In May 2016, fans of one of Canada’s longest lasting and best loved bands got some heartbreaking news: Gord Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. In the same breath, the band, together since the 1980s, announced their final cross-country tour that would end in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario.
Shortly after the final curtain in August 2016, Michael Barclay, a writer who had interviewed Downie a few years prior for a book on Canadian music, started researching. The fruits of that labor, a book entitled “The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip,” was published in early April.
It’s a book he’s been working on for decades, in some ways, but one that started in earnest in August 2016 after the band’s final show and was written in early 2017.
It’s an ambitious book, one written without any new interviews with the notoriously private band, but filled with previously conducted interviews and new conversations with friends and fellow musicians who worked with the Hip throughout their career.
“My goal was to write the book I wanted to read,” Barclay said. “I wanted a book that celebrated the band, told their story and that of their peers, and put the band in a larger context, both within Canadian culture and within international rock ‘n’ roll history — because contrary to popular belief, this is not just a great Canadian story. I also wanted the book to appeal to people who were drawn into the drama of the past two years and weren’t necessarily fans of the music.”
Standing on the stage of The Tralf, a concert hall in Buffalo’s Theatre District, Barclay said his extensive research for the book turned up few surprises, the biggest of which was the great affection between this city and Canada’s band. Buffalo’s proximity to Canada means radio waves carry bands across the Great Lakes that might not otherwise have a strong presence in the States, developing devoted fans bases that embrace these bands as much as any others that would hit the charts in the Lower 48.
Barclay’s first memory of the band stretches back to the Hip’s first EP; the first time he saw them perform live was a Canada Day festival (July 1). “Gord Downie was riveting, go figure,” he joked to the crowd of Hip fans, referencing the enigmatic and sometimes outlandish dance moves of the singer, who passed away in October 2017.
Through the course of the final 15-date tour, Downie’s dancing might have become more restrictive, but in some ways that endeared the crowd to him even more. Few performers get the chance to share their talents and joy with their fans after receiving what amounts to a terminal diagnosis — Sharon Jones, Warren Zevon, Glen Campbell — but Downie and his bandmates Johnny Fay, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair and Paul Langlois refused to let even an aggressive form of brain cancer overshadow their musical legacy.
Author Michael Barclay discusses his new book on Canada’s Tragically Hip with IAJ’s Amber Healy as part of a book launch party for “The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip“ in Buffalo, New York, part of an evening that included reading excerpts from the book and a performance by The Strictly Hip.
Editor’s note: Many thanks to Jeremy Hoyle for the invitation and the kindness and to the sound engineer at the Tralf for the recording.