By Steve Newton
When New York’s Sterling Publishing first contacted me about writing a book about Gord Downie, I was obviously thrilled. I had interviewed Downie five times, and was a huge fan of his band, the Tragically Hip.
But as writing progressed, I realized the finished product wasn’t going to be exactly what I had in mind. Don’t get me wrong–it’s a beautifully designed coffeetable book packed with amazing photos of Downie and the Hip, and being asked to provide the text for it was an honour and a privilege.
But the executive editor at Sterling made it clear that the book was meant to be a glowing tribute to Downie, and that anything negative or controversial was not what they were looking for.
Not that I had much negative to include, anyway. The whole focus of my writing was to convey how great the Tragically Hip was during the years I’d interviewed Downie, from 1989 to 1996, and how they were a truly Canadian phenomenon.
About the only time I felt like I was being censored too much was when I covered my final interview with Downie, in 1996, and how the angle I took during that conversation got under his skin.
Here’s what I sent in to the publisher–C-Word and all–which is hugely different from what wound up in the book, at the tail end of Chapter 3: Canuck to the Core.
When I did my interview with Downie in 1996, it was for a Tragically Hip cover story in the Georgia Straight, and my editor at the time wanted the main focus of the story to be on the chasm that existed between the band’s success in Canada and its success Stateside. The conversation started out great, me informing Gord that since we’d last talked I’d gotten married and bought a house, and he replying, “Well done. Being you is a two-man job!”
But when I explained to him what the proposed theme of the cover story was, he described it as “dull”. And when I asked whether he thought the Hip’s recent performance on Saturday Night Live had helped push sales down south, that set him off on a ten-minute rant about how he views his art and his band’s ultimate goals and aspirations. At the time I was a little bummed that I’d ticked him off so much, but when I look back on it now, maybe he just needed to vent. So I like to think I was doing him a favour, prodding him to release some demons.
“Aww, jeez,” he started out, sounding exasperated. “Aw. I don’t know, you know, I don’t really know. I mean, the weird thing is, Steve, is I can think with the other side of my brain, and I can do this interview. But I don’t really think that way, is the bottom line. I enjoy the work, you know. I enjoy the work of being in a band; I enjoy touring in America. We’ve been going down there for almost ten years now, and each record has sold more than the one previously. We’ve always managed to seemingly build on where we left off from one record to the next. I mean ultimately there’s so much focus placed on this, but generally, if you’re thinking of the Tragically Hip and this is the best you can do–or the best one can do, not so much you–as far as coming up with the story on the band…
“And I knew this was gonna come up, and you’re not the first, but there’s a lot more there, obviously. I don’t mean to sound all cunty to you, but I mean Network magazine—did you see that in Sam the Record Man? You should check out the cover they did, called ‘The Last Temptation of the Tragically Hip’, with this really bad sort of best-artist-in-Grade-10 rendering of me on a cross. It’s real classy stuff—you can put sarcasm in brackets if you’d like. Really absurd, you know, and if it’s such a story, why don’t people come down and check it out? You should come down and see a show down there.
“We just finished about 90 dates across America this summer, playing clubs for the most part—which maybe would seem like a tragedy to some, but mostly it seems like a tragedy to anyone that never goes, that’s probably never even been down there. And ultimately the people that go to the shows are really happy about it. A lot of Canadians came down, they spent their summer holidays following the band around, really glad to see the band in a small, intimate setting. And the band is very happy to play small, intimate settings. We’re very thankful that we have a very paradoxical career, you know, we’re very proud of it. And we’re very proud of everything we’ve accomplished, both in Canada and America, and in Europe. And we continue to be proud.
“But the thing we’re most proud of is just the work, you know, where touring begets writing, and writing begets recording, which begets more touring. It’s really simple, and it’s really our only story. We enjoy the work, and if you came down and saw a show, you’d realize that those people at that gig–no one’s complaining. There’s nobody complaining, least of all us. We have a fantastic time. We played 90 shows down in America, and I can probably count the number of bad shows on one hand, where I walked off the stage and thought, ‘Well, that was unfulfilling. That was a waste of 48 hours or 24 hours and boy I miss being home.’ I mean that’s ultimately what prompts you to do good work, you know. You’re gonna be away from home, away from the personal life that feeds what you do, that feeds your art. I mean that’s what I believe.
“So when you have a bad gig, or an unfulfilling gig, all that floods in. So on the road, generally, you’re kind of like a boat, like a sailboat, and the diameter of its hull is making a depression in the water, or an indentation in the water, so all you’re trying to do is with your hands is keep the water from coming in and flooding out your chalk drawing, or your temporary piece of work, because that’s what the road is. It’s all very temporary and ethereal and it evaporates faster than water off a sidewalk. All that said, that’s what I enjoy about it. I enjoy the work, and when I’m working I feel like an artist, you know. And it’s not an artist in the industry sense of being petulant and whiny and unpredictable and all of those things that someone might class an artist. I mean an artist is someone who works.
“So five shows, maybe on one hand, the rest were incendiary, you know, just coming off the stage and feeling like we’d taken a total flight of fancy, as though the stage and the audience and the entire room had fallen away and that we were ultimately taking detours and being self-indulgent and creating and writing as the show was going on. The fans are there, and they’re part of it. It just becomes this sort of workshop environment, and they’re part of it–it’s an entirely self-reflexive thing.
“And it’s more than just what you’re reading or what you’re seeing in your stats about the band. And ultimately, what’s the fascination anymore? I mean these lines are blurring. I mean, there is a canyon, and it does seem like a rather large discrepancy [between American and Canadian sales], but ultimately the people that ask this question are really trying to see whether it’s affected our ego or affected our pride, and the answer is a flat no. We’ve managed to build our own studio, we’ve managed to realize most of our dreams, and we’re enjoying ourselves to the hilt.”
At this point in the interview Downie paused–possibly to catch his breath–and I took the opportunity to jump in and explain that I wasn’t trying to point out the band’s shortcomings as far as success in the U.S. goes, but just trying to pick his brain about why it might be that Canadian acts like Shania Twain or Alanis Morissette–which I deemed far less worthy than the Tragically Hip–do huge down there while the Hip has to struggle for recognition. His immediate response made sense, I suppose.
“Well I’m obviously the wrong person to ask,” he replied. “You know, I mean really. I’m the guy doin’ it. I’m the guy out there doing it. I’m living it. You know, and someone’s sort of saying basically, ‘Does this bum you out?’. You know, ‘When I pick this scab does it hurt?’ [Sighs heavily]. And I know that’s not what you’re doing, but when you said this to me I just realized that, for the next bunch of interviews I do, this is what I’m gonna be talking about. And I’ve talked about it ad nauseum. You know, I go down to the States, and they say, ‘Geez, you’re so huge up in Canada, you’re like Canada’s Pearl Jam, and down here you’re unknown. How do you feel?’
“And it’s like, ‘I feel fine, sell a lotta records up there, we got nothin’ to complain about.’ The Yanks think you’re huge up in Canada because the government props you up, you know, that it’s because of CanCon, that’s the only reason you’re huge. So you fight that while you’re down there. And then the Canadians up here are totally involved in all manner of American-bashing–which I don’t really agree with, and never really have. I believe in Canada, but I’ve never believed in Canada at the expense of any other country. But anyway, I mean that’s not really my point. Up here it’s sort of this, ‘We don’t need any kind of American affirmation to tell us what we like,’ but at the same time, ‘Gee, how are you doin’ in America?’.
“I mean America, I guess it’s the big leagues–for anybody–and you ultimately want to test your whatever-it-is-you-are against that sort of thing. But we have nothing to complain about; we sell a lot of records by anybody’s standards. And the weird thing is, I mean you can talk about Alanis Morissette or Shania Twain or the Tragically Hip, but the one thing that the three of us have in common is that we have nothing in common. We don’t write the same songs, we don’t play the same way, we’re all different.
“All musicians and artists are different, and you can look at any single one—Canadian or American—and look at their curriculum vitae, or look at their goals and aspirations, look at their mission statements, and they’ll almost all be different. And ultimately, if you want to take our success in Canada and exponentially translate it to America, you’re talking about us being Guns N’ Roses. Or Counting Crows. Or whatever. And ultimately it’s just something that I don’t think could ever happen to this band, and never really thought it could. And sometimes the thing I fear, in that context, more than American failure, is American success.
“We’re a band that have always sort of done things on our own terms, since the get-go,” Downie concludes, “and that’s not really gonna put you in good stead when you’re up against Jewel and all these other things. But having said all that, the ways I judge success are not even close to that. So when people ask me this question, usually my first reaction is ‘How much time do you have?’ Because it’s a long, complex answer, and it’s still being answered, you know.”
Although Downie was obviously not thrilled with my proposed focus for the Georgia Straight cover story, when it was published in November of 1996, with the headline “Hip at Home”, he didn’t hold any grudges. He actually autographed it and, remembering how concerned I was about having enough quotes for a lengthy cover piece, wrote: “Congratulations Steve. Three times as many words, eh?”
To hear the full audio of my 1996 interview with Gord Downie–and my 1989 interview with him as well–subscribe to my Patreon page, where you can eavesdrop on 350 of my uncut, one-on-one conversations with:
Dave Martone, 2020
Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, 2006
Joss Stone, 2012
Glenn Tipton of Judas Priest, 2005
Jack Blades of Night Ranger, 1984
Vivian Campbell of Def Leppard, 1992
Colin James, 1995
Kim Simmonds of Savoy Brown, 1998
Tom Cochrane of Red Rider, 1983
Ed Roland of Collective Soul, 1995
Taj Mahal, 2001
Tom Wilson of Junkhouse, 1995
Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, 2003
David Lindley, 2002
Marty Friedman of Megadeth, 1991
John Hiatt, 2010
Nancy Wilson of Heart, 2006
Jeff Golub, 1989
Moe Berg of the Pursuit of Happiness, 1990
Todd Rundgren, 2006
Chad Kroeger of Nickelback, 2001
Steve Earle, 1987
Gabby Gaborno of the Cadillac Tramps, 1991
Terry Bozzio, 2003
Roger Glover, 1985
Matthew Sweet, 1995
Jim McCarty of the Yardbirds, 2003
Luther Dickinson of North Mississippi Allstars, 2001
John Rzeznik of the Goo Goo Dolls, 1995
Steve Hackett from Genesis, 1993
Grace Potter, 2008
Buddy Guy, 1993
Trevor Rabin of Yes, 1984
Albert Lee, 1986
Yngwie Malmsteen, 1985
Robert Cray, 1996
Tony Carey, 1984
Ian Hunter, 1988
Kate Bush, 1985
Jeff Healey, 1988
Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi, 1993
Colin Linden, 1993
Kenny Wayne Shepherd, 1995
Justin Hayward of the Moody Blues, 1986
Elliot Easton from the Cars, 1996
Wayne Kramer from the MC5, 2004
Bob Rock, 1992
Nick Gilder, 1985
Roy Buchanan, 1988
Klaus Meine of Scorpions, 1988
Jason Bonham, 1989
Tom Johnston of the Doobie Brothers, 1991
Joey Spampinato of NRBQ, 1985
Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, 2003
Andy Powell of Wishbone Ash, 2003
Steve Kilbey of the Church, 1990
Johnette Napolitano of Concrete Blonde, 1990
Dan McCafferty of Nazareth, 1984
Davy Knowles of Back Door Slam, 2007
Jimmy Barnes from Cold Chisel, 1986
Steve Stevens of Atomic Playboys, 1989
Billy Idol, 1984
Stuart Adamson of Big Country, 1993
Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, 1992
Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, 1998
John Bell of Widespread Panic, 1992
Robben Ford, 1993
Barry Hay of Golden Earring, 1984
Jason Isbell, 2007
Joe Satriani, 1990
Brad Delp of Boston, 1988
John Sykes of Blue Murder, 1989
Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, 1998
Alice Cooper, 1986
Lars Ulrich of Metallica, 1985
Shannon Hoon of Blind Melon, 1992
Myles Goodwyn of April Wine, 2001
John Mellencamp, 1999
Mike Campbell of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, 1999
Kenny Aronoff, 1999
Jon Bon Jovi, 1986
Dickey Betts of the Allman Brothers, 1992
Little Steven, 1987
Stevie Salas, 1990
J.J. Cale, 2009
Joe Bonamassa, 2011
…with hundreds more to come