What a long strange journey it’s been for Canada’s greatest-ever band, the Tragically Hip’s one-time biggest failing now being the thing that makes it so great.
To be a hard-core fan is to understand that, for a long time, the Hip was judged on what it was never able to do: crack America. At the height of its powers, the Kingston, Ontario, quintet was selling out Canadian hockey rinks like the Pacific Coliseum three nights in a row. Across the line in Seattle, it played clubs—the audience mostly made up of cheeseheads who’d made the trek down the I-5.
So inexplicable was the group’s inability to make inroads in the U.S. that other Canadian acts like Supergarage wrote songs about it; check out “Elvis” and its line “Why the Hip’s not huge in the States/The question’s by the people.” There never was an answer.
Bruce Allen—who knows something about breaking acts in the Land of the Free—turned the Tragically Hip into one of his favourite punching bags, a shining example of everything that’s wrong with Canada. One of many rants had him proclaiming the following to Vancouver Magazine in 2007: “I get pissed off that too many artists are given the label 'Great' when they haven't earned it. I do not believe the Tragically Hip are great. I believe they're a Canadian act that wouldn't even be in existence today if it wasn't for Canadian content. So when I sit there and hear about the New Pornographers being great, or Neko Case being great—I go crazy. What, you earned 'Great' because you sold out the fucking Railway.” (And for the record, the Hip did indeed sell out the fucking Railway at one point, pulling into town and doing a surprise club show when they were easily the biggest band in Canada.)
It’s not like the Tragically Hip never got a shot at cracking America. In 1995—a time when it was starting to look like now-or-never for a Stateside breakthrough—Saturday Night Live came calling. Dan Aykroyd, a fellow Canadian, was a huge fan, and thanks to his pushing, singer Gord Downie and company landed the much-coveted musical-guest spot on SNL.
Their performance would leave fans scratching their toque-clad heads. That gave them something in common with nearly everyone in America—except, that is, for the toques.
The Hip were established superstars in Canada, a lethal live act with countless great songs in its arsenal: “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, "Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)", “Little Bones”, “Blow at High Dough” and “Fifty Mission Cap”. The Hip could have gone the easy route for SNL, reached back into the vaults for “New Orleans Is Sinking” or "At the Hundredth Meridian" and knocked America flat on its ass.
Instead, it went entirely out-there with “Nautical Disaster” and “Grace, Too” off the then-new album Day for Night (click here for the "Grace Too" performance, which doesn't exist on YouTube, perhaps because it was flagged for promoting the idea that Canadians are weird). Rather than coming out slugging with guitars ripping for its big American debut, the Hip chose art over commerce. And with Downie as famously lost in his own world as he’s ever been during the SNL performances, it was no surprise that America simply didn’t get it.
Hard as this might be to believe for fans of Metz, Grimes, and that guy who does the “Jumpman” song, there was a time when it wasn’t cool to be Canadian. Neil Young, Bryan Adams, and Leonard Cohen didn’t become national treasures because they were able to sell out the Regina Agridome on a snowy Monday night. They did it because they conquered America.
For the longest time, chart success and radio airplay Stateside was the difference between being world-beating Alanis Morissette and CanCon also-ran Alannah Myles. MuchMusic made a lot of homegrown stars in the ’80s and ’90s. But Crash Vegas, Econoline Crush, the Northern Pikes, and countless other acts discovered you could only do the Canadian club circuit so many times before people started staying home and watching Kids in the Hall reruns.
The Hip were the first act to show you didn’t have to make it in America to become Canadian superstars.
Downie, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair, and drummer Johnny Fay arrived at a strange time in pop music. Hair metal was dying. Grunge had yet to hit. And everyone who didn’t live in Ontario hated Ontario. (You can thank the vomitously whacky Barenaked Ladies, Shuffle Demons, and Moxy Früvous for that indisputable fact; to watch MuchMusic at the time was to assume that—based solely on the clothing of said acts—every musician in Southern Ontario was mentally challenged.)
The initial early buzz was that the Hip had a captivatingly eccentric front man. Thanks largely to Downie’s from-another-planet stage persona, the band’s live show was as offbeat as it was mesmerizing.
And right from the point the group first roared onto the scene with the breakout full-length Up to Here, it had the songs. Back in ancient times, “Blow at High Dough” and “New Orleans Is Sinking” made you want to drop everything and make a Maxell XLII-S C-90 mixed tape, mostly because you had the kickoff song for Side A, and a killer closer for Side B.
The hits didn’t stop. And as they rolled out a string of classic albums in the ’90s—Road Apples, Day for Night, Fully Completely, Trouble at the Henhouse—the Tragically Hip ripped up the rules for what it meant to be a Canadian band.
Fuck looking for validation in America. The Hip embraced the idea that it was okay to put Canada first.
It staged epic productions like Another Roadside Attraction, a travelling arts-and-music festival that made sure to showcase under-appreciated Canadian acts like the Rheostatics, Spirit of the West, the Inbreds, and Ron Sexsmith. People not only showed up, but showed up in Lollapalooza-sized numbers, the fest consistently selling out venues like UBC’s Thunderbird Stadium.
The Hip wrote songs that were as uncompromisingly Canadian as pond hockey, SCTV, and maple-syrup sugar shacks. To truly get the references to Bobcaygeon, Bill Barilko, the FLQ, Jacques Cartier, and Lake Memphremagog was to prove that you indeed bleed Maple Leaf–red.
And importantly, the Tragically Hip’s songs celebrated Canada in a way that was never jingoistic or dumbed-down. The Hip showed that you could not only rule the charts in Canada, but do so in a way that was as artistically pure as the paintings of the Group of Seven or the poems of Leonard Cohen.
If you didn’t get it, that probably meant one thing: you were American. Because the Tragically Hip gradually became, above all, ours, a band that is now woven into the very fabric of this country.
That made May 24 of this year a difficult one. In an announcement that first burned up Facebook and then led the 6 o’clock news, singer Downie revealed that he has inoperable brain cancer. As Canada rallied around him, the Tragically Hip turned horrible news into something shining and positive, announcing a farewell tour that will take the band right across Canada.
Predictably, every show sold out in seconds. And starting on the West Coast this next week with dates in Victoria and Vancouver, those shows promise to be among the most crazily emotional this country has ever seen.
No one will care that the Tragically Hip never conquered America. In fact, there are no American dates on what may very well be the last shows the band will ever play.
And that makes sense.
If the country’s greatest band has taught us anything over an incredible quarter-century run, it’s that we’re a nation that no longer needs outside validation.
The Tragically Hip's greatest legacy is teaching Canadians an important lesson: you no longer have to leave home to be truly loved.