The Tragically Hip isn't a band with a lot of secrets, which is probably one of the reasons we all love them so much. Its members are forthright folks who have consistently made great music for 30-plus years. Lead singer-songwriter Gord Downie's recent announcement that he has terminal brain cancer is devastating for a million reasons, not the least of which is that a husband and a father has to prepare, somehow, some way, to say goodbye.
Fans, too, have been in this kind of advanced mourning. Remembering favourite songs, sharing their Tragically Hip stories, celebrating a band that's been too easy to take for granted, that's always been there, playing the hits. An open secret that only Canadians seemed to truly value and understand.
But there's always more to discover about a person or a thing that you love. And while the Hip is in many ways a totally open book, you also have to know where to look. From writing original music for Kurt Browning to sharing the stage with Nirvana to making it into Rock Band, here are 25 things you probably don't know about the Tragically Hip.
1. The other inspiration for the band's name
The Tragically Hip's name isn’t just taken from a skit on Elephant Parts, the late-night comedy show from Michael Nesmith (yes, formerly of the Monkees). In a 1989 interview with the Georgia Straight, Downie also revealed they’d heard the phrase in an Elvis Costello song.
“There's one skit in there that is sort [of] like a TV plea: 'Send some money to the Foundation for the Tragically Hip.' And that phrase has also appeared in an Elvis Costello song. It crops up every now and again, and it's just a name that we like."
That Costello song is “Town Cryer” from 1982’s Imperial Bedroom.
"Maybe you don't believe my heart is in the right place,
Why don't you take a good look at my face.
Other boys use the splendour of their trembling lip,
They're so teddy bear tender and tragically hip.
I'm never going to cry again,
I'm going to be as strong as them."
2. Nirvana opened for the Hip
According to NirvanaGuide.com, approximately 40 people watched Nirvana open up for the Hip on July 7, 1989, at the O’Cayz Corral, Madison, Wis.
Downie would eventually write the song “Don’t Wake Daddy” (from Trouble at the Henhouse) with a small salute to Cobain in the lyrics.
"Sled dogs after dinner,
Close their eyes on the howling wastes.
Kurt Cobain reincarnated,
Sighs and licks his face."
3. The Hip's early live shows were a health risk for fans
In the early days, crowds at Hip shows were way more likely to experience physical destruction than any death metal mosh pit. Baker told the Straight about it in 1991.
“The last time across Canada we had a few bad incidents — two in Calgary and one in Edmonton. Someone broke their neck at one of our gigs. Mostly it’s stage jumping, but somebody climbed up into the scaffolding and fell off. And the last time in Ottawa was pretty bad too — we had about 30 people taken out on stretchers. But I don’t know what you can do about people jumpin’ off the stage. They want to show their enthusiasm, and we don’t want to put a damper on ’em.”
“It’s actually a funny story,” Baker told the Straight. “We had several names for the record, and the American label — we’re signed directly to MCA USA — felt that all of our titles were too much inside jokes, or that they sounded too Canadian. And they’re really giving us this, ‘Oh no, Americans won’t understand it.’
“So we said, ‘Oh, how about Road Apples,’” Baker says, recalling the old slang for horseshit. “And of course they had no idea what road apples were in Los Angeles. They said, ‘Oh yeah! Songs that you wrote on the road! We love it!’
“At that point everyone was a little pissed off that we were encountering so much resistance from the American label about the name of the record, and the fact that we’re Canadian … and proud of it, I guess.”
5. The Hip members were early entrepreneurs
The Hip started its own music festival, Another Roadside Attraction, in 1993. The first event was held in Winnipeg and featured the Hip, Midnight Oil, Crash Vegas, Hothouse Flowers and Daniel Lanois.
6. The Hip released a charity single in support of the environment in 1993
All five acts from the first Another Roadside Attraction collaborated on a one-off charity single, "Land," in 1993 to protest clear-cutting in British Columbia.
7. In 1995, the Hip got its big American break
The band played Saturday Night Live and Dan Aykroyd, fellow hometown hero from Kingston, Ont., appeared just to introduce them. Aykroyd almost seems choked up to have that honour, which sweetens the whole experience. Check out the video of their performance of “Grace, Too,” in this great Throwback Thursday post via CBC Music in 2014. Although Downie doesn’t quite have his future frontman swagger perfected at this point, he does slyly change the opening words of the song to re-emphasize the band’s name, much to the pleasure of the Canadians in the audience.
"We did reach a wider audience with SNL, but it's hard to know what attracts people to your band in the long run," Downie said in an interview. "Ultimately with our band, it's word of mouth. It seems to be the largest cause of The Hip outbreak — if we can align ourselves with a virus. The SNL thing, on a personal level, was easily the most intimate gig we've ever done. It's just you and the Cyclops, you know. You're looking at this camera, and all of a sudden, less becomes more. The gesture of a finger takes the place of a gesture of a whole waving arm."
8. Their cover song selections prove they would be super fun at karaoke
In a 1996 interview on Canoe.ca, the band members were asked to choose what three songs they would each cover, as well as which Elvis Costello song they’d choose to cover. Among their picks: Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” “Circle Circle” by the Sons of Freedom, “Black Day in July” by Gordon Lightfoot, Mary Margaret O’Hara’s “To Cry About,” the Inbreds' “It’s Sydney or the Bush,” “Watch Your Step” by Trust, Bruce Cockburn’s “Tokyo” and Costello’s “Almost Blue.” It’s kind of a fun game to guess who chose which songs, so take a stab at it before clicking on the link above.
9. If you’ve ever noticed that water is a recurring theme in the Hip’s lyrics, you’re right
"Water is stronger than rock," Downie said in an interview. “Water threatens to, at anytime, flood in and obliterate the chalk drawing. We leave a temporary impression similar to that of a hull on the surface of the sea. I could go on and on.”
10. Not all of Downie's songs are a maze of metaphors
Downie also answered a few more questions about lyrics during this interview. The two best responses are below.
Q. What is "Scared" really about?
A. Fear of obsolescence? Fear of fraudulence? Fear of fear? A fear-peddler going door-to-door selling ... you guessed it ... fear?
Q. Who is Cordelia?
A. Cordelia was used as metaphor. I dunno, read King Lear — Shakespeare.
11. The Tragically Hip isn't your Canadian BFF
The Hip is often equated with Canadiana, but the band has always engaged in good public discourse about blind patriotism and what “Canada” means and represents.
The following appeared on Canoe.ca:
Q. Do you see it as your role or responsibility as public figures to be political? I remember seeing you at Molson Park in Barrie on Canada Day and Gord D. spoke bitterly about "Canada Day" and what we were celebrating that day. What do you think about what is happening to the poor, marginalized and vulnerable people in our province and this country? Be interested in any thoughts. (P.S. love the music, love the lyrics, love you guys — see you on the 12th of December.)
A. I see our role or responsibility as musicians to be musical. We were a little uncomfortable with the way other musicians on the bill were treated. After an Evian bottle of urine was hurled at the stage it became a little difficult to go along with the whole Fraternal brotherhood thing. Probably a minority, but we had invited all those people as our guests, and we felt that we had assembled a cool and interesting day of music. It was that day that I began to think that booze together with Nationalism or Patriotism was a very dangerous mixture. Ultimately, I believe everything would have been way better if we'd done the whole thing on July 2nd — we could have celebrated the Canada of the Self and not the Canada that is sold to us. — GD
Q. You guys are like a lightning rod for some people's patriotism. How do you feel about fans who identify you and your music so closely with some sort of essential Canadian-ness? Are you proud of that, or is it just an unnecessary pressure that detracts from the music?
A. We've never consciously tried to elicit a patriotic response from our fans, nor have we tried to embody that in our lyrics. Speaking for GD, I can tell you that we've never tried to edit ourselves in any way. You write about what you know, stories that move you in some way, or about themes you want to explore. Over the years, we have written some songs that refer to Canadian events specifically, and others that reflect our response as Canadians to other themes and issues, because of who we are and how we've been raised. That's where it begins and ends for us. We'd never write a song because it was Canadian, nor would we avoid it.
If some of our fans can only identify with us on a nationalistic level, instead of a musical one, then I think that reflects more on them than it does on us. Travelling abroad as much as we do has led us to appreciate where we live and who we are and I think our work reflects that; but we have definitely learned that there is no one distinct Canadian voice. All perspectives are valid, so we feel no pressure at all. — GS
12. The Sweet Hereafter helped bring the Hip to an even bigger audience
Director Atom Egoyan personally selected the Hip's "Courage" for use in his acclaimed film, The Sweet Hereafter.
“I love 'Courage,'" he told MTV. “It was important that people had some familiarity with the song, that it had some resonance.”
Sarah Polley’s cover is used in the movie and it transforms the song into something truly haunting, broken but determined, devastating and damaged, like so much of the film’s themes.
13. The Hip + hockey
There have been lots of things written about the Hip, but the following are among three of the most unusual book mentions.
From Chasing the Dream: A Player’s Guide by Tracy McPhee (1999): “When Alyn [McCauley] is not jetting across North America because of the hectic NHL schedule, he likes to relax playing pool with friends. His music of choice is the Tragically Hip. He does not watch a lot of T.V. but he is a movie buff.”
14. The Hip appeared in an economic theory textbook
The Hip also made their way into a 2005 book called Principles of Microeconomics, in which they are the musical example of a ticket buying finance conundrum.
15. The Hip were name-checked in a bestseller
In her 2015 bestseller, Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman discusses the Hip’s song, “Gus: The Polar Bear from Central Park.”
16. Downie's on-air f-bombs changed a Calgary radio station forever
Downie breached the CAB Code of Ethics for swearing during a live interview on the radio in Calgary. Via the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council:
In response to an e-mailed question “what’s the lyric you’re most proud of having written?”, band member Gord Downie replied “I really like f— this and f— that and this guy is a diplomat.” A complainant wrote that he had “heard the ‘F’ word a couple of times. That’s something I didn’t think I would hear on the radio.” The broadcaster agreed that the station had “let some questionable language air” but noted that steps had been taken and that “all future live networked programs will be aired with a delay system in place.”
17. Downie loves to dance
In 2009, he told writer and friend Joseph Boyden “I’m a dancer. It’s what I love to do more than anything.”
“For a show to be great, something’s got to happen. I go for it; I sing, I dance, I listen to this great band, I do what the music urges. My brain tries to get a step ahead: jump there, turn, kick, spin, drop to your knees, dab brow with white hanky. Throw hanky into crowd. It’s just all really so fun and improvisational and cool and when things break or fall down or go wrong, it can be even better. This is my show, and having said all that, I really want and work to be a great singer. That drives me as well. To do my part for the band."
19. Downie says these two things keep him grounded
“Family and my work. I like hanging with my family and helping them on their way however I can. There’s a new tragicomedy every half-hour, there is laughter, there are tears, and it’s all real. They are endlessly entertaining, they have given me so much, they’ve given me a chance to “see” things again. And then there’s my work. Lifting the 400 lb. feather. I work every day. I write every day. I walk around in silent conversation with my latest unfinished songs. I love it, I love all aspects of it, and I’ve found that doing it every day is the best (but by no means sure) way to get open, at the ready, and able to recognize what Raymond Carver called “a new path to the waterfall.” To find those simple statements to pass along that help or don’t.”
20. The Hip was immortalized when PS3 added a track to Rock Band
In 2010, Rock Band added the Hip’s “Blow at High Dough” to its offerings.
21. There's a resource to help you through the aforementioned maze of metaphors in the Hip's songs
There is a deeply comprehensive lyric and reference directory dedicated to the Hip, comprised of people, places, things and events. It’s amazing and exhaustive, so basically a perfect place to lose an afternoon.
22. You can watch a short documentary about the Hip courtesy of the NFB called Family Band
23. The Tragically Hip composed original music for figure skating legend Kurt Browning
24. Woodstock '99 continues to be the worst
When the Tragically Hip played the horrible 1999 Woodstock Festival, they sang the Canadian national anthem. Fans responded by shouting them down with “The Star Spangled Banner,” and allegedly threw rocks and bottles at them.
So does Rush’s Alex Lifeson.
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