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As the surviving members of the iconic Canadian band get ready to play the Junos, we return to the Road Apples era with an excerpt from the book Gord Downie
In case you haven’t heard, the 50th annual Juno Awards are this Sunday (June 6).
One of the highlights of the program will no doubt be a performance with Feist by the surviving members of the Tragically Hip, who lost frontman Gord Downie to brain cancer in October of 2017.
The group recently put out several unreleased tracks from the sessions for its 1991 Road Apples album, so for all the hardcore Hip fans out there who still hold that album dear, here’s an unedited excerpt from my beer-table book, Gord Downie, that focuses on its creation.
In February of 1991, 15 months after releasing its full-length debut Up To Here, the Tragically Hip unleashed Road Apples. It was helmed by the same producer who twiddled the knobs on Up To Here, Don Smith, but instead of Memphis, Tennessee, the band chose a studio in New Orleans, Louisiana. It featured 12 songs, compared to Up To Here‘s 11, and clocked in at six minutes longer, but like its predecessor it also opened with a fiercely rocking tune, in this case Little Bones, the album’s first single.
The video for the song, which became a staple on MuchMusic, “the Nation’s Music Station,” featured live footage of the band intercut with shots of a couple making love/fighting/crying in bed and Gord Downie submerged in what looked like a pool of milk, his face surfacing now and again as he mouthed lines warning “baby” to eat her chicken slow ’cause it’s “full of all them little bones.” For parts of his guitar solos, Rob Baker was filmed in the back of a pickup truck, driving along snowy streets. If you watch the clip till the very end you can see him quickly sticking his hands in his pockets to warm them up as soon as he’s done playing.
Those Ontario winters can be chilly.
Road Apples boasted its fair share of other barnstorming riff-rock tunes, including Born In The Water, The Luxury, and the second single, Three Pistols, which was about influential Canadian artist Tim Thomson, who drowned in an Ontario lake under mysterious circumstances at the age of 39. But the album also showed a mellower side of the band via tracks like the at-times solemn-sounding, twangy, and reverb-heavy Long Time Running and the acoustic, folksy ballad Fiddler’s Green.
“The songs were much more of a collective effort,” Baker told me when I interviewed him for the first time, right around the time of Road Apples’ release, “which is something we’ve been working toward since the beginning. We’re probably better players and better songwriters than on the last album, and we knew our way around the studio a little bit better.”
Or what passes for a studio, anyway. Instead of using an actual recording facility, the band laid Road Apples down inside a big old house in New Orleans. But they didn’t mess with their basic songwriting process much.
“Often what happens is Gord just sits with a book in front of him,” said Baker, “a little sketch-pad basically, and he’s writing down things as they come to him – little snippets of conversation, or a road sign, or whatever may inspire a line or two. So he ends up with these pads full of lyrics, and we’ll just start jamming, and Gord’ll flip through his book until he finds something that feels appropriate, rhythmically. And if we can get a good groove happening, then he just starts singing.”
When Baker called from his Kingston home I wasn’t expecting such a cheery tone from him, because when the Hip had played Vancouver two months earlier, at a New Year’s Eve bash at the Trade & Convention Centre, the crowd had pelted it with beer cans and at one point doused Downie with a jugful of orange drink. The fact that the band played a relatively short set and didn’t return for an encore led some observers to think that they were ticked off, to say the least. But Baker begs to differ.
“It was a good crowd,” said the 28-year-old string-bender. “It got a little hairy a couple of times, but that’s okay. We don’t really encourage people to throw things at us, but we don’t take it personally when they do.”
Those over-zealous New Year’s partiers could have been forgiven for their rowdiness anyway, considering how the Hip’s raucous sound typically incites such frenzy. And Baker claimed at the time that he’d seen much worse crowds during the band’s frequent trips around the country.
“The last time across Canada we had a few bad incidents,” he reported, “two in Calgary and one in Edmonton. Someone broke their neck at one of our gigs. Mostly it’s stage jumping, but somebody climbed up into the scaffolding and fell off. And the last time in Ottawa was pretty bad too – we had about 30 people taken out on stretchers. But I don’t know what you can do about people jumpin’ off the stage. They want to show their enthusiasm and we don’t want to put a damper on ’em.”
About a month after that interview with Baker – on March 1, 1991 – the Hip brought its Road Apples tour to the Town Pump, the Gastown club that was one of the best places to see rock bands in the nineties. It’s actually the first venue the band ever played in Vancouver, and a personal fave of Baker.
“I think it’s one of the best rock ’n’ roll clubs in Canada,” he enthused. “It’s not the biggest, or the most beautiful, but it’s a great club to see a band in. That’s why we’re there as opposed to someplace else.”
Considering the upward trajectory of the Tragically Hip at this point in time, it was no surprise that four months later it would be back in Vancouver, this time for a five-night stand – July 16 to 20 – at the historic Commodore Ballroom on Granville Street. I reviewed the first show for the Georgia Straight, mentioning how Downie had announced at one point that it was a wonderful pleasure to be at the Commodore – finally:
The Cockeresque frontman kept the crowd entranced with his spazoid bird impressions while the Hip’s rough ’n’ tumble guitar/bass/drum noise built to a crescendo. By the time the band had ripped through Little Bones, New Orleans Is Sinking, and Blow At High Dough, the dynamic magic of Kingston, Ontario’s favourite sons was beyond argument.
Sounds about right, looking back. In November of 1992, before the Hip played a show at Vancouver’s PNE Forum, Downie mentioned the gig.
“The Commodore thing was kinda cool,” he recalled, “the five-night thing. The sound onstage I wasn’t thrilled about, but that was my own personal thing.”
The Juno Awards will broadcast on Sunday (June 6 on CBC TV and CBC Gem at 8 pm.
This story originally appeared in the Georgia Straight.