Music is one of those things that is ingrained in my identity – as it is for a great many people – but I can isolate a handful of very specific moments in my musical development to key events in my childhood.
The first was the very beginning. I started to take classical piano lessons at the age of 5: my parents had bought an old junky upright piano from a yard sale and they caught me one day in the front room of the house fascinated by this instrument trying to figure out how to play a song that I had heard on the radio by humming it to myself and matching the tune to the keys as I struck them (to this day I have no idea what that song was… this story would be so much better if someone could remember; I’m sure there’s a whole other story layer to be found there).
The second was purchasing my first “record” – or, in this case CD. Our Lady Peace’s Naveed at age 10 (followed shortly thereafter by their to-be-released sophomore record Clumsy, and MuchMusic’s Big Shiny Tunes 2).
The third was in middle school when I picked up the guitar at 12. I’d been enticed by fellow classmates to pick up the instrument after they had seen me play the piano as part of a 7th grade music project – I elected to perform a piece by a classical composer for extra credit alongside my biographical report: “If you’re that good at piano, guitar would be easy to learn”. I started with some basic popular stuff of the time: Blink 182, Green Day, Offspring (and of course, Our Lady Peace)… soon discovering both punk and metal and deviating drastically in different directions musically to learn a multitude of techniques.
The fourth – and probably most significant – was the first time I wrote a song that I decided was actually good. A lot (A LOT) of musicians get their start at an early age, but maybe not necessarily on their inevitable instrument of choice – this often happens much later, at least in terms of being in a “band”, when trying to impress someone romantically (like that guy you knew in College with the baggy sweater who would wander the quad playing Oasis’ Wonderwall all the time and you just wanted to punch him in the face and smash his $100 Ibanez across the tree trunk he’d play next to – sorry inadvertent angry flashback).
I certainly didn’t pick up the guitar with the main goal of wooing a lady, but that’s definitely how I dove into songwriting. My father was allegedly well known in high school as both a musician and something of a ladies’ man – so it was initially his advice that led me to write a song for a girl I’d been interested in (which failed miserably, simply because SHE wasn’t interested). Dejected, it took some time before I dug into songwriting again, but when I did set out to try a second time I knew I wanted it to be a song with a real purpose – not something that rested on shallow lyrics that followed a linear narrative, or that were single-syllabic about something like love (which at 15 years old, I didn’t have much experience with). But I knew that it should be something that had a deeper layer that I could tell a story about if someone asked.
I can’t profess to be among the greatest or most intense of Tragically Hip fans, I’ve never seen them live in concert, I grew up mostly on the singles they’d play to fulfill the Can-Con quotas on the local rock radio station in Timmins where I grew up, but shortly after my 12th birthday when I first heard “Poets” (which had debuted a few weeks prior), I knew there was something about that band that I liked.
Digging into their back catalogue I quickly came to associate the band with a number of songs that I’d heard on the radio before (and liked), I’d just never made the “Tragically Hip” connection to them: ‘New Orleans Is Sinking’, ’38 Years Old’, ‘At The Hundredth Meridian’, ‘Locked In The Trunk of a Car’ (my personal favourite Hip track off my favourite Hip record). But the song that stood out most to 12 year-old me on initial discovery was “Little Bones” off 1991’s Road Apples: it was nonsense. Something about eating chicken slow… because it was full of all them little bones; and something to do with the Kennedy family; and drinks; and buying time and; buying what I could only gather meant someone’s attention (“Two fifty for an eyeball, and a buck and a half for an ear”). But this song of nonsense was so catchy it didn’t matter that it was a slew of metaphoric nonsense.
At 15 while I was starting to venture back into the idea of songwriting, I was having a conversation with a classmate and fellow musician about inspiration – something to the effect of:
“Whose lyrics do you like? Maybe try that for inspiration.”
“I’m not really sure”
We debated different artists – and each of their own inspirations – for a while before The Tragically Hip came up as an example:
“The Hip wrote ‘Little Bones’, and it was a great song that was essentially about nothing. I bet they could write a song about something as ridiculous as a zipper and it’d be good.”
The song that ultimately came about – YKK – was finally recorded as a demo in my childhood bedroom in 2006 with a single mic and myself playing all the instruments. And it was about just that: a zipper. Sure, it was filled with metaphor and allegory. But when it came down to it, at its basic form it was a song about a zipper. My mother thought I was weird. (“A zipper? Why? – Because I can.”)
Gord Downie is often referred to as Canada’s Shakespeare, and a true poet in his own right – I’ve always wondered what he might have to say about the ridiculousness of a song about a zipper?
Thoughout high school I played in several bands, as well as the school’s music performance class – occasionally even playing a Tragically Hip track. Most notably, “Little Bones”, after a weekend spent learning all the solos by ear because all of the creators of the guitar tabs online at the time specified only to “play solo”, rather than take the time to write them out themselves.
The CBC aired the final Tragically Hip concert LIVE to air from their hometown of Kingston Ontario last night. Much has been said about the ticket sellout and resale/scalping fiasco, and I certainly wasn’t in a position to attend any of the shows on the tour, but when The Danforth Music Hall announced they’d be holding a free screening on their 420sq/ft system, Robb Johannes (of Paint) and I jumped at the chance.
It was a lengthy set at 30 songs – playing most of their biggest hits in album groupings that jumped around their entire discography; accompanied by a video projection that integrated live video feeds, still photography, and album artwork that paired with each album’s songs as they showed up in the set.
I told myself that I wouldn’t get emotional. I’m sure I believed it. I’m sure a great many other people in that room last night told themselves similar things on the way to the concert and throughout, but there was probably a different breaking point for everyone in that room – including Gord Downie himself (with his powerful Grace, Too performance in Toronto last week making the rounds on the internet). Mine was the end of the second chorus of the final song “Ahead by a Century” when Gord sang: “And disappointing you is getting me down,” as the rest of the band trailed off into the bridge. It was a moment that had such impact: Gord was – in a way – saying “sorry gang, this is it. I wish it didn’t have to be.”
It still hadn’t really hit me until I sat down to write this. This inexplicable sadness. We collectively – as a nation – just watched one of our generation’s greatest artists perform his final show. And with the knowledge of his ailment, certain lyrics throughout the nearly 3-hour set took on an additional foreboding weight that truly hammered home just why Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip are a national treasure.
If there was any one way to go out as an artist on one’s own terms – at the top of their game – this was certainly a spectacular hell of a way to do it.
Long live The Tragically Hip.