On Tuesday, the already-suffering music world was given yet more heartbreaking news: Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip, was diagnosed with terminal cancer. This is a devastating situation for the group’s fans everywhere, but many folks who have never heard of the band — or only knew of them in passing — might be asking just “what were The Tragically Hip,” and “why does their music matter to so many people?” From there, we can see an opportunity in the midst of a tragedy, as thousands of music listeners will now seek out a great band for the first time.
While The Hip certainly have their share of fans in the states (I’m from Buffalo, where they have quite a following), they were huge in their homeland of Canada. If they never quite resonated with American listeners the way they did with Canadians, it was likely because their music was just so, well, Canadian. Countless Hip songs recanted stories of Canadian history that most Americans had probably never heard before. For some, that made the band more difficult to get into, but for others, it was their most endearing quality.
One of their most famous songs, “Fifty Mission Cap,” tells the story of Bill Barilko, a defenseman for the Toronto Maple leafs who scored the Series-winning goal of the 1951 Stanley Cup. Four months later, he mysteriously disappeared, and it wasn’t until 11 years later that his body was discovered. The really spooky coincidence — and possibly what inspired the band to write the song — was that the Leafs won their first Cup since Barilko’s game-winning goal the same year his wrecked plane was discovered. It’s a dark, but fascinating story, and an intriguing piece of Canadian folklore that The Hip did a brilliant job of bringing to life.
“Fifty Mission Cap” was just one of several Hip songs inspired by hockey. Another one of their most recognizable songs, “Fireworks” tells the story of how a blossoming romance managed to temporarily distract Downie from the game, while also describing the 1972 Summit Series, a series of eight games featuring the best hockey players from Canada and the Soviet Union. Canada won five of the eight games, including the final one, which was won on a game-winning goal by Paul Henderson, which is referenced in the opening line of the song (“If there’s a goal that everyone remembers/it was back in old ’72”). Here, Downie expertly tied a famous sporting event to a personal experience of growing up, adding considerable weight to both aspects of the song.
But while The Tragically Hip’s studio output has dozens of great songs, a huge part of the band’s charm was their live show, mainly because of Downie’s long, but always worthwhile, stories. For live energy alone, he’d probably deserve the title of Canadian Springsteen more than Bryan Adams. In particular, during a now-famous live performance of “New Orleans Is Sinking,” Downie hilariously describes a story about swimming in a tank with a killer whale and fearing for his life. The rant is rambling, often nonsensical, and absolutely hilarious. At a Hip show, you never knew what Downie might do, or what crazy story he might tell, which is a big part of why he’s going to be missed so much.
Because The Hip were just so utterly Canadian in every possible way, they weren’t huge in the states, only having the occasional single make the lower ends of the Billboard Modern Rock chart. Still, they were a beloved band that did a lot of great work, and it’s a sad thought to think we’ll never get to hear new Hip album, or listen to one of Downie’s epic stage rants. Still, if this gives more people a desire to listen to The Hip, at least some good will come out of it. There’s really no bad place to start, as everything from early classics like Road Apples and Fully Completely to late-period efforts like We Are the Same have plenty to offer listeners. The Hip were a band like no other, and hopefully American audiences will now really appreciate that.