When the colour of the night
And all the smoke in one life
Gives way to shaky movements,
In the forest of whispering speakers
Let’s swear that we will
Get with the times,
In a current health to stay
Let’s get friendship right
Get life day-to-day
“It’s a Good Life if you Don’t Weaken,”
In Violet Light. Universal Music Canada, 2002.
Gordon Downie, Rob Baker, Johnny Fay,
Paul Langlois & Gord Sinclair.
As someone who gave a lot of my early life to playing music, The Tragically Hip were an inspiration. They were rock musicians, out there having fun, but they seemed somehow more grown up than the rest of us. The first time we ran into them was in Grand Bend or London, Ontario I think. They did a great show, but after hanging around post-show someone in our group said, “those guys are noble. Cool, but noble.” It remains the best description of the band I have heard.
In the summer of 2016, I found myself back on the road, this time following The Tragically Hip’s final tour. I was asked to do some interviews and research work for those writing about the tour. Just before one of the final concerts, I was interviewed for CBC’s national news. They asked me to wear one of my concert shirts. My friend Kirk came along. I think he was there to make sure I did right by The Hip (you can judge for yourself by following the link). The cameraman took the attached photo saying it was to commemorate the moment.
As someone who studies performance, Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip offer important lessons. For Downie, performance practice involved a set of goals. The first was learning more songs than anyone else. His ability to memorize lyrics was legendary. In his second phase, he moved from being a singer of other people’s songs to become the lyricist for the band. We now think of Downie as one of our greatest lyricists, but he got there one step at a time.
The third phase of his work focused on extending his work with language. He studied poetry, and began to use spoken word during their shows. The results of these explorations became known as “rants.” Some of them, such as, “the killer whale rant,” are celebrated online, and on T-shirts worn by fans. In interviews, Downie tried to explain the “rants” were not verbal explosions, but a carefully developed practice.
In the fourth phase, Downie responded to the frustration of his bandmates when his poetic excursions began to take up more performance time. When speaking about this phase, Downie said the reason he needed to change was because he could feel his work was not serving the band. He asked himself a simple question, “what else can I do on stage?” The answer was dance.
In the early days, Downie’s movement was like many of the era. He flailed in an intense channelling of energy from the music and audience. As he began to focus on dance, his study of movement began to show up on stage. Working with artists like Crystal Pite, he began to dance.
As with his spoken word practice, his movement was described as spontaneous. He was said to “flail about” on stage. His movement got noticed, but not for what it was. Again, in interviews, he attempted to correct the record. Some noticed the precision he was bringing to his exploration of language, movement, and their integration with the band. That integration lead him to describe himself as a dancer rather than a musician. When asked about music and lyrics he more than once said his published poetry and music are not his art. They are the last step before his art. His art is performance.
Downie worked relentlessly at being a better artist. When the lyrics at the top of this post were written, Downie was working on phase five of his artistic practice. He was, by any measure, already an expert at words, movement, and music. He had even learned the guitar to be able to make more of a contribution. What was left to do?
Downie’s famous work ethic meant he would continue to drive to be the best he could. How he did so is one of the greatest lessons we can learn if we wish to be the best we can be. Saying his only goal was to get better, he said the only way to become a better artist was to work on the friendships in the band. He developed a friendship practice.
At the height of his career, and after years of meticulous practice, The Tragically Hip recorded the song that opens this passage. It captures their journey as artists perfectly. Keep in mind, this was a band of friends who had known each other all their lives. They were known as good friends. Downie’s realization that he needed to work on those relationships did not come from a vacuum, they came from a realization that our work gets better when we move the focus off ourselves and onto those we serve.
The Tragically Hip’s tour in the summer of 2016 is one of the greatest achievements in rock history. Repeatedly, people asked, how did he do it? How could Gord Downie pull it off? He didn’t. The Tragically Hip did it. Their extensive catalogue of music filled the set lists, but their friendship practice is what carried them across the country and into the homes of millions of music fans. They got friendship right.