Everything you need to know about The Never-Ending Present, the new Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip biography
Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip hung with Robert Plant, shot pool with the Rolling Stones and played pick-up hockey against a pair of illustrious Toronto Maple Leafs. The Hip was fond of marijuana. The band’s manager once told guitarist Rob Baker not to wear short sleeves on stage because he had “arms like ham.” And not everyone in Canada thought “Canada’s band” was all that great when it came to musical abilities.
These are some of the things we learn from The Never-Ending Present, a new biography on Downie and the Tragically Hip that offers contextual documentation of the band’s oeuvre, insight into the Hip’s inner-workings and enough sprinkles of backstage stories to keep things perky.
Released on April 3 and published by ECW Press, the book is written by music journalist Michael Barclay, who previously co-authored 2001’s Have Not Been The Same: The CanRock Renaissance, a landmark text on the emergence of this country’s alt-rock scene in the 1980s and ‘90s.
The Never-Ending Present takes its name from a song on Downie’s first solo album, Coke Machine Glow. To author Barclay, the title represents the band’s ethos: That the most important moment is the one at hand.
“I was writing this book while its subject was living with terminal cancer, a liminal state where one has no choice but to live day to day, which Gord Downie did until his final days, writing and creating and advocating as much as he could – as he always had in the never-ending present,” Barclay explains in a press release.
Downie, who posthumously won three Juno Awards in Vancouver last weekend (including one for artist of the year), died on Oct. 17, 2017, at the age of 53. Chapters of The Never-Ending Present are given over to the prolific final months of Downie’s life and career, including his cancer diagnosis and treatment, the final tour with the Hip and the activism attached to Secret Path, a concept album about an Indigenous youth who died in 1966 while fleeing a residential school in Northern Ontario.
Many of the book’s 482 pages document the band’s most remembered albums, including background tidbits that promise to be catnip to Hip fanatics. For example, the revelation that the making of the 1994 LP Day for Night was a real dope fest. “I think they smoked a quarter-pound of weed for the recording,” the album’s producer Mark Howard told the author. “And then when we mixed it, it was a half-pound of hash.”
Apparently, Led Zeppelin singer Plant loved that album. He also played with guitarist Rob Baker’s newborn son backstage when the Hip toured with Plant and Jimmy Page. Someone who wasn’t a fan of Day for Night was one of the band’s managers, Allan Gregg. Hearing the record for the first time, he thought it was unlistenable and unfinished. The band disagreed, and showed Gregg the door: “We think it might be better to have you as a friend than as a manager.”
The book is unauthorized, in that members of the Hip – or relatives or current management – did not participate in the process of putting it together. Barclay instead interviewed other musicians and associates, and drew on quotes from other sources.
One of the more productive interview subjects is former manager Jake Gold (the one who told guitarist Baker to cover his “ham” arms onstage). Gold provides illumination into the machinations of the record business, while offering colourful anecdotes as well. Among others: When the Hip opened for the Rolling Stones in Europe in 1995, Mick Jagger and the others watched the band from side stage. “Afterward,” recalls Gold, “each one of [the Stones] came up to the band and said, ‘Way to go! You guys are the real deal, real rock ‘n’ roll guys.’”
From then on, Hip members were welcome backstage, where they shot pool with Keith Richards. No mention if they let him win.
Other than a sentence about Downie’s divorce from his wife (and mother to his four children), the personal lives of the band members are not part of the narrative. The singer’s passion for hockey is noted, though. For a summer game in Kingston with former Leafs Wendel Clark and Kirk Muller, Downie drove in from Toronto and slept in his car so he wouldn’t be late to the game. He played goaltender; Muller told Clark to hold back on his wrist shots: “If this guy takes one in the throat, there goes the band.”
Since he doesn’t talk to the Hip themselves, Barclay doesn’t get deep into the tensions involved within a band described by an anonymous colleague as “Gord and the Kingston 4.” It is divulged that early in the Hip’s career, Downie stipulated that he would be the group’s lone lyricist.
Although he argues against the notion that the band wasn’t musically gifted, Barclay isn’t afraid to present the suggestion. One unnamed person contacted by the author for his thoughts on the Hip politely declined to contribute to the book: “I actually think they are mostly terrible and remain shocked that people love them so much,” reads an e-mail to the author, presented in a chapter subtitled “Band of Ringos.”
The book ends with a scene at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square, where a tribute concert happened one week after Downie died. “There was no Gord Downie here, no Tragically Hip,” writes Barclay. “There never would be again.”
Not so fast. “That wasn’t the end,” Patrick Downie told reporters recently after accepting Juno awards for his brother’s 2017 solo album Introduce Yerself. “[Gord] did a lot of music in his final time.”
The never-ending present, then. A coda calls.