Tag Archives: Boots or Hearts

What I Did The Day Gord Downie Died.

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Now I lie here so out of breath
And over –opiated
Maybe I couldn’t catch up no but
Maybe he could have waited

Opiated….The Tragically Hip

This is the song I went looking for, the day Gord Downie died. I couldn’t remember the title, all I had was the phrase “over-opiated” which had been stuck in my head for years. Why? I don’t really know but maybe it was the triple iamb and the repeated ‘o’? Unlike a lot of The Tragically Hip’s music, this song was never in heavy rotation on Canadian radio, but I knew the song that contained the phrase was on the album ‘Up to Here’ and I knew I had a cassette tape of that album which I had bought back in 1990.
That was the era of the cassette tape and over the years, as tapes became extinct and compact discs, then streaming, took over, I stop listening to the album. So on the day Gord Downie died I found myself looking everywhere for it, eventually finding it in the storage space between the front seats of my red 98 Ford Taurus station wagon. There was some serendipity to this, because the only tape deck I have left is in the Taurus station wagon. A cassette and a Taurus sound system – not exactly high fidelity, but then the Hip were never really about high fidelity; put the vocal and drums on top of the mix and let the rest take care of itself. Besides, the sound system isn’t bad. There are 4 speakers , 2 front, 2 back, and if you switch everything to the 2 rear speakers and the bed of the station wagon is empty, the sound is actually pretty good, good enough for a bar band with 2 guitar players that sound like Keith Richards and Ron Wood but not as sloppy. I don’t normally drive the Taurus except occasionally to take stuff to the dump, but on the day Gord Downie died, I drove it around Vancouver all day listening to “Up to Here”. Yes, I was one of those guys you see in a parked car with the windows closed, beating time on the steering wheel.

And it struck me what a good rock lyricist Gord Downie is. Much has been made of his talent as a poet, and he is a talented poet, but writing lyrics for rock music is a different skill. For me, both rock and blues are all about the set up and the punchline. Take this for example:

“You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time
You ain’t nothin’ but a hound dog
Cryin’ all the time
Well, you ain’t never caught a rabbit
and you ain’t no friend of mine”

….Leiber and Stoller

Simple maybe, but deceptively hard to do well. Here’s Gord Downie from Boots or Hearts:

Fingers and toes, fingers and toes
Forty things we share
Forty one if you include
The fact that we don’t care”

Or this from the same song:

“I feel I’ve stepped out of the wilderness
All squint-eyed and confused
But even babies raised by wolves
They know exactly when they’ve been used”

In fact, I could quote the whole song, because for me it’s as close as anyone has come to a perfect lyric. Or how about this from “New Orleans Is Sinking””

“Ain’t got no picture postcards,
ain’t got no souvenirs
my baby, she don’t know me
when I’m thinking ’bout those years”

But Downie is also at heart a folk singer, a teller of tales. “38 years old” is about a guy serving time for avenging the rape of his sister; the story is told from the view point of his younger brother. I don’t think there’s a more devastating chorus than this one, anywhere in popular music:

“Same pattern on the table, same clock on the wall
Been one seat empty, eighteen years in all
Freezing slow time, away from the world
He’s thirty-eight years old, never kissed a girl
He’s thirty-eight years old, never kissed a girl”

Not all song lyrics look good on paper and Downie is an idiosyncratic singer who stretches and bends words to fit the song, but here’s a few more random samples from the album:

“In my dreams, a candy coated train comes to my door”

“Pumping hands and kissing all the babies
Ain’t no time for shadowed doubts or maybes”

“Pulled down his birthday suitcase
Brown with dust from no place
Said, “I think it’s time we made a start”
They danced the waltz of charity
No car garage, two kids for free
They were pissing bliss and playing parts”

“Up to Here” was the Hip’s first album, they want on to make many more, to become Canadian icons. Downie even wrote songs about hockey. When he died he was eulogised by a tearful Justin Trudeau and Canadian radio played Hip songs all day long. All deserved of course. Neil Young, Leonard Cohen, Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, Gord Downie – not a bad list to be part of. But Downie, was different. The rest of those artists came out of the folk music tradition, but Downie’s genre, modus operandi was bar band rock and his genius was that he succeeded in blending poetry with bar band rock. Just scroll  back up and read that last verse, a short story in six lines. Rave on Gord. Now take a listen.