billy Sunday, shoutin'
"Philadelphia for Christ and Christ for
Vulture wrote after their final concert "as the lyricist for the Hip, Downie is particularly respected for crafting songs that depict the life and people in Canada, including hockey players and small-town figures". That's true enough. Hockey is mentioned frequently, and many songs, especially the early ones, revolve around small town Canadians, often those caught up in dire circumstances. But that misses completely the songwriting skills that make Downie's songs unique and powerful. I hate the rock-star-as-poet thing, but Downie, while maybe not writing poetic verse, employs techniques that take his lyrics into a different realm. I love how he often rhymes whole verses with each other, like in Yawning or Snarling or Stay. And he has an incredible way of incorporating dialogue and conversation into verse as in Throwing Off Glass or the startling final lines of Nautical Disaster. How does a songwriter concerned with hockey and every day folks come up with the opening lines of Something On: "Your imagination's having puppies. It could be a video for new recruits." And how does Gord make that sound so natural and normal? It almost makes sense. Of course he mixed the ridiculous with the profound, with lines like 'maybe a prostitute could teach you how to take a compliment' from Flamenco. At least I think that's profound. The Gord that I love writes lyrics and sings them in a way that resonates really deeply with me, as much as any of the music I love. I like to sing Bobcaygeon to Onslow because it sounds like a lullaby, but it also feels real and important and I get to sing about 'that night in Toronto' but these days if I think too much while singing, I can't.
Then the dream ends when the phone rings,
You're doing alright he said it's out there most days and nights,
But only a fool would complain.
Anyway Susan, if you like,
Our conversation is as faint as a sound in my memory,
As those fingernails scratching on my hull.
It was hard during that final show to hear Gord struggle to sing his anthems, as his voice is the most powerful and recognizable part of the band. My favorite part of Gord the singer is how his voice always jumps back up a note at the end of lines and phrases. No, he can't be reduced to merely a Canadian storyteller.
I think my favorite part of a Hip song, and I have so many, is from Stay, where Gord sings, achingly, perfectly:
All things being balanced
It's balanced and called balancing
Somewhere beyond everything
And it's being balanced
Not for the sake of balance
But balancing between the throes of learning
And the entire thing
Here's to balance. Here's to the Hip. Here's to Gord.