A “Present” for Hip fans: an interview with Michael Barclay

There will be skeptics of “The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip.” Any band as beloved and notoriously protective of their privacy as the Hip will have fans who will not support anything that hasn’t been blessed by their heroes. And that’s ok.

Michael Barclay’s new book – at the time of this writing, it sits at #2 on the best seller chart in Canada – is an exhaustive tome, filled with information gleaned from previously published interviews as well as new research collected from conversations with friends, producers, musicians and others close to the band. It is an unauthorized biography and does not claim otherwise.

It’s true that Rob Baker recently said on Twitter that he’d read a few paragraphs of the book and nearly spit coffee out his nose. He warned people not to believe everything they read. That is, of course, his right as much as it is completely understandable. He also says that his book, if he writes one, will be an eyewitness account.

Only the five members of the Hip know the full, complex, detailed and gospel truth of the band’s history. But a book like this has long been inevitable. And as a devoted fan of this band, one I credit with bringing me back home to what many consider their adopted U.S. home town of Buffalo, I have to say: this book is worth a read, with as many grains of salt as you’d like.

Barclay’s done a series of launch parties in the past few weeks, the first at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto. Each one has featured Barclay reading some passages from the book, conducting an interview on stage in front of an audience and a musical performance.

Jeremy Hoyle, front man of Buffalo’s Strictly Hip, invited me to conduct this interview in Buffalo. I couldn’t say no.

The sound engineer at the Tralf Music Hall was kind enough to record our interview as well as Barclay’s reading. Have a listen. (And my apologies up front: My voice was pretty terrible on account of this being the one week a year I happened to get sick.)

Some of the highlights of the book:

We get insights into the production of each album, from the EP through Downie’s solo work. Barclay notes the songwriting process, how each producer approached working with the band and hints at tensions within the band that might have surfaced or been suggested on the rare occasion when guest performers were included.

The question of why the Hip never broke in the U.S. is addressed, but for fans in the States, like those who filled the room in Buffalo, we learn that the Hip didn’t see that as a wasted opportunity or a frustration. Barclay writes that the band viewed any tour to the U.S. as a time to work; any suggestion that they didn’t have success below the lakes was considered a kind of insult to the fans that filled theaters in Texas, Arizona, cities like Buffalo and Chicago and Washington, D.C.

Downie was a great fan of music and musicians. For most of the band’s career, they had control over their opening acts and many times Downie either picked those with whom he and/or the band had an existing relationship or a relationship was fostered after time together on the road. Look at Sam Roberts Band and the Rheostatics, for example, or Kevin Drew and various members of Broken Social Scene.

The chapter on the Kingston show features thoughts and recollections from friends of the band and allows them to retell that evening. The book does not necessarily build toward that night, but it is the emotional climax. Keep tissues handy.

There are bound to be surprises in the book, things to be learned and stories clarified that might lead the reader to listen to a song in a new way. Some will be known to more readers than others, as is always the way for varying degrees of fans as they look for insight into their heroes.

For one, I am not going to pass judgement on whether this book should exist or whether the members of the Hip need write their own history. (Though I do hope that happens at some point, should one or more choose to do so.)  I will say this: This is a dense book, with a long list of source material, that comes from a good place and tries to be as exhaustive and true to its subject as possible.

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