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The Never-Ending Present

The Never-Ending Present

The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip
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Day for Night

Jimmy McDonough: “Did you want destroy your audience as soon as you got it?”

Neil Young: “Turnover. Like in clubs where they turn over the audience. Did you ever notice that if the same audience stays, the second set usually isn’t as good as the first set? But if they turn the audience over, the second set could be better than the first set? Because with me that’s the way it is.”


Rock’n’roll should make you scared. It’d kinda what it does. Scared with the thrill of intoxication, of sexuality, of danger, of staring into either the darkest abyss or the most blinding light.

If you’re the money man, however, your greatest fear is that the record just won’t sell.

When Allan Gregg first heard Day for Night, he called Jake Gold. He told him, “Look, ‘Nautical Disaster’ is a radio hit. The rest is almost unlistenable. They’re not finished. They have to go back into the studio.” Gold brought this news to the band. It did not go over well. A meeting was called. “This is the finished record,” the band insisted. Then, being Canadian, they offered Gregg a gentle out: “We think it might be better to have you as a friend than as a manager.”

Gregg was ready for this news. He’d had a hell of a year, during which the Hip’s ascension was the only good thing going for him. In the fall of 1992, he led the failed referendum campaign in favour of the Charlottetown Accord. One year later, he was campaign manager for prime minister Kim Campbell’s election campaign, in which the governing Progressive Conservatives were driven to a fifth-place finish in the general election, threatening to wipe the founding political party of the country off the map. On top of that, he was surrounded by cancer: both his father and his best friend died of it, and his wife was diagnosed. He wasn’t totally happy with recent band decisions, either: they had gone to Australia and filmed a video for “At the Hundredth Meridian” that Gregg thought was a “fucking abomination.”

He was exhausted. So when the Tragically Hip dropped off a mysterious, murky album on his desk with no obvious singles, he was less than receptive. “Look,” he told them at the band meeting, “at the end of the day, your fucking name is on this record—not mine. If you can live with this shit, that’s up to you. But I won’t have any part of it.” Though he remained a financial partner with Jake Gold in the Management Trust, Gregg receded into the background and didn’t have any direct involvement with the Tragically Hip again.

Day For Night sold 300,000 copies in the first four days of its release on Sept. 6, 1994. It went on to sell 300,000 more. (Fully Completely, by comparison, took three months to sell its first 200,000 copies.) It spawned six radio singles and four videos. In February 1995, it allowed the band to launch the biggest-ever tour of Canada by a homegrown band, playing the arenas in ever major market, sometimes with multiple dates; it was a feat they would repeat two years later.

It was by no means a sure bet; Allan Gregg had every reason to be antsy. The Tragically Hip had gone dark. It’s right there in the title. They left the radio-ready ways of Fully Completely behind and made a sludgy record that was more Eric’s Trip than Tom Cochrane. They could have gone bright pop. They could have cashed in and gone grunge, playing catch-up with Pearl Jam. They could have wrapped themselves in the flag. They didn’t. Because of Fully Completely’s blockbuster status, the Hip found themselves in a position to indulge. For the first time in their career, they were not eager to please. It was time to roll the dice.


An artist’s first album after a massive success is always tricky. Do you try to climb the same mountain? Do you try to climb a similar mountain? Or do you try deep-sea diving instead? Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk. Prince’s Around the World in a Day. Bruce Springsteen’s Tunnel of Love. REM’s Automatic for the People. Nirvana’s In Utero. Radiohead’s Kid A. All those records rejected a formula that had reaped considerable commercial reward just a few years before, a formula that made all those artists household names. All those records were welcomed by a collective WTF, only to embraced as classics, some sooner than later.

The Hip didn’t necessarily know what they wanted, but they knew what they didn’t: a repeat of the Fully Completely experience. Downie had described the London studio where it was made as a “fairly sterile environment,” and that they “were lucky enough to pull a record out of it that we liked and had some sense of atmosphere. We vowed never to do that again.” They knew who they wanted to help them shake up their sound. The choice was obvious: Daniel Lanois, with whom they’d toured on the 1993 Another Roadside Attraction tour. His first two solo albums, Acadie and For the Beauty of Wynona, were Hip favourites. And, obviously, he’d made three of the biggest international records of the last 10 years: Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree and Achtung Baby. Not to mention Robbie Robertson’s solo album, the Neville Brothers’ Yellow Moon, Bob Dylan’s Oh Mercy, and a slew of great Canadian new wave records in the early ’80s (Martha and the Muffins, Parachute Club, Luba), as well as his work with Brian Eno on ambient music. The biggest new rock band in Canada working with the country’s most internationally acclaimed producer: it seemed like a perfect fit.

Except that Lanois turned them down. But the Hip were also friendly with Lanois’s right-hand man, engineer Mark Howard, who was responsible for helping Lanois translate his ideas to tape, and also assisted in setting up studios in wonderfully weird parts of North America. It was Howard who, during the first Another Roadside Attraction, recorded the “Land” single in Calgary, featuring Midnight Oil, Crash Vegas, Lanois and the Hip. Watching him work was a revelation after Fully Completely, which Howard says, “was just a common way of making records. They hated it so much. When they saw how I made that song with them on the road, it opened their eyes to thinking, ‘Wow, we could make a whole record like this.’ ”

The Hip decided to go back to New Orleans and hire Howard as co-producer. After years under Lanois’s wing, this was his first production credit for a major client. Lanois wasn’t around; he and Howard had just finished setting up shop in a Mexican mountain cave. “The walls were all natural rock and there was a grass roof over it and it looked over the Sea of Cortez,” says Howard. After making that new studio functional, Howard flew back to New Orleans and started work on what would be Day For Night.

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Buffy Sainte-Marie

Buffy Sainte-Marie

The Authorized Biography
also available: Hardcover
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Put Your Hand In My Hand

Put Your Hand In My Hand

The Spiritual and Musical Connections of Catherine and Gene MacLellan
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The Big Note

The Big Note

A Guide to the Recordings of Frank Zappa
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Far and Wide

Far and Wide

Bring That Horizon to Me!
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?Begin as you mean to go on” is an old English expression that comments amusingly on this photograph. I am poised to go onstage to start the second set of a show on the Rush fortieth anniversary tour, R40, in the summer of 2015. The glowing lights at my waist are the radio pack that drives my in-ear monitors, which will fill my head with musical information and consume my “interior world” for the next ninety minutes or so. The blazing lights ahead of me are an arena filled with something like ten thousand people. The heat and light of their joyous excitement is an utter contrast to my cold fire of determination and will—as it should be. It is my job to reward their anticipation—to be all they expect and more.

Beginning as I would go on, my energy is tightly coiled in anticipation of that challenge before me. Even the first song in that second set, “Tom Sawyer,” remained a mental and physical ordeal after thirty-five years and thousands of performances. In the reverse-chronology setlist we followed for that tour, each song led back in time, album to album, year to year. Thus I would have to replicate drum parts conceived and executed when I was a child?barely into my twenties. As a harsh-but-fair critic (like myself) might describe how I played the drums back then: “More energy than skill; more ideas than technique; more influences than originality; more enthusiasm than accuracy.” Since then, with the benefit of many years of practice, dedication, and the guidance of three phenomenal teachers—Don George, Freddie Gruber, and Peter Erskine—I have balanced those scales a little, at least.

And at almost sixty-three years of age, I was glad I could still do all that—bring the energy and enthusiasm of my twenties to the somewhat improved technique and accuracy of maturity. But . . . it was a battle—a battle against time, in more than one sense.

Another edge to that waiting-offstage mindset was a visceral awareness that so much can go wrong, human and technical, in one’s immediate future. And in front of a lot of people. Performers of every kind might define their audience as “strangers with expectations.” During the uncertain heat of live performance, I fear human errors, and I fear electronic letdowns. As much as ever in my life, I want every show to be good, but can never be sure, or even confident, that it will be. In that pre-show mindset, I almost sympathize with athletes who pray before a game, or Grammy winners who thank “the Creator” for giving them a trophy. (A friend’s Jewish grandmother once said, “What do you get when you get old” A trophy!” She meant “atrophy.”)

So when the houselights go down and I dash through that curtain and up the stairs to the stage, I am tense with focus and uncertainty—though equally focused on not displaying tension or uncertainty.

People sometimes say things like, “You look so relaxed when you’re playing the drums'so in command.” I can only laugh and say, “Well, I sure wish it felt that way!”

?Begin as you mean to go on” can also refer to my intention to take a cue from the R40 tour’s reverse-chronology setlist, and open this story with the final show. If I am going to try to tell something about a forty-one-year relationship with Alex and Geddy, and a separate relationship with the music we have made together over those decades, it will be necessary to do some leaping about in time. So why not start at the Los Angeles Forum on August 1, 2015, the final show of the R40 tour . . .

We had played in that building many times (twenty-four, according to a plaque on the wall there'so now twenty-five), but the last time had been two nights on the Test for Echo tour, in late 1996. After that the building’s ownership had fluctuated for a while: it was one of the first to bear a corporate name (such shall be nameless here—fight the power, fight the branding), then was owned by a church for several years. For complicated and tragic reasons, we did not return to perform again in Los Angeles until 2002, and that time we tried playing at the new mega-arena, named after a chain of business-supply stores. We didn’t like that cavernous space, but later enjoyed playing the Hollywood Bowl and Universal Amphitheater (now demolished for a Harry Potter—themed ride at the adjacent amusement park) a few times, and last tour at the Finnish Telecommunications Company Theater downtown.

Before the Time Machine tour in 2010 we had planned to do our production rehearsals and first show at the Forum, but there were worrisome rumors of imminent bankruptcy—and the possibility of our equipment being impounded inside. So we set up our production and rehearsed in a film studio soundstage instead, the old Paramount Studios (now Sony) in Culver City.

On the next page we see double-nought spy Bubba (my longtime nickname among many friends, first applied by Andrew MacNaughtan, our late photographer, assistant, and friend, who also introduced me to my wife, Carrie, in 1999) and my Aston Martin DB5 in front of the Garbo Building. (Greta Garbo is mentioned in one of the Bond books, maybe From Russia, With Love, when the face of one of the “Bond girls” is compared to Garbo’s.)

The Los Angeles Forum was developed by a Canadian entrepreneur, Jack Kent Cooke, who was born in Hamilton, Ontario, almost exactly forty years before I first drew breath in that same town. (The nearest hospital to our family dairy farm near Hagersville.) The Forum was built in Canada’s centennial year, 1967, the same year the old Philadelphia Spectrum went up—two buildings that always felt alike to me in our early days. There was something about those two venues—I don’t think we ever had a bad show in them. They were small enough (considered as arenas) to sound good when they were full of people; the audiences were energetic and enthusiastic, and we always seemed to play well.

Another connection—in the 1980s I rode my bicycle to both of those venues several times, and remembered the neighborhoods on the way. From Philly’s venerable downtown through ritzy/quaint Rittenhouse Square, then through streets of tidy working-class row houses down into military housing farther south. In Los Angeles, pedaling downhill from West Hollywood on La Cienega past commercial districts, body shops, and bungalows with iron grilles over doors and windows. Then up and over a bleak hill with nodding oil wells—one of many oilfields under the city—and down to Inglewood, which was said to be “dangerous.” That was never a problem on a bicycle—in Harlem; downtown Detroit; the East End of London; or Inglewood, California, I was always seen as a harmless crank.

This time (everything so different now that I live in Los Angeles) I took a car. With a driver. For there would be another party after this show, naturally enough—but it was the third party that week. That was about three years’ worth of parties for this Bubba. But it had to be borne, obviously. Just added to the pressure I was under.

To me, first, twentieth, or last show, this was still “just a show.” Or, more accurately, it was just still a show. Meaning I felt no sense of lightness, relief, or “doneness.” Not yet. There was still a long, hard, and always uncertain job to do.


A few days earlier, friend Stewart Copeland had emailed me:


You had better jam your hat on tight next Saturday because me and every other drummer in town will be coming down for a last chance to cop your licks at the Forum show.

Can’t wait! I know it will be legendary and the bards will sing of it for generations. I’m polishing up my air drumsticks even now . . .


That was very sweet of him??the praise of the praiseworthy” from a man and drummer I had long admired. I wrote back to him:


On the bus outta Phoenix, heading for a Château Walmart in Pasadena, where we’ll park for the last hour or two, then have breakfast and unload the motorcycles and ride?


In regard to your message, all’s I can say is, *Gulp.*

You know—it’s only the last show of the last tour, and with all the “Judges” in attendance.

Well, I’ll just do what I do every night—try not to suck!


Stewart’s reply was classic:


Laaaast show?! I had better get a Late Nite permit.

And please do, for all the children, suck just a little bit.


Well, of course I did suck just a little bit, here and there—human after all—but mainly played pretty well. No egregious errors, all of us made it to the end of “Monkey Business” together (a part that had plagued us during that third run of shows), and I was pleased enough with the final statement of my solo’s odyssey. Its improvised narrative had grown throughout the tour, but as with everything else, I could never be sure it was going to “work.” Stewart, Chad Smith, Taylor Hawkins, Doane Perry, and probably a few other drummers were in the house—and many other friends and family, including wife Carrie and five-year-old daughter Olivia.

That night violinist Jonny Dinklage, veteran of the previous tour’s Clockwork Angels String Ensemble, joined us once more for “Losing It,” as he had for two shows in the New York area. Recorded in 1982 for our Signals album, it was performed live for the first time this tour, but only a handful of times—including with original violin soloist on the record, Ben Mink, in Toronto and Vancouver. (A young Jonathan Dinklage, growing up in New Jersey, heard that recording and was inspired to play violin.)

After playing that song with Ben a couple of times at soundcheck in Toronto, he remarked to me that he never paid much attention to lyrics, but that this song really resonated for him now. I think all of us must have felt that, in our own ways.

In the song’s two verses, an aging dancer and writer face their diminishing, twilight talents. The dancer was inspired by a character in the movie The Turning Point, while the writer was Ernest Hemingway. Just before his suicide in 1961 he spent days staring at a blank piece of paper in his typewriter. He was trying to compose a few lines, a simple “regretful decline” to an invitation to the Kennedy White House. When he couldn’t even do that, he got out the shotgun. (?The sun will rise no more” comes from Hemingway’s first big novel, The Sun Also Rises.)


The dancer slows her frantic pace

In pain and desperation

Her aching limbs and downcast face

Aglow with perspiration

Stiff as wire, her lungs on fire

With just the briefest pause

Then flooding through her memory

The echoes of old applause

She limps across the floor

And closes her bedroom door

The writer stares with glassy eyes

Defies the empty page

His beard is white, his face is lined

And streaked with tears of rage

Thirty years ago, how the words would flow

With passion and precision

But now his mind is dark and dulled

By sickness and indecision

And he stares out the kitchen door

Where the sun will rise no more



After fifty years of devotion to hitting things with sticks, I would rather avoid any sense of “losing it” by simply setting it aside and moving onto other interests. You have to know when you’re at the top of your particular mountain, I guess. Maybe not the summit, but as high as you can go.

In relation to both summits and Ernest Hemingway’s story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” in September 1987, right around my thirty-fifth birthday, I joined a five-day hike up and down Africa’s highest mountain, Kilimanjaro. At 19,341 feet, I stood at Uhuru (Freedom) Peak with two of the guides and a German university student, Dieter, while an English student, Domenick, took the photo. Domenick also contributed the bottle of whisky in the foreground, with which we all toasted our achievement.

Since then I have climbed many

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