The Tragically Hip — Flamenco (1996)
“Walk like a matador,” Gord Downie told me in 1996. “Don’t be chicken-shit / and turn breezes into rivulets.” I remember trying to decipher Flamenco’s lyrics at age 14, trying to crack the code of who or what exactly Downie meant. I listened to that glimmering guitar-line, like jewels turning on a string. I listened to Downie’s measured poetry – the way he sang nobility into the word “matador,” the way the “chicken-shit” line seemed kindly somehow. I had borrowed the CD from my sister and she insisted that I keep the jewel case in pristine condition, unblemished. I tried. I was a teenager and in the pit of my stomach I knew that I would let her down.
Did this song consist of advice? This is what I wondered most, sitting cross-legged on my duvet. Flamenco sounded like advice but I worried that it was not, that there was something in it I was misunderstanding. “Flamenco-sweep the air,” Downie sang. He sounded like the sort of man I wanted advice from, wise and uninhibited and full of grace, too. “And weave the sun,” he sang, “and stamp your feet for everyone.”
Gordon Downie — Chancellor (2001)
When I grew older I realized that poetry, like most things, does not often fall into the neat categories of “advice” or “not advice.” Is a handshake advice? Is a nautical disaster? Are picture postcards or fireworks or a heron, flying low, across a lake? Downie’s Chancellor is impenetrable and beautifully sung, it is advice and not advice, it is wise as a love letter that is lost in the mail. I’d listen to this and it would point my heart in all directions, right and east and up and down, and it still does, with its tender riddle of a refrain.
The Tragically Hip — Tired as Fuck (2016)
This is not a week for eulogies. Despite the news that Gord Downie is very sick, he is still with us, still pouring art out into the world. Better that those of us who were touched by his work use the remaining time to shout our gratitude – for the concerts, ballads, rockers, riddles; for putting little sensations in our way; for instructing us to turn breezes into rivulets. Next month, the Tragically Hip release their 13th studio album, Man Machine Poem. On Tired as Fuck, Downie sings about being tired and going on: “I want to stop so much I almost don’t wanna stop.” The delivery of that last bit, “almost don’t wanna stop,” makes it sound like a pleasure that’s being wrenched away. It’s heartbreaking without quite being sad: Downie has always had a way of making mischief out of sentiment.
“May and June,” he sings and repeats, a little later, “May and June.” It’s easy now to imagine a terrible question mark at the end of those lines. But I hope Downie knows, with utter clarity, how little question there ought to be. He and his band have spent almost 30 years sweetening the country’s seasons; their fans would gladly give to him this summer – and any number more.
Sean Michaels received the 2014 Scotiabank Giller Prize for his novel Us Conductors. He is the editor of the music blog Said the Gramophone.