When I was in high school, my final assignment for Grade 12 literature was to choose three novels about one subject and write an essay. I blew the assignment by taking too broad of an approach and not incorporating enough from the three books. I barely passed that class.
The Never-Ending Present at times blows it in a similar way. The book’s subject is The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie, and I learned a bit when it was on task. Not so much when it went into chapter-long tangents about the Canadian music scene.
The preface was promising. Author Michael Barclay did not shy away from stating how private the members of The Tragically Hip are and how they did not want a “tell-all” book written. They were a band about the next album, the next project, the next tour and not being defined by the past. Hence, the title The Never-Ending Present.
Gord Downie, The Hip’s leader by default, passed away on October 17th, 2017 from terminal brain cancer. On that day, the Hip’s guitarist Rob Baker gave an answer to the question about documenting the band’s past to the Toronto Star:
Anyone can write whatever they want to write, that’s fine with me. It’s just not our story as we would tell it. I have no interest in a chronological history of the band or talking about who influenced us and what our influence on others might be. It’s irrelevant… Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
Barclay is also clear how The Hip declined to “review a fact-checking document for this book.”
I almost stopped reading it right here. I’m not sure if The Hip even wants me to know what is contained within its pages. Not in a sleazy, tell-all way, but in a “let the art speak for itself” way. Gord preferred to have the meaning behind his words to be open to your interpretation and not be a mystery that needs to be solved.
But I carried on. I was taking a deep dive into The Hip’s catalogue for the very first time in my life, and curiosity got the better of me. It turns out I had nothing to worry about. This book revealed nothing you could find for yourself on Google.
When the book was covering the band’s early years, it was on point. Certainly not with anything new for the die-hard fan as its material is mostly a compilation of quotes from past publications. There is some merit to having it all in a one-stop read for a newbie like myself, but once we are past Phantom Power in the timeline, the book goes heavy into the filler.
For example, one chapter is devoted to random musicians talking about their experiences when opening for larger acts. Some of these bands and artists opened for the Hip, so there is a loose connection at times, but the bulk is about how “so and so” felt before opening for The Guess Who. It is fine to read but really what I signed up for.
I think if you are going to charge money for a book on The Tragically Hip, it should be about The Tragically Hip. Give us journalism. Interview people. Find an interesting angle. Give us food for thought. I understand that the band is tight-lipped but that is not an excuse to pad the book with unrelated content.