I stumbled onto A Museum After Dark a few months ago. As websites go, it’s simple and a little dated. Actually, it's unapologetically static, as far from the modern standard of responsive design as one can get. There is a stack of links along the left, amateur photos alongside press shots and text that stretches outside the invisible boundaries implied by the seemingly arbitrary sizing of the lead image.
It looks like it probably looked in 2005, when Stephen Dame turned his rejected 30,000-word book proposal into HipMuseum.com, an online hub of fiercely intelligent writing, research and annotation of all things related to the Tragically Hip, and more specifically, the lyrical genius of Gord Downie, Kingston’s poet laureate.
Buf if HipMuseum.com looks like it hasn’t changed in 11 years, well, maybe Dame has simply built his site in the same spirit as the band he loves so deeply. The surface may lack overt sizzle and razzmatazz, but dive just a little deeper and untold worlds of discovery await. HipMuseum.com is a fascinating labour of love that will amaze even the most casual Hip fan, detailing unreleased songs, information about the band (Downie, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay), a full directory of Hip-related people, places and things, a complete lyrics archive with annotations and an exhaustive and comprehensive selection of at least 345 lyric references and historical explainers (Terry Fox, the Montreal Massacre, Hugh Maclennan, Tom Thomson, David Milgaard, Hazel Dickens, and werewolves to name a few).
Dame, who worked previously as a journalist, photographer and political organizer, teaches English and history in Toronto and maintains HipMuseum.com in his spare time. He spoke with CBC Music while on vacation on Cape Breton, N.S. He’ll be driving all night to make it back to Toronto for the concert on Aug. 10, and he’ll also be travelling to Ottawa and Kingston for the last shows of the tour.
Below, Dame talks about how he became a Hip Head, getting email from Dan Aykroyd, his love of Gord Downie and why he’s holding out hope for a miracle.
Do you recall the very first time you heard the Hip?
I remember the very first time I took note. I remember being in my dad’s Volkswagen, I was probably 10 or 11 years old, it was 1990 or '91, probably '91 now that I think about it, and there was a radio station where I grew up in St. Catharines called 97.7 Hits FM. They often played, what we called in those days, bootlegs, live recordings of bands and they were playing a recording of the Tragically Hip at a club from early 1991. It was, they call it now, the "Double Suicide" monologue, where Gord kind of leaves the band and starts telling this story in the middle of the song and you can hear, even in that radio record, Johnny Fay just trying to keep up with Gord as he keeps ranting and telling this story. It was so different and it was so unusual to hear that on radio, I remember it was so compelling — my dad was pulling into the house, parking the car and he went into the house and I had to stay in the car and listen. Like, I had to hear it come to fruition. It was jarring, it was so different, so memorable that that kind of sent me down that rabbit hole of "I have to find all the live recordings I can, I have to buy everything that’s available." Shortly after that, I ordered all the records through MCA, the record collection thing where you’d send away and get all the albums. That’s where it started for me and I’ve ben a fan ever since, I guess going on 25-plus years now.
What was your first chance to see them live?
I saw them live in Hamilton, Ontario, at the Coliseum, on the Phantom Power tour, and caught them probably at the height of their command of Canadian music. They were really hitting their stride then. I think most fans will tell you that Trouble at the Henhouse and Phantom Power are kind of the peak of their musical abilities. Gord was manic onstage that night and the band was so tight, and they were probably three or four years into playing crowds of 20,000 by then, so they really knew how to command that room. It was magic. It was a really, really great way to see them for the first time. And then I’d travel to the States and see them to play to 200 or 300 people in bars in Chicago and places like that. It’s a really unique thing seeing them like that, especially if you’re a Canadian fan who gets to see this big stadium band perform intimately.
Like you’re in on this open secret.
Absolutely! And even the American fans, who are in some ways even bigger fans because they have to seek it out, they have to really work to be fans of the Hip, they appreciate it when the place fills up with like-minded folks and it feels like home. It’s an interesting way that both Americans and Canadians feel at home in these small clubs in the United States, in Europe, all over the place.
I often say [Gord]’s as close as I will ever come to Glenn Gould — that kind of eccentric genius, you know there’s something special here.
You put your passion into practice when you put together your book pitch. What kind of feedback were you getting from publishers?
If you think of all those movies, the rejection letters up on the wall, I didn’t have any of that. All of my letters were really positive. I got all these letters saying, "This is really well written," "Great title" — people seem to really love the title — or people would often say, "I’m a fan of the band, too." Random House and all these publishing companies would send me all these personal letters and they’d say, "We like this idea but it will only sell in Canada so we don’t see a future for it." Or, "It’s too limited," or "The band’s not big enough." I think even in 2005, this band wasn’t quite as much in the zeitgeist as they are now, they weren’t quite as part of the firmament as they are now, there’s a lot of attention being paid to this band. In some ways, they were taken for granted then.
But I had all this information and I would share it on message boards and news groups that you’d find in the early days of the internet and I would find people really interested in what these references were and where Gord was pulling this information, and so I decided, "I’m going to put it online." So I started to share it and I got emails from people from all over the world who said, "I had no idea how incredible the story of Terry Fox was," or "I had no idea that Gord was mentioning a Canadian author," or "I had no idea about so much of Canada until I read your website." The Hip often get credit for teaching Canadians about Canada, but they’re oftentimes telling the world about Canada, too.
That’s very true. One of the things I’ve found fascinating about them — and I’ve seen that you’ve written about it, too — is in Canada particularly you can be critically engaged and talk about one’s country in a way that’s quite critical and not nationalistic and still be very successful, whereas in America, it’s sometimes much more difficult. Like, the Dixie Chicks get ostracized for life.
That’s very true. And I think in Canada you’ll see very few references to home in our pop culture, generally, it’s often not the flag-waving, stereotypical "rah rah rah" that people assume it to be. As you know, when you delve into some of these references that Gord is making, like when it comes to First Nations, or maybe their biggest hit ever, David Milgaard and "Wheat Kings," they’re not positive stories. They’re not celebrations. They’re more of acknowledgements that there are rich stories in this country and you have to be aware of them to make sure you don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. It’s pretty deep for a rock band, I think.
Agreed! And it’s so important to be critically engaged with something that you love so that you can always try to make it better.
Yeah, I heard this quote, Michael Moore was saying it but he was quoting somebody else, but he said, "I love America, that’s why I criticize her." That notion is almost foreign in the U.S., but here, just look at the history of our artists and our culture really, maybe because we are so obsessed with self-examination, but we do that a little more than the U.S., that’s for sure.
When you started to put everything online, did you know what you’d end up making, or was it just a place to put something that you’d already poured so much of yourself into?
It started for me by reading the Tom Thomson mystery, which is a book that just kind of told the story of Tom Thomson and how he disappeared and I started to notice, wow, there are so many similarities here between the story Gord tells in “Three Pistols,” so I thought, this must have been an inspiration, maybe he’s read this book, I don’t know, but it was fascinating to me to find this kind of coming to life, you know, who Winnie Trainor was, "the Bride of the Northern Woods" referenced in the song, and I just wanted to be able to share that. I thought it was so cool, look what Gord is doing here, look what the band is doing here. I wanted to share references within the songs so that people could get an enjoyment of greater understanding the way that I had.
That’s what I intended, and then once it was up there for a couple weeks, I started to get emails. People would write, "I think this is a reference to the following poet" or "Here’s a reference to this French film" and you do the research and you go, "Wow, there’s really some depth in a lot of this music that I didn’t know about." The benefit to having it online rather than it just being a static book is that, to this day, I get contributions from people, I get help from people who are just as passionate as I am, who care just as much, who want to take the time to read the lyrics. I noticed a CBC website with Gord a few years ago where Wendy Mesley asked him about the lyrics and he goes, "You know, nobody ever asks me about the lyrics," and I’m almost heartbroken because there are so many of us who would love to ask you about the lyrics, Gord.
The few times I’ve gotten to talk to him, I have, and he’s deep, you know, and there’s a whole lot of treasure to be mined there. A lot of [people] took an interest in the lyrics and I didn’t know that. When I put it online, I thought maybe I’m the only guy who cares, and certainly that’s not the case. There are a lot of people out there who appreciate lyrics with depth, and there are a lot of people who appreciate lyrics with footnotes and the fact that you can look things up. As a young kid, Grade 6 or 7, I was going to actual books looking things up, pre-Google, and all because I heard them in songs of the Tragically Hip.
I guess in Grade 9 or 10, one of the ways they tried to get us engaged with poetry was this textbook that gave us lyrics to songs and they didn’t really tell us they were songs. Maybe it was Grade 8. But that was where I first read Leonard Cohen songs as poems. I didn’t know they were songs until after.
I had the exact same experience in Grade 9 with a teacher named Mr. Gerwin who put the "Wheat Kings" lyrics on the acetate, on the overhead. I’m a teacher now, so I’ve officially stolen those ideas, it still happens, I can tell you.
That’s how I ended up eventually with Tragically Hip. Maybe "Scared" and then that just hooked me and I became obsessed with their lyrical content. Coming across your site has just been this strange gift blowing my mind since I found it. How much time do you put into this?
In 2005, when I started it, it became a little bit of an obsession. I skipped a few too many classes in university when I was finishing this up. It probably took — like, the first 30,000 words I was submitting to publishers, it probably took about three weeks of non-stop research, just going to libraries and reading books over and over again, and then probably another month to get it all written, so two full months but literally [laughs] at the expense of my education. Like, doing nothing else except this. Then as albums come out every two years or so, I’ll dedicate a weekend of time to do the big chunks of writing. But then it becomes a daily routine. I’ll get an email from someone, I just got one two days ago from a guy who had seen the band in 1985, in some bar that doesn’t exist anymore in Kingston, and he had all this fantastic information. Apparently the band would cover the theme from The Flintstones, people would beg to hear it, they’d have to play it twice in the set. He sent me a file where Gord is, essentially, frustrated, talking about how nobody wants to hear what he’s writing and they just want to hear the song from this damn TV show. Those kinds of gems come to me, literally, out of nowhere, and just make the site stronger, the community bigger. It’s less time-consuming now than it was, but it’s far more eye-opening, it’s far more enjoyable now for me. It’s kind of like a kid that’s out there in the world making me proud at this point
How many people would you say you’ve heard from?
Oh, wow, hundreds. Hundreds. Sometimes it’s just, "Hey, thanks, I love the site." Sometimes people are disagreeing, sometimes people are adamant that a song is about one thing and not another. That’s fine, these songs are open to interpretation of course. Dan Aykroyd emailed me at one point and had suggestions about one of Gord’s solo works, which I think is pretty cool. But I’d say now it’s about three emails a week. Or, something will happen in the media, like I did a hit on The National the night Gord announced his diagnosis, so then you get 50 emails, right? It comes in fits and spurts. It’s been pretty consistent for 11 years now, which shows me that this band is rare. You don’t have bands that are able to be that relevant for that long. Especially in Canada, and yet this band seems to have hit a nerve and that’s maybe their greatest achievement in terms of just music: being able to play to large crowds consistently, keeping people happy, keeping people interested, and keeping people like me, the nerds, engaged for 30 years now. It’s pretty amazing.
So you said you’ve interviewed Gord a few times?
"Interview" is weird. I used to be a journalist, so once when I worked for the Ottawa Sun and they were in, I got to interview him, which was ask him questions, but most of the time it’s either sneaking backstage or hanging out and waiting. Ten years ago I got to go to a concert they did for charity at the Phoenix in Toronto and someone brought Gord over to me and I’m nervous and I have no idea what to say, and I say, "Gord, I just want to thank you for making male pattern baldness acceptable" and he laughed because we’re both bald, and I was like, OK, I’m at ease here, now. I asked him, "Gord, why are there so many references to Shakespeare? I know you were studying English at Queens, did Shakespeare resonate with you for some reason?" He took a giant breath and he went, "You know, he’s just there, man." And I thought, this is the weirdest, the most awkward, and the greatest answer he could have ever given me. My interactions with Gord have kind of been like that, where I have these opportunities to ask a question or two there, and he never disappoints.
As I’ve been researching for a bunch of different pieces, I’ve been really struck by his thoughtfulness and his capacity for weird. He does seem to really delight in the strange, but there’s something also that’s so charming about him all the time.
I often say he’s as close as I will ever come to Glenn Gould — that kind of eccentric genius, you know there’s something special here. That you read about them 100 years after they die and you’re like, "Those kinds of characters don’t exist anymore," but they really do. They’re regular people, but they have this capacity for great insight and to be kind of just off, a little different than most other people in the room, which is probably why he’s so brilliant, right? Every time I’ve ever met with him, the first thing is kindness. He’s always incredibly kind, incredibly generous with his time. Always willing to talk because I’m kind of the guy he wants to hear from the least, asking questions about the lyrics and stuff he’s answered a million times, I’m sure. But he’s never brushed me off, never like, "Oh, you again." He’s always very kind. The picture I have of him and I on my website, the furtive smile he’s giving, I think it sums him up perfectly. He’s generous, kind and a genius. We’re lucky to have had him. I’m lucky to have had him be the cool musician during my formative years.
Do you have much patience for this weird music critic snobbery — and I say this as a music critic — that I’ve seen places like Rolling Stone toss off a reference to the Hip as a "terrible band that only Canada loves," that kind of thing?
[Laughs] I hear that stuff and I always think of it in the same way. There is merit. There are things that are meritous and for whatever reason, they don’t catch on in certain places. I often say gun control, universal healthcare and the Tragically Hip are three really good things that for whatever reason, the United States has never embraced. That doesn’t make either of those things less great in Canada, just because the U.S. doesn’t care about them. We tend to be a little too obsessed with whether or not big brother likes us or whether we’re getting enough attention from the giant to the south. This band, their success, the way in which people love them, the kind of outpouring you’re seeing right now, speaks for itself. I often want to say to Canada, "Hey, you might not know it, but we have a culture that is worth celebrating. You might be stuck in an inferiority complex, but hey, listen to some Hip and you might come out of it a little bit." If anything, this band has taught me, be yourself, all those clichés, and write what you know, love what you know, and know that our culture and our bands are just as great and just as prolific as any other. Just because Casey Kasem never paid them any attention, who cares, really? It doesn’t make a song any less great just because Ryan Seacrest isn’t celebrating them.
We’re experiencing this collective living grief. I’m trying to keep this in perspective with Gord’s diagnosis and prognosis, but in a year where we’ve lost David Bowie and Prince, we have an actual opportunity here to say goodbye, and this is amazing.
I had the exact same thought. Imagine if David Bowie was able to do this, if Prince was able to do this, or any artist who knows they’re on the way out can have that opportunity connect with their fans again. It is, I guess, the ideal way to go if you’re someone who’s spent your life trying to connect with audiences and you have a chance to connect one more time. For fans it’s a chance for us to tell him how much we love him, really. There’s still hope. There’s still research being done. People have lived six or seven years with this diagnosis, so you never know. Maybe Gord’s playing everybody for a fool, maybe this isn’t the last tour and if he feels able, he’ll get out there again. But it’s certainly bittersweet and it’s a sad thing to have the band revel in all this attention but only after that it’s announced that this is their last tour ever and Gord is very sick.
Kim Campbell, you know, when she lost that election in ’93, she said to all her supporters, "Even though this is a bad result, I want you to know you should consider yourself hugged." I think for Gord, with this tour, I want him to know that as he goes across Canada he should consider himself hugged. If anything, I think that’s what everybody in those audiences wishes they could do, reach out and hug him and tell him how much he’s meant to them, entertained them, and put bright spots into their days, whether you’re driving in the car and hear a song and sing along. Sometimes I see people wearing Hip T-shirts and I smile at that. Each of us connects with this band in different ways. Whatever little way this band has shone a little light in people’s lives, this is a chance to say thank you. What I’ve been reading about the shows is that the standing ovations at the end, they just keep going, nobody wants it to end, nobody wants to say goodbye. It’s one big collective hug for a guy who has certainly earned it.
This feels like a really personal question, but I know I just laid in bed the morning I found out and cried for a while. What was your reaction?
My school starts at 7:30, so I’m up early and I was walking to school, checking my phone, and I had all these messages and I didn’t check them. I had 25 emails or whatever, but I went to Twitter and saw the CBC headline on Twitter. Of course at first it’s a bit of disbelief, but I clicked it and read it and then let it sink in. That day, people who knew my history with the band were coming up to me and saying, "Have you heard?" There was a ton of sadness that day. A ton of sadness. Students, who were not even born when this band was 15 years into its existence, were saying, "It’s really sad."
I didn’t cry until the end of the day when the CBC National crew showed up in my classroom and they were asking me questions and they said, "OK, now we need you to look into the camera and sing ‘Courage’ to Gord." I said, "I’m not going to do that. You don’t want me to do that. I’ll talk to you all day, but I’m not singing." He said, "Look, everybody we’ve been interviewing has been singing, so we need you to sing." "Oh my God,, I’ll tell you what, I’ll do the spoken word part, I’ll say that into the camera." So just from memory I started to say, "There’s no simple explanation for anything important," and I started to tear up. I wasn’t expecting to cry that day, but you can see it and I could feel it! I was welling up, surprisingly, out of nowhere, but it is kind of like losing an uncle or someone that you feel very close to. I think it’s probably safe to say that I’ve never loved a total stranger the way that I love Gord Downie.
So it does suck, but I’m holding out hope. I think there’s something we don’t quite understand about cancer, and when you hear the stories of people who fight it or live with it successfully, it’s often that mind over matter, that willingness to carry on. Hopefully, collectively, with all of our energies, this could be something that becomes a chronic condition that Gord lives in the next six or seven years and that it doesn’t have to be the end any time soon. But I’m also aware of how horrible it is. It’s a lot of conflicting emotions, that’s for sure.
Hang out with me on Twitter: @_AndreaWarner
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