How I Learned to Love the Tragically Hip and Still Be Punk
Fucked Up's Damian Abraham talks about his journey from idealistic hater to lifelong fan and friend of Gord Downie.
Illustration by Adam Waito
I love the Tragically Hip. This is far from a profound statement for a white Canadian male in his 30s to make. In fact, it's almost the equivalent of someone like me saying they like water. Throughout the 90s, I would say that they were the most beloved band in the country. But that was not the case for me.
When I was a teenager, the Tragically Hip was the enemy.
For those of you who don't know who the Tragically Hip is (from my experience, generally people outside the country without contact to a person from Canada), I would offer that the best comparison is the Canadian Bruce Springsteen. It's a band that was so inexorably linked to Canadian musical identity that to not be a fan was somehow "less Canadian" in people's eyes.
The band's songs are stitched into the collective subconscious of this country in a way that can only come from being played constantly on radio, television, and during breaks of play at sports events. The Tragically Hip made its ascent in the 90s: I can remember the excitement of kids at school before the release of 1996's Trouble at the Henhouse, when the band made its appearance on Saturday Night Live, or while making plans to drive out to catch the band on its traveling festival tour Another Roadside Attraction. But all of that meant nothing to me.
In the mid to late 90s, I was a know-it-all straight edge hardcore kid who liked punk music, and that put me, in my eyes, at odds with a band whose fan base I saw as being solely composed of hockey lovin', beer drinkin', "I AM CANADIAN" types.
And I wasn't alone. It seemed like a natural enemy of many young Canadian punks at the time was the Hip. It was one of the most popular bands in Canada, and thus it felt like music for the "popular" types. The Hip became, in my mind, the embodiment of everything I disliked.
In retrospect, I don't even know why. It wasn't like the guys in the Hip carried themselves in an offensive manner. By all accounts, they were said to be really nice people. They seemed to always try and make sure there was something substantive to what they were doing: trying to make fans aware of issues within Canada or lending their profile to causes that that could use it. And it never felt that they were doing so in a "Hey, look at me, I'm doing something noble" way. But much like Bruce Springsteen, this progressive nature wasn't always reflected in the fan base. Later on in life, when I started playing in a band and meeting other musicians and other people who worked with the Hip, the stories of how great the band was seemed to grow. Stories about how these men helped out a smaller band or how humanely they treated members of road crews (not always the case with bands) were the standard tales coming out of my interactions.
The first times that I encountered the singer of the band, Gord Downie, it was renting video tapes to him at Revue Video on the Danforth in Toronto's east end. But before any interactions of my own, a fellow employee related a story about Gord hanging out in the store and talking music with him. At one point, he even told Gord that he wasn't a fan of his band (and as someone who has been on both the giving and receiving end of this: why do we feel the need to say this sort of thing to people?), and Gord didn't get weirded out by or offended at this not-so-subtle jab, but simply smiled and said, "That's fine." This blew my mind! In my eventual brief exchanges with Gord at the store, he was nothing if not polite and genuinely friendly and not at all like the Ogre of Canadiana I had made him out to be in my mind. It was after these moments that my teenage vitriol toward the band began to feel a little silly.
A few years later my band, Fucked Up, went to play in Ottawa. On the way back, Mike, our guitarist, put a cassette tape on in the car, turned around, and asked me if I could guess who it was. The song was great and, although it didn't sound like I remember, I could tell it was the Tragically Hip. After that, whenever I heard a Tragically Hip song come on, I would make a point to listen. And my God, it turns out these guys wrote a tons of songs I had loved and just pushed out of my mind. Songs like "38 Years Old" and "Locked in the Trunk of a Car" were ones I had loved in my "pre-discovery of the compartmentalization of music" days.
As I went deeper into the Hip's catalog and discovered more, I had some epiphanies that much of Canada had already come to, the most major of which was: Gord Downie can write some amazing lyrics! By this point, I had already been playing in Fucked Up for a few years and had written a few songs myself, and I was blown away by Gord's ability to tell stories and convey emotion within the constraints of the song.
I met Gord properly for the first time in the summer of 2010, backstage at a Tegan and Sara/City and Colour concert. Gord was to join Dallas Green onstage to perform the song they did together on the latter's Bring Me Your Love record, and I had brought my family with me to watch the show. My son was toddling his way around the backstage with us in tow when he tumbled out in front of Gord. After helping him up and making sure he was OK, Gord picked up Holden's flung and filthy soother and rushed over the sink to wash it. As he handed back the washed pacifier, I told him that he didn't need to worry about doing that.
"Of course I did," he responded.
Dallas introduced us, and Gord, in turn, introduced us to his family who were also in attendance. Again, I was struck by how genuine he was. Here we were, a group of strangers (I spared him the awkwardness of asking him if he remembered me from the video store), and he was listening to us like what we said was of interest. We hung out and chatted about kids and parenting for a little longer before it was time for the show to start and us to find our seats.
Having to leave the show early with a sleeping one-year-old, I could hear the crowd exploding behind us, and we listened as Gord and Dallas sang "Sleep Sickness" together as we walked toward the car .
Two years after this, the day before my birthday, I got an email from Dallas making sure it was OK that he had passed my email address on to Gord. I told him that it wasn't a problem at all. Admittedly, I was shocked at the request and part of me couldn't help but wonder if it was because somehow he had heard about the younger days of shit talking and was going to "confront me" about it (it had happened before). But two days later, I received an email from Gord that was anything but that. He had written to me to talk about our last album, David Come to Life. We began corresponding back-and-forth over the next few months.
At the time, I was so conflicted about the relative success Fucked Up was experiencing, and Gord's words helped me keep it in perspective. I felt uneasy about the world that we were now in. We started working on Glass Boys, and these feelings consumed me. I wrote a song for that record called "Art of Patrons," and I could hear Gord's voice on a certain section as I was writing.
I decide to ask him to sing on it. In an extremely long and rambling email, I explained the song to him and why I wanted his vocal on it. I also promised that I wouldn't make any sorts of demands on him as far as a video and that I wasn't going to promote it or even go any further to alert people about him being on the record other than properly crediting him in the liner notes. He wrote back that he would love to do it and whatever I wanted to do was totally fine.
That was that: I didn't have to go through management or a label; I just went through Gord. I sent him the song, and a few days later, I was standing outside the vocal booth watching him sing something I wrote. He hung out with us there for the rest of the afternoon until he had to pick up his kids from school. It was amazing watching the other people taken aback when meeting Gord for the first time. People having their presumptions of what he might be like smashed by someone far more caring and genuine than expected. There are a ton of "nice guys" in music but few that actually care.
Later that summer at Fort York for the Field Trip Festival, I stood side stage and watched Gord and the Sadies do a cover of Fucked Up's "Generation." Again I watched as Gord sang a song I was intimately familiar with. It was a song I had sang hundreds of times all over the world, but it sounded so "other worldly" that day. The whole thing felt like something out of a dream: Here was one of Canada's most iconic lyricists singing our song—one for which, admittedly, I'm not 100 percent sure the words ever made complete sense—to a crowd of people where maybe only half of them had heard our band. It was glorious. Later that afternoon, Gord got on stage with Fucked Up to sing the song from the record we had done together. It's the only time we have gotten to do that song, and I can say now that I can't see myself ever feeling like it would be right to do again unless Gord is beside me to do his part.
Since then, Gord and I have kept up through the odd text, email, or coffee. The reality of two people both with families and tour schedules means that a disjointed friendship is the best you can hope for.
The morning I read about Gord's cancer fight, I cried. I had heard that he may have been sick through some mutual friends, but I guess I had minimized it in my mind and hoped it wasn't true. Sitting there looking at it in print that morning suddenly made it real, and it all began to wash over me. The reality is, I hardly know Gord. We have talked here and there and collaborated once in the studio. But the effect has been profound. In our few conversations, he has offered wisdom that changed the entire way I looked at my situation singing in a band. I can't ever thank him enough for that.
Now, with 15 years spent in the "music industry," there is no question in my mind that he is the type of musician you only ever come across a handful of times. It's an industry where, for dozens and dozens of bloodsuckers and opportunists, I have encountered very few people that have helped combat my cynicism toward the Canadian music biz. Hell, I have probably become a bit of a bloodsucking opportunist myself after all this time involved with it. But I never got that sense from Gord. He talks about music in a way that makes you believe that maybe it can do some good in the world. He is the type of artist that I will strive to be like and ultimately fail at.
Youthful exuberance can lead to rashness. In my rush to embrace punk, I ended up throwing out a lot of culture that I was thankfully able to rediscover later. Of all these bands, there are none I am more grateful to have awoken to the greatness of than the Tragically Hip. I will be watching that final show from Kingston on TV and appreciate the fact that I was able to be so close, having tried so hard to be so distant.
Follow Damian Abraham on Twitter.