More than a sim­ple Trag­i­cally Hip his­tory les­son, Gord Downie makes it clear why the band mat­tered

The Georgia Straight - - Contents - > BY MIKE USINGER

Gord Downie, Steve New­ton’s lav­ish new hard­cover book, of­fers ca­reer-span­ning in­sights on the late, great na­tional trea­sure.

At the risk of sound­ing overly es­o­teric, it wasn’t the ra­dio hits or fa­mously hyp­notic live shows that made the Trag­i­cally Hip Canada’s great­est-ever band.

In­stead, it was the way front­man Gord Downie was in some ways a his­to­rian as much as a rock star. The singer and lyri­cist was fas­ci­nated by the de­cid­edly Cana­dian sto­ries of fig­ures like doomed hockey player Bill Bar­ilko, iconic painter Tom Thom­son, and famed ex­plorer Jacques Cartier. The Hip’s great­est tri­umphs—“locked in the Trunk of a Car”, “Bob­cay­geon”, “Courage (For Hugh Ma­clen­nan)”—were in many ways reflections on the past.

It makes sense, then, that the new hard­cover book Gord Downie serves as a lov­ing and of­ten in­sight­ful ru­mi­na­tion on one of the coun­try’s most beloved trea­sures. The book was writ­ten by long-time Ge­or­gia Straight mu­sic critic Steve New­ton, who, in the in­ter­est of full dis­clo­sure, I’ve had the plea­sure of work­ing with for 20 of his 35 years at the pa­per.

New­ton was a Trag­i­cally Hip fan right from the be­gin­ning, which is to say the group was on his radar long be­fore the rest of Canada dis­cov­ered early hits like “Blow at High Dough” and “New Or­leans Is Sink­ing”.

As New­ton notes in Gord Downie, he started writ­ing about mu­sic at a time when artists didn’t have the In­ter­net as a means of build­ing an au­di­ence.

“Nowa­days, ev­ery­one and their dog has a blog and can be­come an in­stant mu­sic critic,” New­ton writes, “but back in the ’80s not so much. Luck­ily for me, the Straight was a ma­jor pub­li­ca­tion in a ma­jor city, one where a lot of ma­jor bands wanted to play. They also wanted to sell tick­ets to those shows, and maybe a few al­bums to boot. So a lot of tour­ing record­ing artists wanted to talk to some­body at an es­tab­lished news­pa­per, and I was more than happy to lis­ten (if I liked them).”

He liked the Trag­i­cally Hip a lot, and the feel­ing was mu­tual. New­ton in­ter­viewed Downie nu­mer­ous times over the years, start­ing in 1989, when the front­man called in from a Brant­ford, On­tario, pay­phone to chat about Up to Here, which would be­come the band’s break­through.

Those in­ter­views are woven through­out Gord Downie, New­ton draw­ing on their nu­mer­ous talks for chap­ters that deal with ev­ery­thing from the group’s small-town Kingston roots to the Hip’s fa­mous dif­fi­cul­ties con­quer­ing the Amer­i­can mar­ket.

As a re­sult, we get the singer, in his own words, break­ing down ev­ery­thing from his ap­proach to per­form­ing to his song­writ­ing process. Dis­cussing the band’s mas­ter­ful and lyri­cally com­plex Fully Com­pletely, Downie says, “Be­cause on this al­bum, es­pe­cially, I ba­si­cally let the mu­sic do the talk­ing, try and sit and lis­ten to a groove es­tab­lished—maybe even a whole song—and let the mu­sic de­cide what the lyrics should be, you know, let the mu­sic evoke im­ages, and then ba­si­cally try and cap­ture those im­ages on pa­per be­fore you ruin them with too much thought.”

Downie goes on to dis­cuss his fa­mously out­there stage man­ner­isms: “Well it re­ally de­pends on the sort of sit­u­a­tion, I find. Gen­er­ally, when the band is feel­ing good and the mu­sic is feel­ing good, I go in and out.…it’s an in­ter­est­ing thing for me, and…yeah, spe­cial to me.”

Gord Downie also serves up a trove of pho­tos, in­clud­ing ob­scu­ri­ties like an early shot of the vaguely Bowie-ish–look­ing singer fronting a pre­hip band called the Slinks. Also in­cluded are ex­cerpts from con­cert and record re­views that New­ton did over the years as the Hip went from Kingston bar band to na­tional trea­sure.

Downie’s story—which is also the Trag­i­cally Hip’s story—is told chrono­log­i­cally, start­ing with the chap­ter “Straight Outta Kingston”, where the singer re­calls play­ing a lot of shows in des­o­late On­tario lo­cales. (“When we put the band to­gether we found that we were grav­i­tat­ing to a lot of Yard­birds, early Stones cov­ers, that kinda stuff,” the singer re­lates. “Not new, but sort of [new] to that era in time.”)

The book traces things to the height of the band’s pow­ers, with ca­reer-defin­ing al­bums like Fully Com­pletely, Trou­ble at the Hen­house, and Day for Night all cov­ered in the sec­tion ti­tled “On Stage, On Record, On Fire”.

And it deals with the death of Downie and the legacy he left, in the sec­tion ti­tled “Courage (For Gord Downie)”. Pre­pare to be moved by full-colour con­cert shots of the band on its fi­nal tour, as well as shots chron­i­cling the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion work he was so pas­sion­ate about as he slowly suc­cumbed to brain can­cer.

Gord Downie is by no means ex­haus­tive— some­day some­one will give the singer, who died last year at 53, the de­tailed bi­o­graph­i­cal treat­ment Kurt Cobain got with Charles Cross’s Heav­ier Than Heaven.

In many ways, what it is is a per­sonal look back at the past. New­ton’s line “(if I liked them)” at the be­gin­ning of the book is im­por­tant. What comes through in Gord Downie is that he doesn’t just like the band, but in­stead un­der­stands that the Hip has been woven into the very fab­ric of his life.

In the ac­knowl­edg­ments, where he notes his daugh­ter Tess ex­pe­ri­enced the Hip live in utero two months be­fore her birth, New­ton writes, “First off, I’d like to thank Gord Downie and the Trag­i­cally Hip for all the in­ter­views they gave me be­tween 1989 and ’97, which be­came the foun­da­tion for this book. But mostly, I’d like to thank them for the mu­sic. What a front­man. What a band. What a legacy!”

It’s a legacy that Gord Downie is now a part of.

In his book Gord Downie, Straight scribe-turned-au­thor Steve New­ton (right) takes a per­sonal look at the legacy of iconic Cana­dian band the Trag­i­cally Hip.

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