No Simple Explanation: Have The Tragically Hip Become Cool Again?

Rewriting the history of Canada's quintessential rock band.

- May 7, 2014

If you’ve spent much time in Canada over the last couple of decades, you’ve heard the band: in sports arenas and bars, gas stations, on classic and modern rock radio, at cottages on lakes. And you’ve heard what they’ve sung about: dead hockey players and the mysteries that surround them; a Canadian trapped in prison for crimes he did not commit; a young, one-legged patriot attempting to run across the country.

The Tragically Hip’s musical catalogue is woven so tightly through the fabric of modern Canadian rock that it’s hard to speak of the subject without at least uttering their name. Like them or not, their music is a pillar of Canadiana; like double-doubles and hat tricks, it’s such an easily-digested, widely-distributed piece of iconography, it's practically a synonym for it.

So it’s somewhat ironic that the one band Canadians claim to understand is also, for a certain sect of rock fans, now one of the least relevant. Throughout the last 25 years they’ve both been put on a pedestal as pillars of Canadian rock and roll and been thrown under the bus as a band that is a caricature of itself.

But popular conception of The Tragically Hip is shifting as a generation of younger fans and artists are returning to the band, not as radio rock staples who bleed Molson, but as critical, scene-fostering rock poets - a positive force of the national music landscape.

Justin Rutledge has never opened for The Tragically Hip. Well, not officially at least.

In 2006 the Toronto singer/songwriter, then playing banjo on a couple of songs in Kathleen Edwards’ band, was invited to take part in the Holiday Jam, a benefit performance for The SickKids Foundation headlined by The Tragically Hip.

We’re going on 20, 25 years since we’ve heard a lot of these songs and I thought it would be a very good time for people to hear them again.

Justin Rutledge
Over pints of Junction Ale at a bar in Toronto’s Little Portugal, Rutledge, whose collection of Tragically Hip covers Daredevil was recently released, remembers sheepishly trying to introduce himself to Hip singer Gord Downie before the show, his fanboy excitement overextending his composure. He was taken aback by how Downie stopped, mid-conversation, to call out to Rutledge and extend his hand.

To Rutledge it felt like a rare honour, a young rookie getting the nod from the older legend he’s admired from afar since childhood. But his story is shared by other musicians from across the Canadian music landscape. Some of the biggest CanRock staples ascended after that Downie handshake. From Sam Roberts Band to Arkells to Constantines, lending their massive stage to young, less heralded national musicians has long been the Hip’s calling card.

Rutledge calls the efforts of The Hip (and Blue Rodeo as well, who asked a young, unproven Rutledge to open for the band at Toronto’s storied Massey Hall) “nurturing,” before adding that “I don’t want to say it’s a very Canadian thing, but it is. ‘I like your stuff. I don’t care whose cousin you are or how much money you’re making or what kind of haircut you have. Come play with us.’ They want to see people do well.”

If there’s one band that's benefited from Downie’s maple touch more than any other, it's The Sadies. Not only have the psych-country veterans opened for them more than any other band, they’ve recently extended it beyond the stage: for the last seven years the Sadies have been working on a collaborative record with Gord Downie, and recently it finally saw release on Arts & Crafts.

For the Sadies’ unsung hero Good brothers, Gord Downie, The Sadies And The Conquering Sun is another impressive name on a C.V. that already includes stints with everyone from Neko Case to Neil Young. That's surely a nice commercial boon, but it offers just as much incentive to Downie. Stepping out with The Sadies gives voice to a criminally underrated Canadian band, but it also re-establishes him as a risk-taker.

Justin Rutledge - Nautical Disaster (Tragically Hip Cover)

Rutledge’s Daredevil has a similar rehabilitation project. A collection of ten stripped-down Hip covers, the album does more than just slap a fresh coat of paint on a collection of radio standards. It’s a complete deconstruction, building hauntingly spare arrangements to refocus Downie as a stirringly complex lyricist. More than just a soundtrack to the beer garden, it reimagines him as a northerly poet laureate who just happens to keep the country's bartenders in business.

“I wanted to showcase Gord’s lyrics,” says the songwriter, who's also collaborated with author Michael Ondaatje. “We’re going on 20, 25 years since we’ve heard a lot of these songs and I thought it would be a very good time for people to hear them again.”

That may sound like a high-minded goal for Rutledge and his new album, but Daredevil’s origin played out like every May Two-Four weekend north of Buffalo: as a cottage campfire singalong. When the project left Muskoka, Rutledge knew he wanted to go about the process his way and not get swept up in the fervent mania that often surrounds all things Hip. Given their baggage, good and bad, Rutledge admits that the idea of releasing an album of Hip covers (the first of its kind) was intimidating.

“I didn’t want to research stories, I didn’t want to know the background of the songs,” he explains. “I listened to the songs once and I didn’t listen to them again before I recorded them.”

Growing up, a lot of people were asking ‘What is Canadian culture? There isn’t anything here.' The Hip was at the forefront because nobody else was doing it.

Jason Schneider
I want to nod my head and agree, but at this point in our conversation I find it hard to temper my own excitement. Growing up in a standard slice of Ontario suburbia, I became obsessed music of The Tragically Hip from a young age. In the 65 different Canadian cities and towns they've played in the last eight years, I've been to more of them than many would likely want to admit... and I went to great lengths to get there. Even through my friends’ snickering and derision, I was a hardcore Hip head, with all the stereotypes that go along with it.

But despite my database of Hip tidbits, Rutledge is ultimately unmoved. These were the notions I would have assumed had driven him to record Daredevil. But furthering the mythology of every Canadian uncle’s favourite band is not Rutledge’s priority; a re-examination of the words is.

And tempering his adoration of the band’s material and their cultural impact ultimately served Rutledge’s vision. When choosing a band, the 35-year-old eschewed musicians who were too familiar with the band’s work.

“I wanted to put together a team of non-Hip fans,” he says. “I would rather work with a musician who says, ‘I’ve never heard this song.’ They have no point of reference.”

The Hip are celebrated as a bastion of Canadian culture, but often for all of the wrong reasons. That they've written a few songs about one of Canada’s national sports and their music is played between faceoffs at hockey arenas doesn't make their thoughtful and poignant rock Jock Jams. And just because many of their songs are centered around Canadian towns and historical figures doesn't contain their significance within the country's borders. I can attest that the many Hip fans I’ve stood beside at shows in the United States and the Netherlands would vehemently disagree.

The danger of using small, token representations (hockey, Tim Horton’s coffee, etc.) to represent the complicated tapestry of Canadian culture is that these shallow elements can fuse together to form a shallow, toque-wearing emblem that attempts to encompass hundreds of years of history and millions of kilometres of land and people.

The Tragically Hip - "Goodnight Attawapiskat"

But one of their few constants in the Hip's music is their continued attemp  to deconstruct popular Canadian mythology instead of glorifying it: consider “Born In The Water” from 1991’s Road Apples, a condemnation of the controversial 1990 Sault Ste. Marie language resolution. And more recently “Goodnight Attawapiskat,” which grapples with the Federal Government’s poor treatment of Canada’s aboriginal communities. The Tragically Hip has never shied away of their love of their country, but that doesn’t make them blind patriots. Instead, they’ve taken the opportunity to remind Canadians that the opportunity to be open-minded includes being critical.

“Growing up, a lot of people were asking ‘What is Canadian culture? There isn’t anything here,’” says Jason Schneider, co-author of Have Not Been The Same: The Canrock Renaissance 1985-1995.  “I think having that idea drummed into your head, it motivates people to forget about making music to become rich and famous and more to just do it to try and make sense of our lives. The Hip was at the forefront because nobody else was doing it.”

“As for the lyrics; more than just mentions of Canadiana, it was the celebration of Canadian culture which sounded so different to our ears,” says Stephen Dame, creator and curator of A Museum After Dark, an online resource “dedicated to the people, places and poetry found in the music of The Tragically Hip.”

Gord Downie, The Sadies, And The Conquering Sun - Crater [Official Video]

Downie’s words on his collaboration with the Sadies showcases a more gruff, aged take on his trademark lyricism. What’s more, there are no explicitly Canadian references (one reference to Los Angeles though).

"I haven't...written any pro-Canada lyrics, any kind of jingoistic, nationalistic cant," Downie said in a recent interview. "That stuff doesn't interest me and I don't even know if I could write that if I tried, because I don't really feel it."

Have we had him wrong all along?

Recently, Downie took to the stage in Halifax to perform “Flamenco,” one of The Tragically Hip’s softer and more eloquent songs with two of Canada’s more eloquent singers, Leslie Feist and Kevin Drew. Perhaps during the height of their brawny power in the early ‘90’s such a collaboration would have been impossible to conjure.

When I first watched the video I was reminded of a particularly jarring experience at my first Tragically Hip show on New Year’s Day, 2000. Julie Doiron, the singer/songwriter who would later play in Downie’s backing band The Country of Miracles on his 2010 solo release The Grand Bounce, was jeered by Hip fans during her opening set after her tender, rainy-day melodies didn’t find favour. That the louder Hip fans in attendance should have spoken for the entirety of the crowd just seemed backwards.

It’s easy to peg the Tragically Hip as a quintessential Canadian band, but the louder, beer-guzzling fans that they have become associated with only speaks to a sliver of their appeal.

“The Rock Jocks embraced the Canadiana and power chords from day one,” says Dame. “(Gord Downie) has evolved, but he was literate from the start. He was studying Shakespeare when he started a rock band. I think the Rock Jocks can appreciate references to literature and poetry just as much as I can appreciate the power chords and hockey talk. The band is diverse and multifaceted and so is the fanbase.”

It is the more introspective element that Rutledge’s Daredevil appeals to and could perhaps expose the other, oft-overlooked side of the band’s duality.

The Tragically Hip - Flamenco

Maybe the only way to drown out the loud, oft-patronizing cheers of excessively louder fans is to in fact get quieter. After decades on the road, The Tragically Hip have slowed down, and that's no accident. But that's given their influential acolytes the space to fill in the blanks.

They may be devoting themselves to new musical projects, but their history isn't written yet: the longer they stick around, the more their cultural legaceycontinues to shift. That Rutledge, himself the antithesis of the stereotypical Hip fan in terms of braggadocio, would be so moved by the music of The Hip speaks speaks to their endurance.

“The songs still resonate with me,” says Rutledge. “Daredevil is almost like payback. Like, ‘Thanks guys.’”

Joshua Kloke is a Toronto-based music and sports writer whose first book, Escape is at Hand: Tales of a Boy and a Band, was released last year on Eternal Cavalier Press. Follow him on Twitter.

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