Sunday, December 27, 2020

The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay

Downie-centric Hipology, with digressions
The Tragically Hip is arguably Canada’s greatest rock band. They were immensely successful in their homeland for over three decades, though they never reached a high level of renown in the United States. (Though an American, I’m a big fan.) When lead singer Gordon Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in 2015, the band decided to stage one final tour, which culminated in a farewell concert that became a national event. In his 2018 book The Never-Ending Present, Canadian rock journalist Michael Barclay chronicles the career of The Hip from the band’s inception to Downie’s death and investigates their cultural impact on Canada.

For most of the book’s length, the even-numbered chapters constitute the biographical narrative by detailing the making of an album or two, the accompanying tour(s), and what was going on in the lives of the band members during that time period. The odd-numbered chapters focus on thematic topics and delve into the sort of minutiae that’s usually reserved for Dylanologists’ books on Bob Dylan. Such topics include why The Hip never made it big in America (or did they?), The Hip and hockey, Downie and poetry, Downie and dance. Barclay even includes extensive chapters in which The Hip are barely mentioned, such as a history of Canadian record companies or a lengthy survey of other celebrities who were diagnosed with terminal illnesses. When discussing Downie’s project Secret Path, Barclay recounts the history of First Nations residential schools and the Canadian government’s treatment of the Indigenous population. While these topics are interesting and somewhat pertinent to the band, Barclay frequently digresses to excessive lengths, going into a deeper level of trivial detail than necessary for most fans.

Early on, Barclay states that the band members of The Tragically Hip are notoriously guarded about their private lives, and it certainly shows here. Barclay interviewed Downie three times and Gord Sinclair once, but that was back in the early 2000s. He did not interview the band specifically for this book, so most quotes by them are pulled from previous published articles. Barclay did, however, interview just about anyone who ever worked with The Hip, including managers, record producers, musician friends, and opening acts. The result is that you get a lot of information and opinions about The Hip, but it feels like you’re always on the outside looking in. By comparison, much is known about the personal dynamics between The Rolling Stones, but the reader of Barclay’s book gets little insight into the personalities of the band members (other than Downie) and how they relate to one another.

Musicians Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, and Johnny Fay are not given anywhere near the same consideration as their lead singer. Although in part this is understandably due to Downie’s cancer diagnosis, overall it feels disappointingly unfair. Barclay makes The Hip seem like Downie’s back-up band in much the same way that Martin Scorsese made The Band look like Robbie Robertson’s subordinates in The Last Waltz. Downie’s solo albums are examined with the same thoroughness as Hip recordings, while Baker’s excellent side project Stripper’s Union and Langlois’s fine solo albums are only mentioned in two paragraphs. As a reader who loves the music as much as the voice, I would have liked to learn more about the other four guys.

While reading The Never-Ending Present, I often found myself wishing that Barclay had done things differently. But is there a better book out there on The Hip? Probably not. If nothing else, Barclay’s book will probably stand for years to come as the definitive printed record of the farewell events of 2016, though the tour documentary Long Time Running covers much of the same ground.
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