Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Tragically Hip's balloon landing

poster by Steve Wishart
At the end of the excellent Tragically Hip documentary Long Time Running, about the band’s final tour, guitarist Rob Baker relates the following story: 

“I received a letter from a musician in Philadelphia. He followed the band for years, and he watched the last concert by himself. He bawled his eyes out. He said, ‘Rock’n’roll and bands are like hot air balloons that go up. If you’re really lucky, you get up to the jetstream and you travel really far and you see a lot. But at the end, you’re going to come crashing down. There’s always a bad end for a band.’ He said, ‘I’ve never seen a band—especially after a 30-year journey—land the balloon safely. They landed the balloon, and it was glorious. And everyone was there to cheer when it landed.’ ”

It’s the perfect ending to the film, and resonated deeply with the Hip’s fervent fan community. One such fan, Steve Wishart of Barrie, was inspired to make a beautiful poster that the band bought from him. It's included in the DVD release of Long Time Running, available on its own or packaged together with A National Celebration, the full CBC broadcast of the final show that aired on Aug. 20, 2016.

The letter-writer is not identified in the movie, but I knew right away it was Dave Bielanko from Marah, who wrote a similar Facebook post the morning of Aug. 21, 2016. The day after I saw the film on opening night, Sept. 14, 2017, I wrote to him asking if he wanted to elaborate. This is our conversation a week later, from his home in Philadelphia.

Tell me about the letter you wrote the band after the last show.

First I wrote something on Facebook, then I wrote a longer, more detailed letter to them. I could tell by their response that it went around the whole camp: the families, the wives, the managers. It was a really cool thing that helped them make sense of how emotional that [show] was, and how unusual. For a rock band to end that gracefully, perhaps it takes something that awful. It just doesn’t happen that way. It’s such an amazing thing. They’re super proud of that.

What was going through your mind while you were watching the last show?

In my opinion, the amount of trepidation that went into [putting on that show] is mind-blowing. But they pulled it off and it ended like it did. I walked around in a daze for a few days. Until I heard the news [of Downie’s diagnosis], I had fallen further away from them than I had been in a long time. Then I started to follow the story of the final tour. I watched it alone. I have this large television in my house that I never turn on—I listen to records! Hours later, I woke up in my clothes and sat up, just mesmerized by what I’d seen. I’m sure you went through the same thing. It’s an amazing thing to witness from afar.

When did you first become a fan?

I had the blue tape with ‘I’m a Werewolf’ on it when I was 14, in high school. My brother and I got it right when it came out [in 1988]. We liked their name. We thought they looked like a cool rock band.

What did you know about them?

We didn’t know anything about them! We just went to Tower Records and just bought the records we thought might be relevant. I bought the Nils album, too, you know that Canadian band?

Of course! That’s being reissued very shortly, actually.

Yeah, and I absolutely love that record. [My brother and I] had a very clique-y thing where we knew that album, and no one else did. It was our thing. I couldn’t try to turn people on to it. I didn’t know where to start. It was funny, if you disrespected it I would be angry. I saw them play Day for Night in Philly.

Was that the first time you saw them?

It was the only time. It was probably 250 Canadians there. But it was incredible. The albums were incredible to us, and they connected every time. I continued to buy the records through the years. It was a super private thing. It was not music we were going to listen to together, it was something I do alone. The Tragically Hip became a very lonely band to me.

Anyone in your peer group know the band?

My brother and I shared that. I made a couple of friends in New York City that way, too, but they were mostly Canadians. It was funny that we were friends; it could be so invisible in the United States. God knows how many times record companies would try to launch them here.

Four different ones, actually.

Yeah, right? I’m sure [the record companies had] the worst ideas, like putting them on tour with Marcy Playground or whatever. There was no other way for the band to infiltrate. The beautiful thing was that, instead, they said: ‘Fuck it! Why would we try and do that anyway?’ They had integrity.

Canadians are obsessed with the band’s status in the U.S.—even our prime minister talked about that on the night of the last show, which tells you how deep the insecurity runs. In the early ’90s we’d hear about how they’d be playing arenas here but bowling alleys down south, although eventually they were playing at least 1,000-seat venues all over the States.

They were playing to the right people, and not just curious people that were being marketed to. They were playing to people who needed to be in that room.

It begs the larger question: what is a rock’n’roll band, really? It’s such a primal thing that you do with your buddies in school, and if you don’t kibosh it at some point, it can grow into something that’s really hard to stomach trying to sell it to someone. I know they must have struggled with that, but they came out ahead of almost everything that was running parallel to them. The fact that they ended as the five they began is such an amazing thing. And there weren’t other singers or horns or anything, it was just: this is what it is. All the internal tension and turmoil and events around the illness and families—there’s so much to it.

Why do you think your letter resonated so much with the band?

I was able to have this lovely exchange with Rob. I think he saw a perspective that he was probably wondering if it even existed out there. [My brother and I] were very much along for the entire ride, but our vantage point was just so strange, being lost in America and in our own upheaval of lives; we couldn’t pay that much attention. We heard rumours that this band was playing to 30,000 people. That makes no sense to me. Because in my book bag, the Hip’s tapes were there right beside the Dead Milkmen and Jimmy Reed and dark-horse things I’ve always been drawn to. They’re very much a dark-horse band who pulled themselves into the light of an entire country.

They really were ubiquitous on the radio here, and resonated for a lot of people in ways that most chart-topping rock bands don’t. It’s hard to describe to non-Canadians.

I know there’s a part of a lot of Canadians who took it for granted; it was casual, the acceptance of the band. Way too casual for me; I’d be infuriated if people took that band for granted! But it all became apparent in the end, when you realize how profound that group of shows was, how hard it was for all of them and how difficult it must have been for Gord to pull it off.

What do you think compared to it in the mainstream in the U.S. at the time you first heard them in 1988?

It was not incredibly dissimilar to a lot of ’80s Midwest American bands, definitely R.E.M. in its first wave. They were not turning their back on traditional American folk music. They weren’t fighting any country music influence. These were the things we were very intrigued by. The general garage band-ness of it meant it was obviously a rock band, but they didn’t seem to be playing a card; they seemed to be wide open. Those are the people who become dangerous, because they’re not being exclusive, it’s not an act they’re playing. You could, on a good day, genuinely channel something. Those things were apparent right in the beginning. Then they went leaps and bounds pretty quickly, into the full, much more muscular fuckin’ rock’n’roll band, which was super cool. Then it wasn’t until Road Apples where you thought, ‘Oh right, that’s it, they’ve arrived.’

At that point most bands begin to decline, because it’s a natural trajectory to plateau and try and maintain that. But they continued to push themselves. There were points where records came out, like Fully Completely, where we had to look at each other and say: are we still here? But time would reveal those records that they were very much still there, pushing further, like any artist must, in order to keep themselves engaged. It gives people something to genuinely consider, it’s not just something we’re selling, something we’re marketing and trying to stay in a safe zone in the middle.

That time you saw them around Day for Night, was that when they were in between American record companies and were selling the album off the side of the stage?

I don’t think so. There was definitely an operation, with a crew. In the back office at the end of the night, I’m sure the promoter didn’t look at it as a success, but it was a super successful gig: the people who were there were very much there. I’m sure in the days previous to that show they played NYC and that was probably a wicked show. Their appeal seemed to centre around where there were large communities of hockey fans. Which was really cool to us, it was beyond intriguing. We didn’t grow up with that. The northernness of the band was, to us, exotic.

They’ve said they were reluctant to do Long Time Running; this is a band that doesn’t like to talk about themselves on camera.

It’s self-defence, that’s all. People could look at it as being somehow pretentious, but it’s not at all. After a while, so much misinformed stuff is seen and projected and it hurts your feelings a little bit. You learn to appreciate the great stuff that comes out, but for the most part count yourself out. I totally see that. They asked me if they could use the letter in the DVD extras. I gave them my blessing.

Ed note: Marah spent part of 2016 reckoning with their own legacy, with the re-release of their 2008 album Angels of Destruction, as detailed in this Rolling Stone article

1 comment:

Unknown said...

An absolute great article. I happen to own the poster that was talked about and I am in the same fan for him as Steven. I was able to congratulate him on such a fine piece of art and his own success from it. He was very humble and there was no ego behind any of his words.
The letter was absolutely brilliant and the articulation of what the Tragically Hip did by landing their balloon always makes me want to cry tears of happiness.