The Tragically Hip
Fully Completely
MCA Records

I was talking to my good buddy Dave last night.  Initially it was because I was watching The Last Waltz, and how much we can’t fucking stand The Band.  I had never seen the film, so it seemed to me that I should, but, I still can’t stand The Band.  I don’t like jam bands to start with, but, man, they just overdid it with the music, every song was over-written, too many notes.  But anyway.  The Band, minus Levon Holm, were Canadians.  And the Lord knows I am a fan of Robbie Robertson’s solo work. And this led Dave and I to have a few good laughs about all the shitty CanCon TV shows we grew up on, like The Beachcombers, The Littlest Hobo, The Republic of Doyle.  Or Danger Bay.  I could go on.  And this led us to our favourite Canadian artists, the Tragically Hip.

Dave and I met away back in 1991 in our first year at Carleton University.  We were punks.  He was in a band called The Soundcorps.  When we talked music, we talked about The Clash, The Pogues, the Buzzcocks, Nirvana, Sonic Youth.  And then one night, drunk as skunks at the Royal Oak on Bank Street, we realized we were both big fans of the Hip.  And this has been one of the abiding things of our friendship, despite the fact that we lost touch in 1993 when I decamped Ottawa to go back to Vancouver to finish my degree at the University of British Columbia.  Dave found me on Twitter a few years ago.  He’s now the frontman of the Canadian punk band, The Peelers.

Me and the Hip.  The thing about the Hip was that everyone was into them, didn’t matter if we were folkies, or rockers, or metalheads, hip hop heads, punks.  One of the best gigs I ever saw was the first Another Roadside Attraction, the Hip’s travelling festival in 1993.  This was at Seabird Island in Aggasiz, BC, Sto:lo land.  It was an insane bill, including the likes of Pere Ubu, Daniel Lanois, Hothouse Flowers, Crash Vegas, and Midnight Oil.  The Oils were a legendary live band, fronted by a 6’4″ bald giant who danced like a mixture of Ian Curtis and Peter Crouch.  They were vicious live, so much more punk and incendiary than they were on album.  As they finished their set that evening, I turned to my Main Man Mike and we agreed it would be a hard ask for the Hip to top that.  But that was the thing, the Hip were the greatest live act in music in those days.  Even better than the Oils.  And the Hip blew the Oils away.  I remember seeing Peter Garrett standing off-stage, at first with his mouth hanging open and then nodding in approval as he watched the Hip perform.  Gord Downie was in fine form, too, at one point stopping the band to say to us: ‘You look like a fine crowd.  Yes, you do.  But I wouldn’t be going up in any planes with any politicians if I were you.  Because if it goes down, YOU’d be the first ones they eat.’

I had first heard the Hip back in 1989 when I worked at an IHOP in suburban Vancouver, and Greg the Dishwasher, this rocker from Winnipeg who was into psychedaelic shirts, turned me onto them and their début album, Up To Here.  It was a classic blues rock stomper.  And I was hooked.  In 1991, they put out Road Apples.  The following year came Fully Completely.

When the Hip first began recording, with 1988’s The Tragically Hip, an 8-song ep, Downie had not been the band’s primary lyricist, and the two best tracks on that ep were written by bassist Gord Sinclair.  But by 1991, Downie declared he would no longer sing anyone else’s lyrics but his own.  Road Apples was the album where the Hip came into their own, Downie as a lyricist and singer and the band as something more than just a bar blues band.

But Fully Completely was their difficult album, the one where they learned what it was to be a recording band.  Up to Here and Road Apples had been recorded with Don Smith behind the controls, and they wanted to try something new.  They also wanted to break into the American market.  They liked the work Chris Tsangarides had done with Concrete Blonde on Bloodletting and its 1992 follow-up Walking in London.  He wanted to work with the Hip.  MCA Records wanted him to work with the Hip because they thought he could help them craft a sound to make it in America.

The Hip went to London (not the one in Ontario) to cut Fully Completely with Tsangarides at Battery Studios.  Tsangarides changed up their recording process and rather than try to mimic the live show, the songs on this album were built from the bottom up over a five-week period, instrument-by-instrument, and then Downie had three days to record his vocals.  They didn’t enjoy London.  The thought it dull.

When Fully Completely was released in the fall of 1992, it went off like gangbusters in Canada, selling over 200,000 copies within the first three months, which made it a triple platinum album.  It went on to achieve Diamond status, selling over 1 million copies.  Road Apples had been their first #1 album in Canada, Fully Completely was their second of their nine total.  It did not bring them great fame in America, however.  In fact, MCA just gave up promoting it after two weeks.  Quitters.

But Dave would counter the argument that the Hip didn’t make it in the US.  He rightly notes that they played concert halls holding upwards of 3,000 people in the US (as opposed to hockey arenas and football stadia in Canada), which is a level of making it greater than most bands.  He’s not wrong.

‘Locked in the Trunk of a Car’ was the first single.  This was a moody, brooding track, centred around Downie’s chilling lyrics, which were inspired by Jim Thompson’s book, The Killer Inside Me, which really set Downie for a loop, chilled to the bone he was by the story.  He modelled the song’s narrator on Raskalnikov and sought to focus on the claustrophobia of shame and guilt as our ageless narrator starts off:

They don’t know how old I am
They found armour in my belly
From the sixteenth century
Conquistador, I think.

And from there, he travels through time to become the guy at the gas station, and then a member of the Front de libération du Québec, the authors of the October Crisis in Québec in 1970, which culminated with the murder of Québec Minister of Labour, Pierre Laporte, who was found in the trunk of a car at the airport in Saint-Hubert, an off-island suburb of Montréal:

Then I found a place it’s dark and it’s rotted
It’s a cool, sweet kinda place
Where the coppers won’t spot it
And I destroyed the map that I’d carefully dotted,
However, everyday I’m dumping the body
It’d be better for us if you don’t understand
It’d be better for us if you don’t understand
It’d be better for me if you don’t understand.

 

In other words, this was a brand new bag for the Hip.  And I was hooked.  But when I picked up the album, on cassette, at The Record Runner on Rideau Street in Ottawa, I wasn’t so sure.  I didn’t like the production, which smoothed out the band’s sound, making it more processed and less raw.  But.  The songs, man.  The Tragically Hip became ace songwriters around this time.  And those great songs overpower Tsangarides’ overwrought production.
Gord Downie’s greatest skill was reflecting our nation back to us, of showing us our Canada, the good, the bad and the ugly.  And doing so with great poetry, empathy, and grit.  And it was on Fully Completely he came into his own as our national storyteller.
The album opens with ‘Courage (for Hugh McLennan).’  McLennan was a Canadian novelist, perhaps the first great Canadian novelist.  His novel, The Two Solitudes, about two star-crossed lovers, one from Ontario, one from Québec, portrayed our larger national fissure in stark, personal terms.  McLennan’s publishers wanted him to move his characters from Montréal (where he taught English at McGill) to New York or Boston, to make them more palpable to American readers.  He refused. There was a deep-set irony in the Hip telling us this story on their album crafted to make in in America.  Meanwhile, in the video, Downie was rocking a Boston Bruins sweater.  That also took courage, given the band was from Kingston, ON, the dividing line between Montréal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs fans.  But his godfather was Harry Sinden, the long-time coach and GM of the Bruins.  And so there you go.

 

That’s followed up immediately by ‘Looking For a Place to Happen,’ the fourth single from the album.  This song is sung from the perspective of Jacques Cartier, the first European to sail up the St. Lawrence River to roughly where Montréal is today in the 16th century:
I’ve got a job, I explore, I follow every little whiff
And I want my life to smell like this
To find a place, an ancient race
The kind you’d like to gamble with
Where they’d stamp on burning bags of shit
Looking for a place to happen
Making stops along the way, hey
Wayward ho, away we go
It’s a shame to leave this masterpiece
With it’s gallery gods and it’s garbage-bag trees
So I’ll paint a scene, from memory,
So I’d know who murdered me
It’s a vain pursuit, but it helps me to sleep
Looking for a place to happen
Making stops along the way, hey.
The song then expands to consider European exploitation and expropriation of the land that became Canada.

 

‘At the Hundredth Meridian’ is next.  The hundredth meridian is the line of longitude that separates Canada into east and west.  The song is about the expansion of Canada west, the settlement of Europeans on the Prairies and includes perhaps one of my favourite Downie lyrics:
Driving down a corduroy road (crashing through the window)
Weeds standing shoulder-high (through the window)
Ferris wheel is rusting off in the distance
At the hundredth meridian
At the hundredth meridian
At the hundredth meridian
Where the great plains begin.

‘We’ll Go Too’ opens the second side of the album, and it quickly grew to be a really personal track for me.  By late 1992, I was really disillusioned with Ottawa, the city that legendary Canadian journalist Allan Fotheringham once dismissed as ‘the city that fun forgot.’  It was cold, and nothing ever happened.  But it was more the landscape.  Dave lived with Troy, the guitarist in Soundcorps.  They lived in an apartment tower in the southeast of the city, and we often gathered there to drink, listen to music, play music, argue, whatevs.  One morning after the night before, I looked out their living room window and the landscape made me want to jump off their balcony.  This endless, flat visage of white snow.  No hills. No trees. Nothing.  I decided then and there to get me back to Vancouver.  But around the same time, a lot of my friends were doing the same thing, clearing out of Ottawa, Toronto, Montréal and heading to VanCity.  By 1993, re-established in the Terminal City, I was amazed that nobody I knew except for my old friends from high school were from Vancouver.  Hell, I wasn’t even.  Everyone was from somewhere else.

 

‘Fifty Mission Cap’ might be the most legendary of the songs on this album, and it remains on my favourites after all these years.  A fifty mission cap was a cap given to bombers in the Royal Canadian Airforce who had completed fifty missions in the Second World War.  These were damn-near impossible to get, to even live that long.  My grandfather was a tail gunner in the RCAF in the war.  He survived after serving for nearly two years in that impossible and terrifying position.  The average life expectancy of tail gunners when he arrived in England in 1943 was six weeks.  And even at that, the pilots and crews were unlikely to survive twenty, let alone fifty missions.
At the other and, ‘Fifty Mission Cap’ was about the curse of Bill Barilko, a defenceman for the Toronto Maple Leafs:
Bill Barilko disappeared that summer
He was on a fishing trip
The last goal he ever scored
Won the Leafs the cup
They didn’t win another ’til nineteen-sixty-two
The year he was discovered
I stole this from a hockey card
I keep tucked up under
My fifty-mission cap
I worked it in
I worked it in to look like that.

That song is followed by ‘Wheat Kings,’ about the tragedy of David Milgaard.  Milgaard was sixteen years old in 1969 when he was arrested and convicted for the rape and murder of Gail Miller, a 20-year old nursing student, in Saskatoon.  He spent the next 23 years in prison.  He was eventually released in 1992, in the wake of a Supreme Court decision.  The real killer of Miller was Larry Fisher, who had been renting the basement suite of one of Milgaard’s friend’s family.  The song contains another of my favourite all-time Downie lyrics, the line about our parents’ prime ministers:
There’s a dream he dreams where the high school’s dead and stark
It’s a museum and we’re all locked up in it after dark
The walls are lined all yellow, grey and sinister
Hung with pictures of our parents’ prime ministers
Wheat kings and pretty things
Wait and see what tomorrow brings
Late breaking story on the CBC
A nation whispers, “we always knew that he’d go free”
They add, “you can’t be fond of living in the past
‘Cause if you are, then there’s no way that you’re going to last.”

‘Wherewithal’ is a song that Downie often introduced as being either about Richard Dawson or Richard Nixon.  The argument for Dawson was in the first lyric:
Richard talks too slow
He’d get interrupted long before
I always loved that guy
And he’s not on TV anymore.
Dawson had been on Hogan’s Heroes with Bob Crane in the 60s.  Crane was later found murdered and Dawson was questioned, though he was never a suspect.  Meanwhile:
You’ve got to coax him slow
That’s the only way that he’ll confess
Tell him that the truth
Will help him live with less
To get out before
He had the wherewithal
To get out before
He had the wherewithal.

And, of course, Nixon did indeed do that.
Looking back now, it’s obvious why this album didn’t make it in the States.  It’s a Canadian album.  Fully.  Completely.  And the irony, of course, of ‘Courage’ is that that song could be re-written for the Hip.  I have to admit, this was never my favourite Hip album, it still isn’t.  For me, it’s either Road Apples or Day For Night that is #1.  And then third is Music @ Work.  But, as Dave notes, Fully Completely has some absolute killer songs on it.  And it is a classic because it’s the Hip, duh.  But also because it is this classically Canadian album, where Downie found his storytelling voice.
The Hip were just getting started in 1992.  Fully Completely was their third album, by the end they had released thirteen.  From Road Apples onward, all their albums reached #1 on the Canadian charts, except for In Violet Light (#2, 2002), World Container (#2, 2006), and Now For Plan A (#3, 2012).  All of their albums went at least platinum, save for their last two, Plan A and Man Machine Poem.
The Hip ended in 2017.  Gord Downie died of brain cancer on 17 October 2017.  He was only 53.  He was diagnosed in 2015, and the band went out on the road to support Man Machine Poem anyway.  It was their long good-bye.  Their last show was in their hometown of Kingston, though they had long ago decamped to Toronto.  The CBC broadcast the concert entirely live, both on TV and on the web.  And that’s how I watched it, in Tennessee, my wife and I both bawling as we realized this was the end.  She’s American, but she would make a great Canadian, she loved Gord and she loved the Hip.  Hell, even writing this now, I get teary-eyed.  Celebrity deaths don’t usually affect me.  Leonard Cohen and David Bowie did.  But with Downie, I cried.