On the Tragically Hip, Blue Rodeo and a shared legacy

Blue Rodeo frontman Jim Cuddy reflects on three decades in music that saw his band cross paths repeatedly with the Tragically Hip
Jim Cuddy poses for a photo during an interview with The Canadian Press in Toronto on Friday September 23, 2011. On the title track of his new solo album, "Skyscraper Soul," Cuddy croons about a city that "can bring you down" but one which he cannot leave. The benevolent Blue Rodeo frontman says the reflective tune is largely an ode to his home and native city of Toronto, which he thinks is sometimes misunderstood. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy is pictured in the band's recording studio called The Woodshed, in Toronto. (Chris Young/CP)
Blue Rodeo’s Jim Cuddy is pictured in the band’s recording studio called The Woodshed, in Toronto. (Chris Young/CP)

Update: Gord Downie died Oct. 17, 2017. Read his obituary here.

Jim Cuddy has, with Greg Keelor, fronted Blue Rodeo for more than 30 years. The late ’80s and ’90s were times during which they were second only to the Tragically Hip in terms of popularity and cultural impact. Here, Cuddy reflects on their shared experiences and legacy.

Your bands’ paths are not parallel exactly, but you both have a similar trajectory and sold hundreds of thousands of records in the ’90s, and have stayed together after more than 30 years. How often did you cross paths?

A: We crossed paths a lot in the very beginning. I remember seeing them at the Crazy Horse in Dartmouth. We must have been playing the Misty Moon in Halifax. It was a typical Crazy Horse gig: 60 drunks and a fantastic band. We knew of them and knew their background because I went to school in Kingston. It’s been a meandering path since. The last thing we did together was the Eagles show in Newfoundland in 2013.

I’m sorry, the what?

A: Oh, I’m so glad you asked! It was a big festival, 30,000 people in Grand Falls. Extremely hot day. Eagles were the headliner. Mostly Canadian bands, starting with Matt Minglewood at 2 p.m., and they were all amazing. We were supposed to be on right before the Hip, but the Eagles inserted some guy whose father owns the Knicks. It was a blues band, and he was terrible. But he had to go on then because it was his plane that the Eagles were flying on. His set was long and people are throwing stuff at him, and I think he felt that was Newfoundland cheering. Then the Hip came on and they were on fire. Gord was in a big white outfit, totally drenched. At the side of the stage is Irving Azoff [longtime Eagles manager and former CEO of Ticketmaster and Live Nation] standing there with the Eagles, and he’s looking at Gord telling him to shorten the set, making gestures. It’s making me furious, because I know the Eagles only want to shorten the set so they can get on a plane and fly out, which they can’t do after midnight or something. So Gord’s doing his thing and continues on. Then the Eagles come on and do a miserable set, just sucking the joy out of the whole island. Afterwards I was sitting with Gord backstage and asked, “Didn’t that bug you?” He said, “Pfft, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be playing and have Irving Azoff telling me to shorten my set.” I so admire that quality, in both Gord and Greg [Keelor]. They’re not bothered by stuff like that, in fact they’re often thrilled. Gord is iconoclastic. He thought it was funny, and fit right into his performance: he’d swirl around from facing the audience and have at it with this angry old five-foot-two man who’s soaking the last few dollars out of the Eagles machine.

So to be clear: the Hip was asked to shorten their set just because terrible blues guy went long?

A: Yes, and because the Eagles wanted to drive to Deer Lake and fly out on their private plane before midnight, because God forbid they be stuck in Newfoundland. It was a funny moment. Don Henley came to the front at one point to sing an intense ballad, and he stops because someone is taking pictures. He says, “If you keep taking those pictures, we’ll stop.” Somebody from the crowd said, “There’s only one way out, b’y, and that’s through us!”

MORE: We’re following the Tragically Hip—and their fans—across Canada

When else did you do big shows with them?

A: There was the time we got Hipped in front of Fort Henry, when they were doing one of their benefits in Kingston. That was our first experience with people chanting “Hip! Hip! Hip!” That was probably in the early ’90s.

You were a large band at that time.

A: We were popular enough not to get Hipped, but we did. Maybe it’s like being insulted by Don Rickles, maybe you want to get Hipped!

Both bands came up at a moment in Canadian songwriting, when rock bands wrote about this country in very different ways, not necessarily in the way folk musicians did, but in the case of Gord in particular in a very surrealistic way. That was unusual; I don’t think the larger bands of the day prior did that.

A: There was an amazing concurrence of circumstances that led to a bunch of bands starting to reflect their own lives. I was driving with someone yesterday and they were singing “This Land is Our Land” and they said how much they loved the song. I said, “You know that’s just a Canadian rewrite of an American song?” That’s what we used to think was OK. Anything we took was co-opted, and anything we created was secondary. I think [Blue Rodeo] was lucky that we came in at a time when Canadian audiences, whether they knew it or not, were sick of that. When they saw somebody like Gord on the stage, they recognized it immediately. They knew who he was. They’d been to school with someone like that, they knew his shamanistic tendencies, his hoser tendencies, the poetic tendencies. It was the same with us. When people walked into the Horseshoe and saw us, they thought: “These guys aren’t British. They’re not American. They’re Canadian, and there’s something that feels right about that.” From the get-go, the Hip more than us really reflected their own background. We lived it and eventually wrote about it. But the Hip right away said, “They shot a movie once in my hometown,” and looked no further than their own backyard for images. And of course Gord was a great poet and it went from there. When audiences saw the Hip for the first time, they thought, even subconsciously: “Finally, our own band.”

Why do you think Canadian music flourished during the time both your bands were coming up?

A: I was around for 1967, and that was a glorious celebration of our country, but we didn’t know what to do with it then. We didn’t turn it into art. It germinated for about 20 years. The novelists came first, and then the musicians and filmmakers.

Who else writes like Gord Downie?

A: He is able to do some very obtuse images and still present a very likeable character. I think Canadians like that, too. He shows a lot of Canadian characteristics in his lyrics; he’s very self-effacing.

This is a band that’s known each other since high school, and it’s the same five guys. Your band has three of the same guys.

A: With all the difficulties of being in a band and pushing boundaries, it’s amazing they’re such a tight unit. I’ve heard that on this tour they’ve been setting up very close to each other. I’m sure that has some practical function, but it’s also a beautiful image of them acknowledging how close they are. Again, look at the Canadian landscape: audiences are very loyal, and bands in this country stay together a long time. We’ve always thought, how can we be the longest running band ever? We can’t. You can’t beat Rush. You can’t even beat 54-40. Or April Wine. It’s possible for bands to stay together for 40, 50 years, and being active.

You were at the final Spirit of the West show at Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom, where the band capped off a farewell tour following singer John Mann’s diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s; he’s only a year older than Downie. Can you describe that show?

A: I was sidestage, and it appeared to be a once-in-a-lifetime celebration. It was the final show, and they put me in the encore, which was very nerve-wracking. I sang one of their songs, “Not Just a Train.” I had wanted to say a little something, so when I went out I stepped to the mic and looked down and everybody there was crying, just weeping.

MORE: Spirit of the West’s Geoffrey Kelly on his band’s final show

Of course!

A: Sure, but I couldn’t tell that from the side of the stage because there was so much cheering. Of course I teared up right away because then you’re forced to think of the import of all of this. So I said a few words and did my thing and there were a few encores, but when they finally came off the stage it was an incredibly sad thing. Because that’s it. I’m sure it will be the same for the Hip. I’ve heard that the show is very moving, and people are reflecting on how much this band has meant to them. It’s extraordinary what has happened. People discovered this band that meant everything to them, and they can directly relate to them. It’s not like loving Bruce Springsteen or the Beatles—there will always be a gulf there. You will not be a part of Bruce’s world, but you are a part of Gord’s world and his vision, and that’s beautiful.

I have to ask to you something for which I will shoot myself later, because I hate this question more than anything, especially now. But I was asked it myself, when I was on TV the day Gord’s diagnosis was announced; the fourth or fifth question I was asked was: Why were they never big in the States?

A: I’m not sure that matters. The greater question is: why were they so important to Canadians? What we found in the States is that if you can’t explain what you do in one sentence, people are not going to listen. [Blue Rodeo] never had a problem in this country having two singers; never, not once. But that was everything in the States: who’s the singer? Most important, the Hip represent why we are a different culture. We wouldn’t expect them to be big in France. Gord is an extremely recognizable character up here. Put that character in the U.S., and they don’t know if he’s kidding or not. We have a really high developed sense of irony up here. We understand when someone’s putting us on and when they’re not. You go to Newfoundland, and if you don’t understand irony, you’re going to be pretty embarrassed. We look at the Hip and we know who each of those guys is. They’re like the ultimate Canadian boy band. It’s also wrong to say they’re unknown in the States; they’re well-known in the States. They have lots of pockets of popularity. If I talk to people in Canada about the Hip, I don’t think this concerns them. When I grew up, bands being big in Canada meant something that was second-class. Then those lines became blurred and eventually erased and then it became something quite defined as different. Then people in this country were happy that we had our own bands and didn’t care if they were big anywhere else.

Do you have any personal favourite memories, albums, songs?

A: I like the hits, right? [laughs] “Ahead by a Century,” “Courage,” “Fifty-Mission Cap.” But if we were going to do one, I’d do “Hundredth Meridian.” First of all, it’s amazing to write a song about an imaginary geographical landmark. Secondly, what a great song it is. But I think we’re doing—actually, I’m not sure what we’re doing.

Oh, what are you doing, Jim? Do tell.

A: Whoa! No, I can’t say. It won’t be a big secret soon. I love those guys. Of our generation of bands, we were always really happy to see them succeed to the level they did.

Michael Barclay is the co-author of Have Not Been the Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-95.