In late December of 2016, I remember think pieces coming out about what an awful year it was. Of course the election of Trump, but the world lost some amazing people: Alan Rickman, Prince, David Bowie, George Michael, Gene Wilder – even the young Anton Yelchin – and one of my idols, Carrie Fisher. (If you have the chance to read her writing, do so immediately. She was honest, dry, witty, and lived by her motto, “Take your broken heart, and turn it into art.”)
Each one of these articles looked to 2017 as the year that would make it all better. Instead, it feels like the continuous burn of a tire fire.
Adding more tires to that fire? Chris Cornell, Tom Petty, and Gord Downie. (Among too many others, I’m sure.)
The reason I put these men together is, in my mind, the way their gift for lyrics was hidden behind, well, rock.
For any band to be successful, it has to have both great lyrics and great accompaniment. The instruments drive the force of the song, the lyrics create the meaning.
I find that songs often get more recognition for the music than for the lyrics. It makes sense though: even if you do not play an instrument, you can recognize great music by the way it makes you feel, makes you move. Unless you move into the higher echelons, like jazz, you don’t really need to think too much about the music, just about whether ‘there’s a great beat and you can dance to it!”
But lyrics, anything written specifically to convey depth of emotion using symbolism, is often hidden, unexamined, or often ignored – especially if the song has a great chorus hook. This happens often, ask Bruce Springsteen about Ronald Regan’s use of ‘Born in the USA’ – a song about sending men to die in Vietnam – for his campaign’s official song.
It often happens that music is written first, with lyrics thrown in later, the way Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters writes phonetically while listening to the music; but often it comes out full formed, the way Petty describes how he wrote my favourite of his songs, Wildflowers. Most often though, Cornell and Petty would sit and write both at once.
With Gord Downie, they were often poems with music added.
Poetry is so much about sound and rhythm, about using the sound of words as much as the meaning of them. To add the sound of a voice to that, the emotional wail of Cornell, the simple modesty of Tom Petty’s voice, or the way Gord’s voice emanated directly from his diaphragm, makes it all the more meaningful and beautiful.
I think that all three of these men had their own, completely distinct effects on music and how it is made, but in much the same way. Hidden beneath amazing riffs and hooks and power chords were these deep and affecting lyrics, lyrics repeatedly sung without knowledge of just how beautiful they are.
Though it reveals my age, I have to say it make me miss the booklets from cds and vinyl. That was half the fun for me, listening and going through the lyrics at the same time.
It could be that anyone other than a diehard fan listens to music in the background, when you are not able to truly listen, or that the song has become so much a part of your life that you sing it out loud without knowing what you are saying (See – me loudly singing Under the Bridge by the Red Hot Chili Peppers because it was the song my first boyfriend and I danced to, not because it is about heroin addiction.) The song Bobcaygeon is the story of two police officers falling in love, one that Downie would refer to in concert as “A song about two gay cops in love.” But I, like many, sang that song’s chorus as love for the city, and not, as he mentions, the word that rhymes with ‘constellation.’
Chris Cornell, Tom Petty and Gord Downie all wrote the most amazing lyrics, and they are worth studying not just for the symbolism and emotion they so effortlessly imbue within them, but for the way they sound.
And now, as the nation mourns, is a wonderful time to take a look back at the beauty and depth of the Tragically Hip. There have been many pieces published since his death, many encapsulating much better than I could the lasting affect he will have on Canada and it’s peoples; I imagine many people learned more about Bill Barilko, David Milgaard, Canada’s war history with Britain and the location of the Hundredth Meridian (it’s where the great plains begin…). Or what about the 12 men that broke loose in 73’? (Though, it must be said that it was 14 men who broke loose in ’72, but meter is important, and three rhymes with ‘security’ – so we’ll let it go)
But for me, I have always loved the song Fiddler’s Green, and mostly for the story behind it. Downie’s sister lost her five year old son Charles, to a heart condition. In a tragedy that could break a family, Downie hoped to help, and found the only way he could, through music. He wanted to ease her fears that Charles would be travelling through the afterlife alone, and so he looked to the fable of the Fiddler’s Green. Though they didn’t play the song live for many years, Fiddler’s Green invokes the tale of the place old sailors would go when they were done with the sea, to a place where sailors would be given a seat in the sun, a mug of grog that never ran out, a and could relax while the fiddlers played and maidens danced in the sunlight. Fiddler’s Green – The Tragically Hip
Next time you are listening to music, listen carefully to the lyrics. You might just be surprise with what you hear, even in songs you’ve been singing along to all your life.
(And just for a bit of fun: What do you get when you mix The Tragically Hip, The Trailer Park Boys, Don Cherry and ‘Something Greasy?” Well, you get possibly the most Canadian thing you’ll see all day.) The Darkest One – The Tragically Hip