Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Gord Full Stop

“It makes no sense how it makes no sense.”
                Blow at High Dough – from Up to Here

You pretty much have to be Canadian to know that 2016 has struck again.
This morning the news hit my generation of Canadians like the Rogers Pass avalanche. (The only way to do this right has to include a few obscure pieces of Canadiana.) Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer - a glioblastoma.
He isn’t gone yet. But I have to process this now. Forgive me for eulogizing him prematurely. I can’t do this twice.
You may have to have hit adulthood in the late 80s or early 90s above the 49th parallel for this to be true, but for those of us who did, this is Prince. This is Bowie. This is one assholebastardmutherfucker of a year.

“There’s more worms than earth in the afterlife.”
                Leave – from In Violet Light

I’ve lost track of how I ended up being the harbinger, but it has become a bit of a sick joke among friends that this is all my fault. I suspect that I wake up early enough that I am the first one tapped into the news cycle… although Jodie has actually been the one breaking the news to me on most of these things.  Lemmy (three days short of 2016), Bowie, Prince, very nearly Sinead O’Connor (and don’t begin to think that drama is over yet) as well as a long list of diminishingly relevant supporting cast from Glenn Frey (who touched our generation, but was really a luminary of an earlier time) to John Berry – the Beastie Boys’ Pete Best, to Phife Dawg… the depth of my rap and hip hop cred is admittedly shallow. It has escaped few people that 2016 has it out for our music idols.  In Canada we’ve already faced the farewell tour of Spirit of the West, as John Mann cannot carry on due to early on-set Alzheimers, and now we are awaiting dates for the final Tragically Hip tour. I will try to be there. But I’m going to be a complete mess.
Both Bowie and Prince hit me. Bowie comes a hair short of making my list of artists I think can do no wrong, and is responsible for one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. Prince, I never loved, but I always appreciated and I respect his impact on the music world.  I didn’t cry for either of them.  But this morning I wasn’t surprised when a few minutes after getting the news I felt the tears well up in my eyes.
As 2016 cut swathes through pop-culture I was holding my breath and crossing my fingers that at least my top three would get through unscathed. But that hope is gone now. (U2 & Pearl Jam, to answer the associated question.)

“Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.”
                At the 100th Meridian – from Fully Completely

I could take you to within yards of where I was when I heard my first Tragically Hip song. I was listening to the radio on my way to a friend’s house.  The DJ had some blah blah about a new Canadian band out of Kingston and then Small Town Bringdown was unleashed upon my future. A few years later, playing in a band myself, our bassist suggested that we should play Blow at High Dough from “this new band” he’d heard of. I was delighted that The Hip weren’t yet another of the long list of bands that hit my radar once and then disappeared.
When I was touring in the early 90s with the Juanabees, The Hip were always in high rotation and we did our best to convert non-Canadians to the church of Gord – his bizarre mid-song sermons of fractured thought.  “I’m wearin’ my red shirt!” he told us on Canada Day in 1992, as he went on to muse about whether he should burn it there on the stage or save it for the next 25 year benchmark of Confederation. It looks like he should have burned it. That concert – their third in that day as they played coast to coast – still stands as one of the greatest I’ve ever seen. We had been in the sun all day and The Hip were probably the 10th or 12th act of the day, but everyone in that stadium found the reserves to give every joule of energy put out by the band right back to them ten-fold. It was a revival.

“God has left the museum for good.”
                Scared – from Day for Night

The band behind him was – is – a highly functioning rock and roll unit, and it is unfair as it is inevitable to diminish their contributions. Despite the fact that they were all better raw musicians than Gord, The Hip were nothing without him.  It wasn’t just his riveting stage antics that did it.  While he wasn’t the greatest vocalist, indeed some of his cliché embellishments were kind of mock-worthy (E.g. By 1994, his penchant for hopping up an octave on the last syllable of a line was boringly predictable… fortunately he out grew that one.), his lyrics made him an unofficial poet-laureate of Canada. Each song was a perfectly crafted puzzle – always with enough clear intent to invite you to glean more, but every one with enough depth and obscure reference as to be tantalizingly out of reach.  And every now and then he would succinctly encapsule a universal feeling with hideous economy that could strike me to the core.  Never was this more the case for me personally than with the last line of “Ahead By a Century.”  By now I’ve forgotten what exactly was going on in my life that made it so pertinent, but on the very first listen that line – “Disappointing you is getting me down” – tore into my present with the violence of the Lac Megantic explosion. I was in tears before the final chord faded.

“Did I read it all wrong? Or have I just not gotten it yet?”
                Bring it All Back – from Road Apples

More than that though, over the course of his thirty years in the spotlight, Gord focussed his own eye repeatedly on a number of subjects that recurred throughout his poetry that seemed to tie together his work into some kind of tangled unity. Numerous Hip songs make reference to any number of nautical mishaps either in process (Nautical Disaster) or in the narrator’s past (Fiddler’s Green), with varying levels of direct (The Dire Wolf) and oblique (Locked in the Trunk of a Car) reference.  The same goes with crime – usually lurid, often Canadian;  Hockey – Gord was a goalie of accomplishment… at least at the Juno Cup; and of course more diabolically dysfunctional relationships than any lifetime has time for. But throughout it all it was unabashedly Canadian. Canadian in a manner that not only defined his style, but also in a manner that could mark something as Canadian by right of having fallen under his gaze. He loved Canada and he became a singular part of Canadian culture.

“Heaven is a better place today because of this. But the world is just not the same.”
                Heaven is a better place today – from In Between Evolution

I saw them 5 or maybe 6 times. It would have been more if not that by some frustrating bit of fate The Juanabees tour was always travelling West when the Another Roadside Attraction Tour was travelling East. Without fail we would play Winnipeg while they were in Saskatoon and two days later we would have switched places. I'm not sure I'll handle it well if I go to this last tour, and maybe it would be best if I don't. But if the opportunity presents itself, I don't think I can afford to not see them one last time.

"Those melodies come back to me. Time beyond our heartbeat."
                Escape is at Hand for the Travellin' Man – from Phantom Power

We have one last album. Man. Machine. Poem. Its due in a few weeks. Even the title scares me, like once again he has said more in three words about one idea than I can express in several pages of rambling. Of course he is much closer to whatever thought processes face the terminally ill. I feel like there are emotional hand-grenades destined to be hidden in there - little windows into his mind as he faces the event horizon of life. And we all know he is capable of expressing those ideas in ways that will fascinate, confuse and devastate. I eagerly want to tear into it, but I've avoided the pre-release single. I didn't have a reason before now. I don't want to face the reality that it is the end.

"When the birds can be heard above the reckoning carts doing some final accounting."
                Poets - From Phantom Power