Sometimes I feel like poetry is a lost art, usurped in the hive-mind of a generation by pop hooks and empty prose.
Then I hear the Tragically Hip, and realize Gord Downie’s got it all figured out. Gord’s writing is a confederation of contrasting qualities, as if the one man was a cast of characters. You have the manic poet; you have the sly showman; you have the earnest songsmith. Through these roles, and alongside an equally expressive crew of bandmates in The Hip, Gord’s enigmatic persona has become a hallmark of modern Canadiana for over 30 years.
This past May 24th, the Tragically Hip shared some heartbreaking news with everyone; Gord has brain cancer. Having lost both family members and close friends to the same Glioblastoma form now afflicting him, my mind immediately began to retread those memories and empathize with him for the arduous path he must be staring down. Further, more hopeful news came in the following days; while the cancer is indeed terminal, Gord has been responding well to treatment. Well enough, in fact, to tour their new album, Man Machine Poem.
In that spirit of resilience, it is only right to celebrate the eclectic body of words and work that Gord has given us. His songs were themselves Gord’s reflections. Never shallow, always mysterious, and grounded in Canadian soil and soul. I asked a cadre of local musicians, artists, and industry personnel to tell us a little about their favourite Gord song.
Andrea Vincent, Lawnya Vawnya/Girls Rock NL
“Dire Wolf” off In Violet Light
It was a song I hadn’t really taken notice of until quite a while after its release. I was living in Halifax at the time. One particular evening there was a massive rain and wind storm and I was so homesick I wasn’t fit to look at. I curled up on the couch with Nan’s quilt when the lightning started, and started playing music on my laptop. The wind was shaking my apartment so bad I felt like I was on a ship. “Dire Wolf” came on just as the power went out. Everything went black, and for the first time I heard every word of that song. It still punches me in the stomach every time.
Evan Mercer, Branch Ricky
“Flamenco” Off Trouble at the Henhouse
A sultry poetic jam about trying to make a person see the beauty and confidence in the things you do.
Dicky Strickland, Long Distance Runners/Sonny Tripp
“Gift Shop” off Trouble at the Henhouse
It’s probably cliché to say it at this point, but there are so many songs by The Tragically Hip that I could call my “favorite,” depending on the day. However, in saying that, the one that always stands out to me is the song “Gift Shop,” which was the first tune that I heard by The Tragically Hip which compelled me to want to listen to more of their music. It was the first song by the band that I ever learned how to play on the guitar. It was the opening song when I saw them perform live for the first time back in ’99, and to cap it off, it’s the first track on my favorite Tragically Hip album. I still remember sneaking into my sister’s room and stealing the cassette tape.
It’s the perfect album opener. It sounds like seventeen guitars are playing, when it’s just two, but every little nuance works so well with the rest of the instrumentation, and the jam out at the end is just the quintessential Hip jam. The song captivates everything that’s great about the band, without mentioning the undeniable brilliance of Gord Downie as a poet and lyricist.
Tony Ploughman, Fred’s Records
“Gift Shop” off Trouble at the Henhouse
The opening track to Trouble at The Henhouse has always been a favorite Hip tune of mine. “Gift Shop” is slow moving, dark, brooding, muscular. It instantly captured me with its intoxicating lyrics; abstract, sublime and poetic … open for interpretation. The band had released songs previously that I found shared these qualities, but it was the intenseness in the production of this entire album that I found all-consuming. Powerful opening track, and I always considered opening tracks to be of major significance like a invitation to go on the ride.
“Wheat Kings” off Fully Completely
It’s my soundtrack to rolling fields: I always put on “Wheat Kings” when I get off the ferry, driving onto PEI. And I love that Gord took an interest in the falsely accused, one man, and he made all of us care.
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