Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Band of Brothers – Michael Barclay’s The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip

Gord Downie performing with The Tragically Hip in Vancouver in 2016. (Photo: Andrew Chin)

Michael Barclay’s biography of The Tragically Hip, published by ECW, is a comprehensive tome about one of Canada’s favourite rock groups and Gord Downie, the band’s popular front man and lyricist, whose final years battling cancer made front-page news. Barclay takes a holistic approach to the tale and invites his reader to think about his book with a smaller narrative arc. He states from the top that “half of this book is a chronological history . . . the other half extrapolates on various themes throughout the band’s 32-year career . . . All chapters are written in a way that they can be read in isolation . . . in whatever order you like.” I’m sure the author had good intentions in setting up his history in this fashion, but it’s bad advice. By creating a split focus, right down non-sequential chapters, he lessens the impact of the book overall.

Barclay’s opening salvo is a successful dissertation on “what makes a band, and especially The Hip, ‘Canadian’.” This particular notion of a so-called Canadian sound continues to be fodder for Canadian critics who need to discuss such things and Barclay is no exception. For him the band’s “Canadianness” is based not only on their subject matter, but on their lifestyle as well; the group relishes its privacy and is friendly to the point of doing the dishes at house parties. In a way, this reduces what being Canadian is to a stereotype and the members of the Hip are polite to a fault.

Using extensive interviews in the 400-plus pages, Barclay occasionally leaves the talking to someone else while being careful about his own point of view. After surveying his experts, he finally settles on Gord Downie’s definition of the band: “We’re basically fairly dull and regular and ordinary in the hope that we may be violent and original in our work.” It’s a bold statement, borrowed from Gustave Flaubert, but Barclay leaves it dangling on the page without any further explanation. By failing to exploit Downie’s notion as a way of understanding The Hip and their music, Barclay maintains a journalist’s distance from his subject. That’s fine, but it creates a distracted and maddening read not only in Chapter 1, but also in the succeeding chapters that “extrapolate on various themes in the band’s 32-year career.” Those extrapolations are interesting on their own, but don’t enhance or enrich my appreciation for the band.

The part of The Tragically Hip’s story I found most engaging was how they came together as young men looking to express themselves through music. Growing up in Kingston, they became a band in high school and played a mix of R&B, rock and pop covers. They had no agenda to find fame and fortune, seeking only to have a good time, smoke pot and play music. Barclay tells this part of the story within the first couple of chapters, but then he detours on topics related to The Hip and their cultural impact, returning to pick it up, using the band’s discography as a guide. These extrapolations, which, in sum, eventually weigh down the flow of the narrative, include a look at cover bands in Chapter 3, the importance of the sport of hockey to the band’s unity in Chapter 7 and the all-important, myth-shattering Chapter 9, proving that the band did, in fact, have great financial and artistic success in the United States.

Chapter 13, subtitled “A Band of Ringos,” seeks to put the band into the proper context of history and explain why The Hip matter to some and not to others. Barclay’s argumentative chapters such as this one are effective to a point, but I got tired of the endless explorations of what makes culture and what that means for the fans of The Tragically Hip. The endless quotations about Another Roadside Attraction, the national tour that entrenched the band into Canadian music history, are particularly redundant.

Regarding the band’s management changes over the years, Barclay leaves no stone unturned. His book reveals the fascinating inside story of the group’s first managers, Jake Gold and Allan Gregg, whose confused set of business acumen and personal feelings for the group disintegrated over time. The band’s first label, MCA Records, gets a fair shake, as they meddled in the band’s early commercial intentions, but the details leave me cold. Similarly, do we really need to know that Downie took choreography from Shannon Cooney? Or that his last record came in a long line of final recordings by ill musicians such as David Bowie, Warren Zevon, Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash and Sharon Jones? What was the point of writing so much about the failing health and tragic ends of stars like Glen Campbell in Chapter 22?

Gord Downie (centre) with The Tragically Hip at the end of their final performance in Kingston, Ontario in 2016.

Chapter 23 is exclusively about Canada’s treatment of our First Nations in context with Gord Downie’s last album, the sublime Secret Path, but it is over the top for anyone well versed in our country’s shameful record on the treatment of its aboriginal people. Barclay’s long and unfair diatribe about writer Joseph Boyden’s questionable roots regarding “suspicion in Indigenous circles” goes too far, in my opinion. Again, the author’s splintered focus takes the reader down so many rabbit holes as to be a distraction rather than a supplement to the story. The real value of his writing comes when Barclay discusses the music and how both The Hip’s and Downie’s solo albums were written and produced.

I gained considerable insight into the music when Barclay took the time to interview the recording engineers and producers associated with each album. This is the kind of stuff I live for, such as the story of Road Apples (MCA), released in 1991. It was the band’s first number one album, recorded not in Canada but in New Orleans, under the eyes of Don Smith, who produced their first release, Up To Here (MCA), in Memphis. Their sophomore effort spawned the singles “Little Bones” and “Long Time Running,” which was also the name of the documentary on the band, directed by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. I liked reading about the band’s experiences in New Orleans, one of my favourite cities, as they soaked up the spirit of the place and reflected it in their music. When Steve Berlin, of Los Lobos, was hired to produce Phantom Power (Universal) and Music @ Work (Universal), two of the group’s biggest sellers, his organic methodology was essential to understanding The Hip’s songs, “Poets” and “My Music At Work.” But the author doesn’t think every Hip album was great and I respect him for not giving false praise to the recordings he doesn’t particularly like. Unfortunately, however, he seems more intent on getting the facts right with a steady flow of eyewitness accounts than on holding a mirror up to the artists to show their work in any detail.

By the end of the book I felt a little overwhelmed by the density of the information and its split focus. So the question becomes, is it possible to tell the rich and fateful story of Gord Downie without The Tragically Hip? Is it possible to articulate the impact of one of Canada’s most successful and beloved Rock bands without detouring into the life and times of Gord Downie? I’m not so sure. Clearly for Barclay these stories aren’t mutually exclusive. But because he gives them equal weight, as he has done in The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip, I’m left with too many facts and not enough insight into what makes them tick, individually and collectively. Nevertheless, as a detailed chronicle of one of Canada’s best rock groups and their front man, Barclay’s well-researched biography should remain the go-to resource for all things “Hip” in years to come.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, and musician. He's the author of Frank Zappa FAQ: All That's Left To Know About The Father of Invention (Backbeat Books).

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