Gord Downie's first solo record, Coke Machine Glow, came out 20 years ago. It's being treated to a deluxe double-vinyl release, with an extra disc of outtakes, and another disc of his friends and family reading excerpts from the book of poetry that accompanied the album. (In 2001, Downie insisted the book-album bundle be sold only at bookstores, not record stores, something that some booksellers still fondly remembered when I was doing my book tour in 2018.)
More information about the reissue here.
Coke Machine Glow is, to me, one of the greatest things Downie ever did. I loved the people he chose to work with. I loved the songs. I loved the fact that the mainstream absolutely fucking hated this record. I wrote The Never-Ending Present, in part, because I knew most other people writing about the Tragically Hip would not give Coke Machine Glow the time of day, or treat it as anything other than a footnote. (The title of my book comes from a song on this record.) While touring the book, I was amazed to learn that there were many Hip fans who had never even heard it. On the flip side, I know there are many Coke Machine Glow fans who would never identify as Tragically Hip fans—some of whom only discovered the album after reading my book. On my book tour, I invited many local performers at each stop to play Hip and/or Downie songs at my readings. More than I would have expected picked songs from Coke Machine Glow. (Especially in Sackville. You can read my tour diaries, starting here.)
This is the chapter I wrote about Coke Machine Glow. I'm proud of the entire book, of course, but I'm particularly proud of this one. Thanks again to Kevin Hearn, Dave Clark, Julie Doiron, Dale Morningstar, José Contreras and Steven Drake for their time and their endless talents.
More information about The Never-Ending Present, which is an awesome book you should buy if you haven't already, is here.
News about my new book, due out next spring, is coming soon.
Is the actor happy?
2001: Coke Machine Glow
“You must experiment. You do things in which you eliminate something which is perhaps essential, but to learn how essential it is you leave it out. The space then becomes very significant.” —Henry Moore
In 1999, Gord Downie was restless. He was tired of playing arenas. He’d been inspired by the opening acts he’d curated for Hip tours and Another Roadside Attractions. He was writing songs he knew wouldn’t fit with the Hip. He had itches that couldn’t be scratched. It was time for artistic infidelity.
In any other band with 12 years of recording behind them, this wouldn’t be a surprise. It’s more unusual when this doesn’t happen. But inside the Tragically Hip, it was blasphemy among brothers. Several sources say that Downie’s decision came at a time of poor communication and passive aggression, and it caused a degree of discomfort for much of the next decade. When Gord started doing solo albums,” Rob Baker admitted in 2017, “none of us liked it, because he had a voice with us.”
I put the question to Jake Gold: what led to Downie’s decision to make a solo record, and how was it received inside the band? The normally forthcoming Gold slightly paused, gave a steely glare and responded, “I’m not going to talk about that.”
Coke Machine Glow came out in March 2001 and caused as much confusion as it did excitement. The Tragically Hip could still be heard constantly on every classic rock station in Canada; those stations did not play Coke Machine Glow, with its dirgey country songs and poetry set to soundscapes, an album where there are only two uptempo songs: one sounds like the Velvet Underground’s “White Light White Heat,” the other is a polka with a tuba and banjo. Mainstream press were likewise baffled. The indie scene was inherently suspicious of a rock star slumming in its world. The new band was scrappy, loose and exploratory, not a tight rock’n’roll machine. “Maybe Downie wanted the creaky-boards feel of a coffee-house poetry reading,” wrote the Kingston Whig-Standard reviewer (and later Michael Bublé biographer), who cited the “clompy percussion with timid acoustic guitar and Downie’s hesitant vocals in an under-produced sound that has the deliberate unfinished feel of a demo tape.” The Globe and Mail wanted to know “how someone so demanding of his words can be so complacent about the music.”
Gord Downie would never make another record like it again. Yet it became one of the most beloved albums in his discography . Musicians who played on it say that strangers ask them about it all the time. Coke Machine Glow is to Downie what Nebraska is to Bruce Springsteen or Tonight’s the Night to Neil Young: an album full of songs shunned by radio and rarely performed live, yet adored not only by certain fans but by people uninterested in almost everything else by the artist in question. Coke Machine Glow became a secret whispered from one sympathetic ear to another. Like its title, it was a beacon of light in unfamiliar surroundings from a widely recognized brand name.
The album was born on a train. Travelling from Kingston to Toronto, Downie asked Steven Drake for ideas about how to make a solo record. Drake told him to just get a good group of people and record it all live. A solo project would inevitably be a home for songs that fell outside of the Tragically Hip’s oeuvre. But Drake says Downie was “more interested in a certain combination of people and what that would bring about.”
The first person he had in mind was Josh Finlayson of the Skydiggers. “He was really the first friend I made in Toronto,” Downie said. “We’ve been like brothers ever since.” It was Finlayson who convinced him the project could work. Drake was hired as producer, engineer and bassist. Recording at the Bathouse was out: Downie wanted something totally fresh. Not a single piece of equipment, not even a guitar, would be borrowed from the Hip’s clubhouse.
Downie booked the Gas Station studio, at 53 Fraser Avenue in Toronto’s Liberty Village, run by Dale Morningstar and Don Kerr. Kerr was in the Rheostatics and had toured with the Hip on Another Roadside Attraction in 1995 and on an arena tour in 1997. On the last night of that tour, there was an after-party at the studio, which is where Downie first fell in love with the space. Morningstar and Kerr had once been bandmates in the Dinner Is Ruined, an often chaotic, noisy avant-garde band that started out on the outer reaches of grunge, with nods to Sonic Youth, and got progressively stranger with each record. The Gas Station was their playground, stocked with junkyard instruments and odd artifacts. When Kerr left the Dinner Is Ruined, Morningstar and keyboardist John “Dr. Pee” Press continued as a duo until original Rheos drummer Dave Clark signed on. Kerr remained a partner in the Gas Station, a studio that birthed many beloved records of the late ’90s, including Thrush Hermit’s Clayton Park, Neko Case’s Furnace Room Lullaby and Godspeed You Black Emperor’s Slow Riot for a New Zero Kanada EP.
In the 1990s, Liberty Village was full of disused factories and loft spaces. It was a corner of Toronto that time forgot, colonized only by film crews and artists looking for maximum space at minimal rent. Today, it’s a bustling village of towering condos, prime office space, upscale bars and high-end grocery stores. At the Gas Station in 2000, you still had to load your gear onto an old freight elevator and down a dusty hallway before entering the magical playroom, with its 12-foot-high ceilings and huge windows that offered a panoramic view of the city. “It was a Fibonacci room,” says Drake, “meaning the height of the ceiling to the width of the wall was 1:618, the Golden Ratio. Those proportions are comforting for people.” The acoustics are inherently impeccable in such a room.
Morningstar was assisting Drake with the studio set-up in late March 2000 when he got a call saying the studio was being evicted. The next week Morningstar staged an anti-gentrification protest outside his landlord’s office, which rallied other artists and got some local media coverage. That night he had a Dinner is Ruined gig at College Street venue Ted’s Wrecking Yard. Having always been the kind of band to walk a tightwire act, with no script or plan, the Dinner is Ruined was known for having an erratic live show. “DIR is like someone plugs the thing in and you never know if it will hop, buzz, fizzle or explode,” said Dave Clark. When they were on fire, however, as they were that night at Ted’s, they were mind-blowing. Gord Downie was in the audience that night, witnessing Morningstar, Clark and Press channel their eviction blues into a strange performance piece about the birth of the universe. Downie was grinning in the middle of the room; one could almost see a light bulb going off over his head.
That week was the first of two scheduled sessions for Coke Machine Glow, with Kerr on drums and Kevin Hearn on piano. It started out, recalled Hearn, as a series of “very mellow, stoned afternoons.” Until it wasn’t. “The people directly below the studio were having some sort of eviction party,” said Hearn. “They were trashing the place—hurling couches, smashing appliances, throwing bottles at the wall. Gord was trying to do a vocal take, but the noise was too much. He took off his headphones, walked downstairs and calmly walked into their party. I tagged along. Everything stopped when Gord walked in; it was like an old Western movie. Wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and cowboy hat, he politely asked if they could please give us an hour, so he could finish his last vocal take. Everyone in the room, a little shocked, said, yes, of course, sorry et cetera. We went back upstairs and finished his vocal, accompanied by beautiful, reverent silence.”
It resulted in only two songs, “Chancellor” and “SF Song,” along with a rocking, Lou Reed–style take on “Vancouver Divorce” before both Hearn and Kerr had to leave for tour commitments with Barenaked Ladies and Ron Sexsmith, respectively. They were scheduled to return for a second session in June, but the Gas Station was being evicted by May 15. Morningstar called Downie with the bad news; Downie begged to reschedule for any time available before the eviction.
Dave Clark heard about this and knew that Kerr couldn’t finish the record. He asked Morningstar to tell Downie he was available if needed. Morningstar was reluctant; he didn’t feel he knew Downie well enough to put in a word for a friend. But he did. “The Dave Clark?” asked an enthused Downie. “I didn’t think he’d be into it—but yes!”
Dave Clark joined the Rheostatics when he was a teenager, in 1980. His last three records with the band—1990’s Melville, 1992’s Whale Music, 1994’s Introducing Happiness—garnered a massive word-of-mouth cult audience, comprised mainly of fellow musicians, including Neil Peart of Rush. Clark was one of four very different and charismatic characters in the Rheos, whose live shows would veer from the triumphant to harrowing to downright silly. He would often play around the beat rather than delivering a standard rock pulse.
He joined the Dinner Is Ruined on the day he quit the Rheostatics in 1995. He then focused on his improv band, the Woodchoppers Association, while also doing “different joe jobs: a lot of office cleaning and deliveries, some consulting for music festivals,” he said. “I was still delivering Now magazine at that point.”
Many people didn’t understand why Dave Clark would leave the Rheos for the Dinner is Ruined, or why Gord Downie would possibly hire that band to comprise the majority of his. “With DIR,” said Dave Clark, “it gave me the ultimate faith in any sound, any thought: just make it, if you believe in it. Playing with that band, I learned how to give in. I used to delineate between improvisation and playing songs. I was wrong. You can do what you want.” That freedom was what Downie went looking for.
When sessions resumed, Morningstar started out plucking the strings of the piano with a guitar pick on “Blackflies” and ended up playing on most of the tracks. “He was like fungus,” said Steven Drake, when talking about Morningstar. “He just grew into it.”
Musicians sat in a circle. Finlayson and Drake knew the songs; Morningstar and Clark were learning as they went. Overdubs, including vocals, were minimal. Drake conducted the band while playing bass; at the end of a take, he’d run back to the control room to work the board. No one wore headphones except Downie, who used a small set of what Clark described as “airplane Walkman headphones, just to get a bit more attenuation on his vocals. We played at a whisper. The record sounds much bigger than what it is.”
“We didn’t have any amplification,” said Drake. “We were playing at an acoustic level, so we could hear Gord singing in the room. I just had a kick drum mic and a single overhead on the drums. Gord was singing in a Beyer Dynamic Ribbon mic from the ’50s, the same kind of mic Stan Getz used on his horn for ‘Girl From Ipanema.’ He was playing his Martin nylon string [acoustic guitar], and he was quite awkward on his guitar.”
“I’d never experienced that before,” said Clark, “but the sound was phenomenal. The tones are so clear and we’re playing together, so it’s very dynamic.”
“There was a magic on that record,” said Morningstar. “There was a map, but I don’t think anyone knew the direction. That’s not a bad thing; we were just moving forward. Some things just happened. The original title [track] was ‘Insomniacs of the World, Goodnight.’ That song came about when I was in the other room, jamming away on the pump organ by myself. Gord was walking through and said, ‘Hey, is that something? Can I use that?’ So he got Steven to come in, mic it up. Gord had his lyrics and they just did it, right then and there. Then they layered on Dave doing some swells and Julie [Doiron] on backing vocals. Gord was so open to stuff like that, the spontaneity of those moments.”
Some of those moments were glorious mistakes—mostly from Dale Morningstar. “If Dale plays what sounds like a wrong note at first, he’ll lean into that thing until it’s the right note,” said Clark. “He’ll bruise that note until you stop feeling the pain and it starts tasting sweet. He’s magical that way.” By Divine Right’s José Contreras, who played organ on two songs, was there when Morningstar played an atonal, screeching note right before the third verse of “Vancouver Divorce.” “I remember Steven Drake: [makes pained face, covers ears] ‘Fuckin’ HELL,’” said Contreras. “I was sitting there going, ‘That’s fucking beautiful.’”
“Dale was the studio rat character,” said Drake. “He’s a funny guy. I don’t know if he was shitting me or not, but I remember I turned to him and said, ‘Oh, that’s a D.’ He said, ‘Huh? I don’t know what that is.’ Then he played a D. If I played it, he could play it, but he didn’t know the names.”
“What’s beautiful about the record is the vulnerability, and surrendering to these people that [Gord] trusted,” said Morningstar. “Nobody there sounds like a session player, or like they’re phoning it in or following orders. And there are songs like ‘Trick Rider’: I can’t imagine the Hip doing something that delicate. That set of lyrics also strikes me as the strongest.”
“Trick Rider” is one of the most beautiful songs about parenting ever written, and the most straightforward, emotionally vulnerable set of lyrics Downie had penned since “Fiddler’s Green.” It’s not particularly original subject matter: the narrator marvels at the innocence of his children, long before the hypocrisies and failures of the future can corrupt their idealism. He cannot bear to watch them perform dangerous, carefree acts, even as he admires their fearlessness. In Downie’s hands, of course, the song avoids cliché, and the harmonies with Julie Doiron of Eric’s Trip make it even more haunting.
“I absolutely adore ‘Trick Rider,’ which I think is one of the greatest songs he ever wrote,” said Clark. “Julie is amazing on that song. The lyric is heartbreaking. I liked that it addressed being an adult with children. A lot of people hide who they are, and Gord did not. He’s a dad. There’s nothing more rock’n’roll than being a dad—oh, wait, yes there is: being a mom!” Clark’s daughter is the same age as Doiron’s and Downie’s eldest; all were about five years old at the time of Coke Machine Glow. The song would routinely move Clark to tears while playing it live, even 10 years later. Doiron called it “one of the most beautiful songs ever written.” She’s not wrong.
Doiron was not given much notice before the session: when she got the call, she was leaving for a Swedish tour in two days, so she went to Toronto a day early before her flight. “Trick Rider” just happened to be the song scheduled for that day. “No one said, ‘We’ve been waiting for you to do this one,’” Doiron recalled. She played piano, which she rarely does, only because there were three other guitarists there.
Doiron and Contreras were two of several players outside the core band brought into the main session. Jaro Czerwinec, who played accordion on the Cowboy Junkies’ Trinity Session, provided a direct link to one of Coke Machine Glow’s inspirations. Andy Maize of the Skydiggers played trumpet. Filmmaker Atom Egoyan played classical guitar. Los Lobos drummer Louie Perez co-wrote one song. The Sadies’ Travis Good played fiddle and mandolin.
For a record that was supposed to be entirely Hip-free, one guest was more than conspicuous in his presence: Paul Langlois, Downie’s oldest friend in the band, contributes his unmistakable harmonies on “Lofty Pines” and “Yer Possessed.” It was a last-minute decision. Because the entire album was being recorded to only eight tracks, Travis Good’s fiddle got wiped from those two tracks to make room for Langlois.
Contreras credits Downie’s faith and Drake’s expertise with the album’s success. “It was incredible, musically,” he said. “‘Vancouver Divorce’ was three takes: every take, different set of lyrics. No lyric book in front of him. Maybe he’d have some papers to look at. But he’d sing a lyric and you’d think, ‘That verse is incredible.’ Then he’d not do that verse in the next take. And you can’t be like, ‘Oh, don’t forget that verse.’ Because these other verses are just as great.”
That said, Contreras felt a clash between what he perceived as the straight half of the band—Drake and Finlayson, both coming from musically conservative rock bands—and the weirdoes from the Dinner Is Ruined. “Steve very much believed in the songs and thought it could be a hit record,” said Contreras. “Because that’s what he does. You can take that really any way you want. There was a lot of tension in the air because Dale and Dave did not click with Steven Drake. I’d had a video hit and I was twenty-nine and Steven pulled me over to get me onto his team: ‘C’mon, José, you like hit records, buddy, we want to make a hit record here, don’t you think?’ Then Dale and Dave did the same thing, pulling me into another room and grouching about ‘fucking corporate rock’ and how shit it is, and the attitude. There was real tension in the studio, but Gord was either oblivious or rose right above it. Not a word about it, zero.”
Contreras was only in the studio two days. The others dispute his version of events. “The sun would be shining in the windows,” said Clark. “Everyone was very happy, joyous, very relaxed. Gord and Steve had a vibe together that made sense. There were times when I wasn’t sure if Steven was making the right decisions, but I listen to the record, and it really makes me happy.”
“I don’t think there was any uneasiness,” said Morningstar. “I think we were all trying to harvest those songs. I was trying to play as sparse as I could and not overstep. I was the colour man. That’s how I saw myself. It was the first chance I’d had to play with a singer, an outside singer, and really try to play off his voice, or complement it. That’s what everyone was trying to do: not step on the music.”
“I mean, Steven Drake did an amazing job,” said Contreras. “If you listen with the idea that one person in the room was producing and engineering and also in close touch with Gord about what the idea was, and he’s playing bass while looking around the room, too—and then you listen to the bass playing—you realize he’s a fucking master.”
For his first solo performance outside the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie could not have chosen an environment more unlike the rock clubs where he cut his teeth. That said, it did involve beer.
Held on February 3, 2001, at the newly opened Steam Whistle Brewery in the shadow of the CN Tower, the Do What?! Festival was curated by Dave Clark and Terence Dick of the Woodchoppers Association. Downie was a featured performer, alongside performance artist Sook-Yin Lee, Toronto avant-garde veteran “sound poet” Paul Dutton, dance performances by Andrea Nann and Lisa Prebianca and art installations including one by Reid Diamond of Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet, who’d died of cancer months before. Tickets were $10, available only at College Street record store Soundscapes. They sold out immediately. Judging by the dress code of the crowd at this freaky event, a significant majority were mainstream Hip fans unsure what they were in for.
“It was the kind of gig I’d normally do with the Woodchoppers,” said Clark, “dancers, singers, visual artists, musicians all together. Gord worked out these dance pieces with Andrea Nann, who is one of the greatest living exponents of modern dance Canada has ever produced. He improvised with the Woodchoppers. We had a huge band, and everyone was dressed up in everything from hockey gear to princess and fairy outfits. Gord kicked it through the post, man. It was really good. I remember some people being beside themselves, freaking out at how much fun it was, and others were just shocked.” Nothing about the evening was predictable or rote. Downie looked delighted, completely at ease in this environment.
In July 2001, Downie debuted his “Goddamned Band” with Finlayson, Morningstar and Clark, as well as John “Dr. Pee” Press from the Dinner Is Ruined on keyboards and Julie Doiron, who would alternate between guitar and bass with Finlayson. Their first gig was playing a webcast for the Umbrella Music site. “We’d rehearsed a bit, but I didn’t feel like I really knew the songs yet,” said Doiron. “I went up to Gord and said, ‘I’m sorry I’m so nervous! I’m freaking out. What am I doing here? Why me?’ He said, ‘Julie, you’re here because I need you here.’ He could have easily had any studio musician who would know all the parts. But he didn’t want that. I don’t think he’s ever looked for that. He wants people he wants to be around, creative people, not necessarily technically good. That’s what makes working with him so cool, because he trusts whatever it is you’re going to do. I’ve never been given any guidance. He’s like, ‘You know what to do.’”
That was followed by a few select dates at summer folk festivals, starting the weekend of July 27 at the Calgary Folk Festival and the Hillside Festival in Guelph, Ontario. Those shows threw a lot of Hip fans for a loop, even if they had bought Coke Machine Glow a few months earlier. “Sure, some hardcore Hip fans just hated it,” said Morningstar. “But I’m sure some thought, ‘This is different, this is great.’ People didn’t shout out for Hip tunes. We thought that might happen, but it didn’t at all. Gord was just proud— proud of the band and what we were doing. He would say stuff like, ‘I love this band. I believe in this band. This is my band. I’m really good at putting bands together.’ He didn’t give a fuck what anyone thought. He wanted to make it good from his own perspective and from ours.”
The Goddammed Band, later renamed the Country of Miracles, was a relief valve for Downie. If the Hip had become entrenched in an all-too-familiar working method, with audiences cheering the loudest for songs written 10 years prior, this new band had something to prove every night. And they were fearless players.
“Things would get outside,” said Clark. “That band was able to go in on a dime. Lots of vocals, some really bluegrassy stuff. I ended up playing tuba; we all played different things. When we went to New York City, we’d play in the middle of the audience. We’d stretch things out; Gord would extemporize. Every time we’d go on tour there would be a lot of taking the piss out of each other and loads of jokes. After gigs, we’d put on some music and dance and sing on the bus. We’d hang out and talk about music. Everybody in that band is a hyper nerd.”
It wasn’t just Downie learning from his band; the exchange was mutual on all fronts. Clark praised Doiron for influencing his own playing. “She’s a monster of a musician,” he said. “She’s one of the hardest-working musicians I’ve ever met and manages to raise a gigantic family of kids. She had this vibe, this groove, this pocket she could get into, which helped me out as a player a lot. I tend to get adrenalized and can push things too hard. She made me aware of some things that could work better, and I thought, ‘I should listen to this person. She knows what she’s talking about.’”
It was also a band of singers. Having just toured with Kate Fenner as a temporary member of the Hip, Downie relished the even bigger harmonies his new band could provide. So did Clark. “I love singing with people, probably more than I love drumming,” he said. “Sometimes I’d be on stage and it would be like, ‘Holy fuck, man, I’m singing backups with Gord Downie!’ I’d look around, and there were all my friends I’d known for years and we’re on stage together and the whole thing’s bouncing and we’re having a good time. Then my brain would shut off and I’d start listening and be part of the band again.”
Cover songs appeared in many of the sets, the first time since he had a record contract that Downie regularly sang other people’s songs live. The Goddammned Band did some Randy Newman, some Bob Dylan, some Taj Mahal, some CCR. And one particularly memorable version of Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night.”
“We ended up headlining the Edmonton Folk Festival, at night,” Clark recalled. “The ampitheatre there is on what looks like a ski hill, and people light candles so it’s like looking at stars at night. The band before us was Baaba Maal’s big band, from Africa, an eighteen-piece band with dancers. I remember standing at the side of the stage with Dale and saying, ‘Jesus. Who thought this was a good idea, to put us on after these guys?’ But we got up and had, to my mind, the best set of the tour. We started with ‘Tonight’s the Night.’ Gord walked out there and just grabbed it—every night.”
When there was time, the Dinner Is Ruined booked shows for off nights in the same town. Again, Edmonton was a highlight. At a gig at the Liquid Lounge, Finlayson joined them on bass, and Gord commandeered the mic while the five of them improvised an entire set of music. In an odd twist, said Morningstar, “One big DIR fan after was like, ‘Ah, man.’ He was bummed out that Gord Downie was on our stage. I’m like, ‘Oh, c’mon.’”
Something similar happened in Yellowknife. “They put us up in a house for five days,” recalled Morningstar. “One night, a Monday or Tuesday, we went down to the local watering hole, where they had an open mic. We went and said, ‘Can we hit the stage?’ Josh was home sleeping. We took over that room. It was Gord freestyling. It was the DIR with Julie on bass. The crowd had no idea Gord Downie was going to play. They were all standing on tables. No songs, we were just jamming. It was the peak of his freestyling, just going for it.”
Whether or not Downie knew what he had been looking for when he stepped outside the framework of the Hip, he had most certainly found it. This was a new family of freaks, of dancers, of kindred spirits. Even if they never took precedence over the Tragically Hip, even if they only did two other records and tours over the next 16 years, these were people with whom Downie felt at home. The feeling was more than mutual.
“The time we spent together was special and intense and instructive,” said Clark. “More than anything, we developed a lifelong friendship. I don’t have to see Julie for years and when I see her it’s beautiful. I go out walking with Josh, and I start laughing before we even open our mouths. All those people who played on the first record: Andy, Don, José, Kevin—they’re all friends. My whole point for playing music personally is to commune with people. I don’t go to church; I’m not a religious person. Where I go to church is when I get on stage with people. I want to be with people. I want to sing. I want that endorphin rush. I want to be a part of something. With Gord and that crew, there was a real community and a real family and I’m deeply grateful for it.”