A Gordie Howe hat trick is achieved by a goal, an assist and a fight in the same hockey game.
A Gordie Johnson hat trick, on the other hand, involves “unfortunate,” “cringe” and “not great.” Those were the adjectival reactions on social media to the highly stylized version of O Canada that Johnson performed before a Winnipeg Jets game last week. Using a Gibson double-neck electric guitar, the Winnipeg-born Big Sugar guitarist shocked the purists with his flamboyant, lyric-free variation.
I was at the arena. I heard the roar of applause after Johnson’s amplified interpretation. But the next day on Twitter? True patriot discontent.
“Further proof that the pregame anthems need to be shelved,” tweeted Jus Wood. “The anthem is about the words and meaning,” added David Hansen. “No disrespect for the artist – simply a bad choice by the organizer.”
The organizer is the Winnipeg Jets, and the team seems to agree. They have deleted the video of Johnson’s rendition from their account. Repeated requests for a comment from the Jets have gone unanswered. Apparently artistic expression has its limits when it comes to the anthem police.
Johnson himself isn’t concerned with any negative reaction to his solo-electric version of composer Calixa Lavallée’s original O Canada music. He has done the same treatment at numerous sporting events over the years, and it is a set-list staple of his reggae-tinged rock band Big Sugar. “I play the notes, the guitar does what it does, and that’s what you get with me,” he says, on tour, speaking from Saskatchewan.
His response is similar to the reaction of Jimi Hendrix, who when asked to explain his dynamic Star-Spangled Banner at Woodstock, replied groovily. “All I did was play it,” he told Dick Cavett. “I’m American, so I played it. … It’s not unorthodox. I thought it was beautiful.”
Unlike the Hendrix Stratocaster extrapolation of Francis Scott Key’s hit single (with music by John Stafford Smith), Johnson’s O Canada is melodically faithful to the original. “I stick to the script,” he says. And, where Hendrix could be seen as making an anti-war statement at Woodstock, Johnson’s performance was apolitical. “It’s a kind of civic duty.”
Over the years, Big Sugar innovations on classic material have been well-received. A dub-reggae version of Al Green’s I’m a Ram was endorsed by Green himself, according to Johnson, and a cover of Traffic’s Dear Mr. Fantasy was applauded by that band’s drummer. “I was told that Jim Capaldi loved it,” he says.
But national anthems have an almost sacred status. Feelings run higher. Winnipeg native Burton Cummings was criticized for his bilingual, lounge-act O Canada at the 2012 Grey Cup in Toronto. One of the complaints? He performed it while seated – disrespectful.
But, I mean, he’s a piano player.
Cummings also slightly altered the lyrics. Watching it on television back then, I wasn’t impressed with the performance. I’m still not completely. But watching the former Guess Who singer on YouTube singing the version at a hockey game in Winnipeg in 1991, I see that the lyrical tweak was intentional. The performance was better as well. To paraphrase Hendrix, I think it was beautiful.
As for Johnson’s anthem last week, it was not pitch-perfect – even the musician himself admits it. “Performing it on ice is hard. Your fingers are cold, and the guitar is cold. It’s going to go out of tune for sure. You’ve just got to get through it.”
Johnson got through it. The crowd roared during and after, particularly when he flipped over his instrument to show off a big maple leaf on the back of it.
No, not everybody dug the rendition. Opinions were had. It’s a free country – glorious and free, as the song goes.