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 a loving and often insightful rumination on one of the country's most beloved treasures. The book is 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 out-there 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 pre-Hip band called the Slinks. Also included are excerpts of 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.