It’s been the muse for musicians the world over. Bono worried for the women and children running into its arms, Bowie was afraid of it and Morrissey loves it even though its citizens eat too many hamburgers.
But when America’s your actual neighbor, its shadowy force looms over everything with greater intensity. Its spectre haunts your every day — everything you read, eat, see or hear is tinged by it.
For The Tragically Hip, that great churning mass to the south has always infused what they’ve done. Go back to their debut EP in ’87 and The Hip were penning homesick odes like “Last American Exit.” A little further on, “Yawning Or Snarling” from ’94’s Day For Night revolves around a hot, dusty El Paso adventure. Indeed, cherry-picking Yank references in Hip songs comes just about as easily as jabs about freedom fries.
The Tragically Hip have been thinking about more than just freedom fries though. For the release of In Between Evolution, the Kingston, Ontario band’s tenth full-length album, the potent energy of America courses through their veins. But is it an anti-American energy?
“No. No. No,” says an emphatic Gord Downie. “There’s enough of that going on. I mean, I love Americans. And how else would I gauge that, y’know? The present administration’s policies? Those I don’t love. And I think that ultimately it has a ripple effect, y’know? And the ripple effect has hit Canada and its hit the rest of the world ’cause we’re affected.”
It’s clearly something the lead singer has been thinking about. In The Hip world, it’s more us and them as opposed to us against them.
“Is it important to make that distinction,” he says. “It’s not America that you dislike. It’s certain people and certain policies. I don’t dislike anything.”
Still, Downie and his bandmates — Bobby Baker (guitar), Paul Langlois (guitar), Gord Sinclair (bass) and Johnny Fay (drums) — have woven together a record full of fiery, potent moments. “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night” is a leery-eyed glare at country star Toby Keith’s star-spangled patriotism, while “If New Orleans Is Beat” follows the Mississippi as it cuts through the heart of America, carrying with it all its dirt and grime along the way. They’re just two examples, but the whole record — including things like odes to depressed bruins (“Gus: The Polar Bear From Central Park”) — unfurl waves of discomfort.
“It takes the form of a weird menace I think,” says Downie, carefully selecting his words. “In most of these songs — there seems, in my mind anyway — a TV flickering away off in the corner of the frame. It’s always there. And on that TV is FOX News.”
The America that Downie loves is still the same America that’s both a warring nation and the nation who’s fortunes are most inextricably linked to our own. And when you’re defined as the upholders of Maple Leaf pride, “the quintessentially Canadian” rock band, having to both retain the loyalty of the I Am Canadian hordes and respectfully pursuing the muse that is Uncle Sam becomes a complex process.
“Sometimes I think as an artist you bristle at artificial boundaries and nationalistic tendencies because you don’t want to be dismissed by someone who hasn’t heard your music or seen what you do,” says Downie. “You worry about that.
“It’s interesting. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. Because you can, you have to kind of watch what kind of nationalism you espouse.”
For Downie, clarity apparently came in the form of a Merle Haggard concert.
“I saw Merle Haggard the other night. He has a song called ‘Fightin’ Side Of Me.’ I don’t know if you know it. ‘Okie From Muskogee’ is also — it was pretty politically charged at the time . It’s what [critic] Greg Quill called ‘corrosively conservative.’ He wasn’t making any bones about it about where he came from and who was welcome and who was not. And this fighting side is basically ‘if you say anything bad about my country, you’re on the fighting side of me’ and ‘if you don’t love it, leave it’ kind of mentality.
Haggard is still fiercely proud, but he sings the song in a far wiser way nowadays. There’s a more important message, though.
Says Downie: “I still love it so I’m not leavin’ it.”
This story originally appeared in Chart Magazine issue #158, July 2004.