When the news broke on May 24, 2016, that Gord Downie, the charismatic front man of the Tragically Hip, had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it seemed the entire country took a sharp inhalation of breath and released it with a collective “Oh shit, no.” Whether you were a diehard Hip fan or just recognized their songs from three decades of forced patriotic listening at hockey games and Canada Day events, chances were good that if you knew who Downie was, the announcement felt like an unexpected kick to the chest – though this paled in comparison to the national outpouring of grief (including a tearful tribute from the prime minister) when, on Oct. 17, 2017, the singer died.
The Hip always valued its privacy. Occasionally, Downie or one of the other band members – guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois; drummer Johnny Fay; or bassist Gord Sinclair –would grant an interview, but they were always reluctant to discuss anything but the songs, even refusing to clarify some of Downie’s more oblique lyrics. So it’s not surprising that Michael Barclay’s new biography of the band was written without the Hip’s input.
To work around this, Barclay relies on interviews with numerous people who were in the Hip’s orbit – from friends and other musicians to former managers and even fans and cover-band members – to provide a sense of the boys from Kingston, Ontario. The band is still quoted extensively, from 18-year-old interviews the author conducted and from secondary sources; several pages of endnotes cite print and online articles as well as radio and TV interviews.
Despite the lack of the band’s direct involvement, The Never-Ending Present is an informative and entertaining read, though we never really get into the personal lives of the band members beyond a few asides about marriages, births, deaths, and friendships. Instead, Barclay works chronologically (with a few side trips thrown in here and there) through the Hip’s albums, giving readers a great sense of what went into making each record and the characters involved (and many of them were characters in every sense of the word).
But the author is also guilty of spending inordinate amounts of time on superfluous topics. Do we really need entire chapters on the Hip’s connection to hockey, their treatment of and influence on their opening acts, or – most frustratingly – other musicians who toured in the face of terminal illness?
Barclay’s thoroughness also detracts from his discussion of Downie’s late-life activism in the area of Indigenous issues. Detailing the singer’s involvement in bringing the story of Chanie Wenjack to light is vital, as is the creation of the graphic novel Secret Path (illustrated by Jeff Lemire). Deep-diving into the history of residential schools, however, is not.
Where the narrative shines brightest is in Barclay’s descriptions of the band as performers. From scuzzy barrooms to massive arenas, watching the Hip provided a huge adrenaline rush, and Barclay’s writing about these shows, and the tour they embarked on after Downie’s diagnosis, is transcendental. His account of watching the final performance in the band’s hometown is emotionally devastating, even if you were among the third of Canadians to tune in to the CBC broadcast to watch the event as it happened.
The major takeaway from Barclay’s book is that the Hip were a great bunch of guys who formed a band in high school, smoked a lot of pot, treated everyone with kindness and respect, and galvanized a Canadian identity for a largely white, working-class, male demographic. Which will come as a surprise to no one who would be tempted to read the book in the first place. But the rare glimpses we get of Downie (and make no mistake, the subordinate status of the band in the book’s subtitle is not accidental) as a person and performer make The Never-Ending Present a worthwhile read.