What This Hip Poet Is Doing
Published Feb 01, 2000Gord Downie is at the crux of an apparent contradiction. He fronts one of the highest energy rock bands in Canada, playing to thousands of drunken baseball capped frat boys nightly. And yet he's a cryptic lyricist, tagged as an intellectual by music critics seeking substance behind the fuzzy distortion of his daily rock life.
And now as the seemingly more serious Gordon Downie, he's a published poet and unclassifiable solo artist. In March, Downie released his first solo recording, entitled Coke Machine Glow. A 16-track CD, it collects some of the last recordings made at Toronto's Gas Station Recording Studio before it was uprooted, landing on Toronto Island last May. A host of musicians lend a hand on the disc including Josh Finlayson and Andy Maize (Skydiggers), Steven Drake (Odds), Dale Morningside and Dave Clark (Dinner is Ruined), film director Atom Egoyan, Don Kerr (Rheostatics), Kevin Hearn (Barenaked Ladies), Travis Good (Sadies), Jose Contreras (By Divine Right), Julie Doiron, and Tragically Hip bandmate Paul Langlois. Each artist makes their own unique contribution to the disc and the result is alternately a mishmash or buffet feast that provides fitting accompaniment to Downie's oblique ramblings.
Released at the same time (and for a limited time available as a package deal) was a book of verse bearing the same title. Comprised of both the lyrics from the recording and nearly a hundred pages of poetry, Coke Machine Glow, the book, more than makes up for any inconsistency that mars the album. Downie's poetic foray is no tentative dip in the literary waters. He dives in headlong with a forceful, amusing and amused poet voice. "Can I engage you a while?/ Can I tug on your elbow?/ Can I steer you a while/ my sweet little sailboat?" Downie ruminates glibly; his is a confident voice, the voice of a man at home in his chosen medium.
Downie's unusual lyrics have always attracted attention. Although he's been reluctant to call himself a poet, it's a tag that he's never really been able to shake. The promotional copy from Vintage Canada, who published the book, claims that Downie has joined a "the extraordinary literary tradition of Canadian songwriters like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell." It's a sentiment that rings a little less than true. Neither Mitchell nor Cohen seem to bridge the divide between poet and songster quite as well as Downie. Mitchell has always seemed like a solid songwriter trying hard to appear literary, while Cohen seems like a poet working hard to remain musically relevant.
As a poetic-lyricist, Downie has always gone his own way. In the pages of Coke Machine Glow, he eschews the literary pretension that a reader might expect; the sort of attitude that the printed word requires a "serious" approach to the art form. In fact, in the poem "The Goalie Who Lives Across the Street," Downie playfully transforms literary pretension itself into a hockey infraction. "No literary pretensions allowed here/ Two minutes for/ I saw his blood/ a billowing crimson cloud/ against the milk white ice '" On the pretension front, Downie seems determined to play a clean game. Meanwhile, Downie's relevance as a poet is relatively assured by the legion of Hip fans who, though they may never have read a poem they didn't have to, hang on Downie's every word. (And will likely continue to, regardless of what they might think of his literary efforts.)
That Downie is able to bridge the difficult divide between the musicality of words and their printed form comes as no surprise. It is a fact that Downie himself articulates in his poem "Snowy Lambeau," in asserting that "Words keep like canned peaches/ if they are good enough," suggesting that the poetry arise from the musicality of words themselves as much as from their meaning, " Snowy Lambeau,' that'll keep/ and tomber la neige'/ (slowly falling snow),/ that too/ and tigers on the moon,'/ uh-huh." Poetics that comes as no surprise to those who have followed Downie's career, though they may never have articulated it so well themselves.