Michael Barclay. Picture by Colin Medley
Michael Barclay. Picture by Colin Medley

Five Questions With... Michael Barclay

Michael Barclay’s new book The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip (ECW Press) is sure to be the defining chronicle of Canada’s most beloved rock and roll band and its iconic frontman. Barclay dove into the project almost immediately after covering the Hip’s 2016 farewell tour for Maclean’s, based on a long list of interviews with figures associated with The Hip over their 30-plus years together.

The notoriously insular band stopped short of giving Barclay their full authorization, and in many ways that was to the book’s benefit. It allowed him free reign to dig deeper than any writer has before through additional interviews with dozens of people within The Hip’s wide circle. But all of it is tied together by Barclay’s insightful prose that’s an outgrowth of the relationship he’s had with the band’s music since their emergence in the mid-1980s.

I can testify to that, having worked closely with Michael as we each established our music journalism careers a few years after that. The pinnacle of that period was the book we wrote together along with Ian Jack entitled Have Not Been The Same: the CanRock Renaissance 1985-1995. At that point, I happened to be the biggest Hip fan of the three of us, so I did the bulk of the work on their chapter. However, I’m proud to say that with The Never-Ending Present, Michael has produced the book that I and every other Hip fan have always wanted, and will be the standard by which any future books about the band will be measured.

Michael Barclay launches The Never-Ending Present on April 5 in Toronto with a special event at the Horseshoe Tavern featuring a set of Hip songs performed by an all-star band. Admission is $5, and things get underway at 8:30 p.m. For more information on Michael’s other author events, follow his Facebook page @barclayhipbook.

This book seems like the natural outcome of your 25-plus years writing about The Hip. How did your relationship with their music evolve?

I’ll come out and admit it; I’m not the world’s biggest Tragically Hip fan. Partially, that's because that’s a pretty high bar to reach. The people who love this band have a deep affection that transcends almost any kind of fandom I’ve ever encountered. I’ve had my ups and downs with the group: I loved them the first time I heard “Small Town Bringdown” on the radio and saw them in the summer of 1988; I saw any show I could for the next three years. I actually didn’t like Fully Completely, and by that point in time Hip tickets were hard to get, so I took a couple of years off. But the 1994 Canada Day show in Barrie was a huge moment for me, partially because they’d assembled a lineup of all my favourite bands as opening acts, but also because they debuted much of Day For Night and I was riveted. I saw them anytime I could for the rest of the ‘90s, but didn't see them between 2000-09, and then not again until 2016. Some records I liked, some I didn’t—and I think that’s a fairly common experience for a lot of Hip fans.

While writing the book, however, I came to appreciate a lot of their music that I’d taken for granted, both deep cuts and entire records. I got to rediscover songs I never paid much attention to, like “Throwing Off Glass” from 2002, which has become one of my favourite Hip songs. I loved 2016’s Man Machine Poem right away, however, and one of the most beautiful and tragic things about the way the band ended was how that record was such a high note. It was so apparent that this band could still be a vital creative force, given the right circumstance. Right when they seemed to be in such a great creative spot, their career was cut short. That’s what makes all of this even more heartbreaking.

Few Canadian musical artists can have their work placed in a broader cultural context, which I think is one of the book’s great strengths. Were there any new connections you made or discovered as you were writing that you hadn’t considered before?

I don’t know that I made any new connections, but considering all their bonds at once was staggering. First of all, here's a band with such a deep connection to generations of Canadian musicians—from Rush and Tom Cochrane to the Skydiggers and Rheostatics, to Eric’s Trip and the Odds to Sam Roberts and Feist, to Fucked Up and July Talk—there are dozens more I could name. Then there are the hockey connections. To people like Doug Gilmour and women’s hockey leagues; the poetry connections to legends like Al Purdy and younger poets like Ken Babstock; their work with filmmakers like Atom Egoyan and Sarah Polley; and then of course all their philanthropic work throughout the years for things like Camp Trillium and WarChild-not to mention Downie's advocacy of Indigenous issues in the last year of his life.

I had forgotten that long before Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Kurt Browning had skated to an outtake from Day For Night—and that Rob Baker's parents were both figure skaters. Even if this band had never sung a single lyric about Canada, they were connected to so many levels of Canadian arts and society. Which, in retrospect, makes the huge display of public affection in 2016 so much more understandable, why it was such a national event. If such a tragedy had hit almost any other musical artist, I don't think we would have seen that outpouring, but this band were so deeply embedded in Canadian culture on virtually every level.

The book grew out of the intense period you spent covering The Hip’s last tour for Maclean’s, including the final show in Kingston. How do you reflect on that time now?

Amazing. So tragic, yet so celebratory-—it brought out the best in everyone. Even if you weren’t a Hip fan, you were rooting for them; you were willing Gord Downie to finish this odyssey. Because we’re all terrified of mortality, and we are all—or will be—touched by cancer in our lives, either personally or through a loved one. It was so much more than a musical event—or even a Canadian one, as the story made international headlines, and deservedly so. This kind of thing had never happened in show business before: a beloved singer with a terminal disease touring arenas. It was heroic and generous, and it was the kind of thing that makes you question what it is you’re doing with what time you have left.

On an entirely personal level, I had more reaction to my Maclean’s stories about the Hip than anything I’d ever done before. People were starving to learn more; they wanted to figure out the context for all this, about why this band is so beloved. They wanted to remember Gord Downie as more than a guy with a grim diagnosis. They wanted to hear the band’s peers sharing memories. On a whim, I posted my transcripts before I even started writing the big Maclean’s story, thinking that maybe a few Hip geeks would appreciate them. To my surprise, those Q&As went completely viral—I think in part because they dug a lot deeper than just saying, “Canada loves the Hip!” That’s when several people started telling me I should write a book.

How do you envision Gord Downie being viewed and remembered by future generations?

Honestly, despite the parade of hits on classic rock radio, I think he’ll be primarily remembered for everything he did in 2016-17. Right now, schoolchildren know his name because of Secret Path and because he died the same way Terry Fox did, by facing his disease in a very public way. Those two things define Gord Downie right now, and probably on curricula until the end of time. Which is part of why I wanted to write this book: I don’t want the Tragically Hip only to be remembered as the band with a singer who battled cancer and cared about Indigenous issues. Those are two significant stories—but they are not the only stories. I want us to remember the music, the poetry, the generosity of these gentlemen, to remember why we cared about them in the first place.

On a personal level, what’s your most memorable moment with The Hip?

You already know the answer to this one. In 2000, when we were working on Have Not Been The Same—its title inspired by the Vancouver punk band Slow’s song of the same name—we got to interview the two Gords, but for whatever reason the band's management told us the only time we could do it was before a show in Syracuse. So you and I drove the five hours to the gig and spent two hours with Downie in his hotel room and another hour with Sinclair on the bus. Both were extraordinarily generous with their answers, and Downie gave us lyrical insight he'd never shared with anyone else before. In fact, that conversation was referenced by others in many pieces about the Hip I read in 2016 and even in Downie obituaries in 2017. That night at the show, he introduced “Ahead by a Century” by saying, “This song is called ‘Have Not Been the Same.’” It was obviously a reference that only two people in the audience would understand, a coded message just for you and me. That's probably the most thrilling moment at any live show I've ever seen, for obvious reasons. The buzz kept us awake for the five-hour overnight drive back home, that's for sure.

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