The Never-Ending Present

Barclay, Michael

“Gord Sinclair writes the basic songs, I arrange it and Gord Downie forgets it.”

“They’d play 50 songs over three sets in a night,” said Jeffrey Barrett, “and I guarantee Gord faked his way through the lyrics of at least five of them. He’d just be making stuff up.”

Manning’s parting words to the Tragically Hip were, “I can’t put my life in the hands of a bunch of dumb college fucks.”

“We were the name band in Kingston, and we could have picked a hot guitar player. But if we started picking hot musicians, the rest of us would be out!

“On day three, we pooled our money together and didn’t have enough to buy a can of Coke,” said Baker. “We were living on coffee and free pop and nacho chips from the restaurant. Then we found our soundman doing rails [of cocaine] off his bedside table. That’s the rock’n’roll life—we found out where all the money was going.”

“I can’t imagine why anyone would want to stifle their own creativity by playing only one other band’s material, ours or anyone else’s. If it meant that an original band couldn’t get a gig because the local Hip cover band drew more people and sold more beer, that would indeed be tragic.”

Gold didn’t want to make it commercially available. Just as the live show was an ephemeral experience, so too should be the sensation of hearing this monologue on the radio. He knew that real music nerds sat in their bedroom with their boom boxes, waiting to press record when a rare song came on the radio. That sense of anticipation, that sense of achievement, of ownership, is what fuels real fandom

If there’s something truly Canadian about this story, Downie said, it’s the passivity of the populace in the face of injustice

“I had a guy confront me once because he thought the band had stolen all the lyrics for Road Apples from him. It was in front of my office on Queen Street. I said, ‘Well, when did you write those?’ He said, ‘1994.’ I said, ‘It says right on the cassette you’re holding that the record came out in 1991, so how is that possible?’ Then he attacked me!”

“Certain luxuries are afforded to us now, most of them go unrecognized,” said Downie. “But this one perk we really enjoy: playing with bands we love and getting to know them as people during the brief moments we have together. At the end of this huge mystery ride, it will be the relationships we’ve forged with these people that will sustain us into our golden years and not make us look back in anger.”

Gord Sinclair was characteristically modest. “The first couple of shows, going on after Midnight Oil was the hardest thing we’d ever had to do because they were by far one of the best live acts on the planet,” he said. “They were so intense and so good musically. Nice people, but you knew they were out to steal the audience every night, and they played like it. That made us a way better band. We had to be.”

In those days, record companies—man, if they didn’t hear a single, then they didn’t get it. They’d be like, ‘What is this? A stoner record? We can’t sell this.’”

Rob Baker considered Henhouse the most difficult record to make in their entire discography. “Part of that was not having a non-partisan soundboard,” he said, “which is the number one thing a producer can do, is just be that voice of reason, to say, ‘Guys, it’s not working,’ or ‘This part is not helping the song.’ That’s part of it, helping with the arrangements and that fatherly advice.”

Downie reportedly told a friend later about this brush with a soon-to-be-legendary band: “They were late, they were drunk, they were assholes and then they left.”

The blues are not so much about heartache as they are about physical, molecular existence.

Critical favourites Wilco had developed a reputation as one of the best live rock acts in America; their 1996 album Being There deservedly topped many year-end lists.

“Talking to Gord—he’s not elusive, but he’s a listener,” says Joel Plaskett, who toured with the Hip in 2004. “I’m a talker, and he’d just be silently engaging me. Then he’d say a few things that would be everything I should have said in a condensed form. That’s probably what makes him such a great wordsmith. He gives you just a few bits that you can chew on for a long time.”

BNL’s stage attire that year was matching pastel blue-and-green outfits. “We looked like crayons,” says Creeggan. Ever the pro, singer Ed Robertson asked the crowd who among them hated the band the most and called the heckler onstage. “We got him to play the right hand of Ed’s guitar and we did a little Van Halen ‘Eruption,’” says Creeggan. “We made amends. But that was one of the hardest crowds to win over, for sure—having the whole audience giving you the finger.”

Jim Creeggan of Barenaked Ladies was Siberry’s bassist that day. “I was playing beside her and a water bottle was thrown right between me and Jane,” he says. “I looked over and said, ‘Are you all right?’ She came over, took my hand, raised our arms over our heads and said [to the crowd], ‘Yeeeah! I may look small, but if anyone throws anything else up onstage, I’m going to come out there and tear your head off! You can puke on yourself, go ahead—but I’m watching you!’ “And you know what? No more bottles. Then she went on to play some more free-form jazz shit. It was awesome.”

For indie rockers who were a bit rough around the edges, playing with the Hip was a serious wake-up call. “I remember watching them and thinking, ‘Wow, our band sucks,’”

I made them rethink a lot of stuff. A lot of their prior songs were a riff and then the chorus would be a louder version of that same riff. I wanted more.”

“All those records prior to that were really written in jam sessions where the band hung out with a big pile of pot in the middle of the table and everybody rolling these big joints. They’d mess around until finally Gord [Sinclair] would play a bass line that somehow stuck. Johnny Fay would come up with his drum part almost immediately. The basic groove is instant for him, and once he’s found that, that’s what you get. Paul would start to play his rhythm, and Robbie would start soloing. Meanwhile, you’d see Gord over in the corner pawing through his notebook with a pencil, grabbing the mic and saying something like, ‘I’ve got vermicelli underwear!’

The other common themes are considerably more random: Antarctica, something called a “superfarmer” and edible audio equipment.

Playing with that band, I learned how to give in. I used to delineate between improvisation and playing songs. I was wrong. You can do what you want.” That freedom was what Downie went looking for.

“We’d rehearsed a bit, but I didn’t feel like I really knew the songs yet,” said Doiron. “I went up to Gord and said, ‘I’m sorry I’m so nervous! I’m freaking out. What am I doing here? Why me?’ He said, ‘Julie, you’re here because I need you here.’ He could have easily had any studio musician who would know all the parts. But he didn’t want that. I don’t think he’s ever looked for that. He wants people he wants to be around, creative people, not necessarily technically good. That’s what makes working with him so cool, because he trusts whatever it is you’re going to do. I’ve never been given any guidance. He’s like, ‘You know what to do.’”