You learn it from a young age. Rock 'n' roll artists are not supposed to be thoughtful nor particularly deep. Intelligence isn't where it's at for rock: No one remembers Elvis for his sparkling intellect, few hail Led Zeppelin for its subtlety. It's about rebellion, power and sexuality, and how they play off of each other. And increasingly, it's about selling something.
But like most slices from the loaf of conventional wisdom, this one is a bit moldy. For every 50 pop stars trading solely on sex appeal, there is one musician who sees rock as a valid platform for artistic expression. Who says, then, that rock lyrics have to be innocuous at best, downright dumb at worst? The core tenet of the music's belief system -- that one should question and rebel against the established order of things -- suggests we should think twice before accepting the vacuous commodification of the music if it's something we really care about.
All of this high-falutin' semi-nonsense set up shop in my gray matter while I prepared to speak to Gordon Downie, vocalist/lyricist/guitarist with the Tragically Hip, the most significant rock ensemble to emerge from Canada over the last two decades. (The Tragically Hip performs at 8 p.m. Friday in Six Flags Darien Lake Performing Arts Center.)
Downie has always appeared as a bit of an enigma. His lyrics are poetry, though they lack self-importance. His singing is deeply sensual, emotive and idiosyncratic, lending a distinct air of otherness to the Hip's left-of-center twin-guitar rock 'n' roll. On stage, he's a man posessed, given to improvisational flights of fancy and stream-of-consciousness meanderings. To legions of fans, he's just Gord, the man who's given voice to songs they hold dear for reasons that are many and varied. Listening to the band's excellent just-released "In Between Evolution," one hears the familiar trademarks of the Tragically Hip sound - the locomotive-like grace of the rhythm section, the effortless "ancient form of weaving" interplay of the guitars, the subtle intensity of Downie's delivery. But like so many Hip masterpieces - "Fully Completely," "Trouble at the Hen House," "In Violet Light" - "In Between Evolution" comes in layers, as an onion that requires peeling. Peel deep enough on this one, and tears could well come.
On a CBC broadcast several years ago, Downie used a quote from poet Tess Gallagher - one suggesting that the writer should use writing as an opportunity "to be grateful and ample to those nearest your heart." The line of verse has imbued his lyric writing deeply, as evidenced by "In Between Evolution." It's sophisticated writing, never coy or reticent, but rather, generous, emotional and open.
"It's interesting to talk about this, because invariably, it gets so distilled, in terms of people writing about music," Downie said by phone from Toronto earlier this week. "This is sort of an aside, I guess, talking about your business and my business, and how they could and should intertwine together so nicely.
"I guess I'm sort of finding it tough to read interesting things (in the music press). And we're all sort of in it together."
"Lyrics," Downey continues. "I'm glad you feel that way, because I've been working on them, and I'd like to feel I'm evolving. Then again, not evolving is perhaps the hardest thing. Holding on to something that you had in the beginning and making it continue to mean something."
There is a thread that connects all of Downey's lyric writing, from the band's earliest days as a bar band busting out of Kingston, Ont., to its arena-hero status throughout Canada and pockets of the United States today. Imagistic, literate, rich in metaphor, Downey's words are also never too precious, studied or self-conscious. But "In Between Evolution" surely represents one for the writer; the passion is tough to miss here.
"I think when you write a song, that's your hope - that they can be used for different occasions and have meaning. I think that's primarily where music's purpose comes from. Getting back to Tess Gallagher - the question is, what are you writing for?" Downey muses.
"Ideally, you're basically trying to honor those people that you love. Or you're writing a song for a friend. Or an artifact that you're lamenting. Or a bad decision - made by George Bush, let's say. "You had a chance to choose something differently - and here's what you chose.' Whatever - we commemorate these things in a song. Maybe it'll come in handy."
With typical understatedness, Downey is referring, perhaps, to a number of tunes from "In Between Evolution" which, via metaphor, suggest the current tone and tenor of America. The band recorded the album in Seattle. Invariably, according to Downey, the landscape crept into the writing. "Is it a mean streak/a desolation sound/a copy of desire, oh nothing's that far down/a mean streak on a Western swing/on TV saying the damndest things," runs a verse in "Mean Streak."
"Are We Family" reflects on relations between two countries sharing the same continent with a mixture of desperation and compassion. "One Night in Copenhagen" depicts a life-changing event endured far away from home.
"Copenhagen' refers to . . . one of those calls in the night that basically washes out everything," Downey says. "Because you realize that your life is now changed . . . by, let's say a phone call from home, and leave it at that. But it's about that point where you realize your life is now changed, and what do you choose to do with it? I think the song is essentially about sobriety. Drug-induced or otherwise."
As the Tragically Hip hit the road, following a string of intimate shows in Canada during the week of the album's release, they'll be including plenty of "Evolution's" songs in their sets - tunes that, Downey says, "have become more beastly, a bit bigger since we recorded them." Fans who clamor for "the older stuff" will get some; those songs still have meaning for Downey and the band.
"Most people come to shows for very disparate reasons," Downey says. "Disparate wants and hopes. Myself included. Hopefully, the music is the glue that holds the event together.
"A song that you've written, and that you feel inside, actually grows, like a piece of wood. It's a living thing. It grows as you grow. And I'm always really pleased by that - that songs almost become like time capsules for you. I find myself on stage, singing lyrics that I wrote 15 years ago and finding something new in them. It's a song, or a line, held up to a different light.
"A new light."