I haven't interviewed Tragically Hip singer Gordon Downie for 20 years--and might never again--but the last time, back in July of '96, was a good 'un.
I thought so, anyway.
In light of the band's last-ever shows in Vancouver--tonight and Tuesday at Rogers Arena--I thought I'd revisit that interview. Downie really opened up about some of the tunes on the band's then-new album, Trouble at the Henhouse, including its strummy single “Ahead by a Century”.
There's a good chance that that poignant ditty--which the Hip ended their 26-song set with in Victoria the other night--will make an appearance in Vancouver as well. "Ahead By a Century" sees Downie mining boyhood memories of bee-stung summers with a succinct style that easily conjures recollections of carefree tree-climbing days, but the creation of that song also signalled a departure from his typical songwriting technique.
Or at least that's what he told me two decades ago.
“Originally, that song was entirely different,” he revealed. “The lyrics were almost totally overhauled, which is not usually my style, but whatever—it seemed like the way to go. Originally, what was it: ‘First thing we’d climb a tree, and maybe then we’d talk; I will touch your cunt, you will touch my cock; then we’ll be married, then we won’t have to hide.’ Those were sort of working lyrics, but they stuck there, they said to me ‘innocence’, and that’s what I wanted, because I thought, ‘It’s two little kids, and they don’t know what a cunt is and they don’t know what a cock is—they just heard them called that.’
“People picked up on that within the band, but then it became apparent that I was going to have to defend one’s right to use words that possibly offend other people, and I didn’t really care to have a Lenny Bruce situation on my hands. But the biggest concern—which was pointed out to me by our guitar tech, Billy—was that no one’s gonna get to hear this song because no one’s gonna play it, and ultimately the real reason no one’s gonna hear it is because they’re only gonna hear those lines and not the rest of the song. People’s ears are gonna race to those words and start having a little debate about what those words mean.
“So that forced me to take out that line, and by taking it out, the whole verse crumbled like a house of cards, and I had to rewrite it. And one thing I do know is that if I’m listening to the music and a line comes to me that I wasn’t thinking about, I usually like to trust in that. If that line comes to me, and it’s in my head, and I manage to pick it up and run it down my arm and out my fingers, through the pen, onto the paper, intact, then I don’t usually like to fuck with that. And the longer that line stays on the paper, the heavier it gets, till all of a sudden, if you’re trying to extract it, it weighs about 700 pounds.
“So it took me about a week to rewrite that song, but the weird thing is I loved every minute of it! It was a sweating workout on that song, and it was frustrating and it was weird, but I loved it because it was a challenge that I had created for myself and that I met. And ultimately the song achieved kinda what I wanted it to. You only have so much room to say what you want to say, so I like economy and conciseness; that’s sort of where I’m at now.”
I think I speak for most folks reading this little blog right about now: god bless Gordon Downie. "No dress rehearsal..."