#ThrowbackThursday: That time I almost died playing in a Tragically Hip tribute band

Now entertainment editor Tom Zillich survived tour-van crash in 2002

Tribute band Totally Hip circa 2002

Recent news of Gord Downie’s terminal illness got me thinking about the time I played his band’s timeless music on a regular basis.

For me, the Tragically Hip was the soundtrack of 2002, when I played bass in a tribute band called Totally Hip.

That’s me in the above photo, second from left.

A few years later, I wrote about my band-life experiences in a story that first appeared in the Now in December of 2005.

Here’s the story:

The Hip ‘n me: One junker van with lawnchairs for rear seats: $900; one post-crash rental vehicle: $3,200; one lifelong dream of touring in a rock band: priceless

(From Dec. 7, 2005, Surrey Now)

For me, the 37-track list of Yer Favourites, the new greatest-hits package from The Tragically Hip, looks strangely familiar, like a set list. That I’ve witnessed Kingston’s finest in concert a grand total of 14 times since 1989 is of secondary relevance here. More telling, I once laboured in a rock band called Totally Hip, a musical tribute to, well, you know.

Three summers ago, the five of us toured the thirsty tundra of the western provinces in our Dodge Tradesman van, a $900 junker that later bit the dust in spectacular fashion. More about that later.

In the months prior to that August-long trek, we rehearsed ourselves skinny in a superheated storage room located in the back of a greasy auto shop in North Van. I used to sweat so much during those 12 hours a week that I bought an emergency stick of deodorant, which I carried in my Fender bass case.

The ol’ four-string hadn’t seen this kind of pro-gig action in 20 years of playing. School, journalism career, marriage, kids — who has time to play in a band? Before it was too late in life, I made the time. Looking back, it was worth every bruise, both physical and financial.

On some nights we played to a few hundred beer-breathed, flag-waving Hip heads. Other nights? Not so much. But wherever we were, we rocked. Hard. And we were bang-on, musically.

The singer’s name was Mike, who did a mean Gord Downie, circa Up to Here, still with the hair. His Jesus-lid brother, Colin, was an amiable lad who played absolutely wicked leads on the six-string. Chris worried too much about stuff and was a little timid, but his rhythm parts were solid. The guy behind the drums, well, Pat was way too moody and smoked too much. And he still owes me money, so he’s on my list.

Anyhow, the tour kickoff was a so-so Thursday-nighter in front of two dozen friends and passersby at the O.B. in White Rock. The next morning, our odd squad squeezed into the Tradesman and motored toward Penticton for our first out-of-town gig, other than the night we played Whistler on Canada Day and nearly started a riot.

The Tradesman (similar to the one pictured here) wasn’t much to look at, with its baby-poop-brown-and-primer-red exterior, but it got us there. Inside, it was rec-room chic with wood paneling, beige shag carpet and diamond-paneled accents.

That summer, the Prairies suffered through record drought, so it was a real shocker when, not four hours into Alberta, a freak monsoon drove rain up and INTO the rusty gut of the top-heavy Dodge, which swayed in the wind. Eyes closed at the rear of the boat, I gripped my lawnchair a little tighter.

Yes, lawnchair.

The story is, the rear of the van had no seats, so three of us sat on Canadian Tire-issue lawnchairs, which were pretty comfy but not exactly CSA-approved for vehicular travel.

We were wet, cranky but eager to play when the highway sign read Innisfail, where a dog-food factory is the primary source of income for vodka-pickled Albertans who motor around looking for a place to happen, making stops along the way. But at least the town doesn’t smell like cow dung, like Brooks, home to a hellishly smoky hotel bar that almost had to rock on without us that Wednesday night.

Almost.

It was supposed to be a two-nighter out to Saskatoon and back but on a sunny Monday afternooon we were picking gravel from our teeth in a ditch outside of Drumheller. Part of the blame falls on a dollop of carrot-cake icing, which slopped onto the arm of the driving drummer who, while cleaning the mess with a napkin, took his eyes off the road. Half onto the soft shoulder at this point, we swerved hard left, hard right and then slid port side down, metal on asphalt. I’ll never forget the sound:

CKRRREEEEEAEAEEGNNKKKKGGGGGG!!

By the time the hellish ride had come to a grinding halt, the van had flipped over once or twice and into the sunburned grass below. We were fortunate that the thin screws managed to hold the inch-thick particle board that walled in the heavy amps at the rear end of the rig, otherwise I’d have had a backward “Marshall” tattooed on my forehead.

Amazingly, all five of us walked away breathing and hearts beating, but the lifeless Dodge was soon emptied of its cargo and towed to an auto graveyard not far from the dinosaur bones. With time to kill, three of us set up camp on the side of the road, drank warm beer, smoked some junk, and jawed with the local citizenry who stopped to help. By the time two of the guys (thanks, Colin and Chris) had returned with a rental minivan, it was dark, our flashlight batteries were nearly dead, and the coyotes were beginning to circle.

I swear, we did 140 all the way to Saskatoon, which was a sight for sore, bleary eyes at six in the morning. Later that night we played our most inspired, most life-loving gig of the tour, even though the DJ and his buddies outnumbered bums in seats out front. Now that’s tragic.

Wherever we humped in gear for the night, it was great having “instant” fans who knew and loved the music. Impressed bar patrons would thrust ice-cold ones into our sweaty mitts not long after we stepped from the stage. At one stop I was asked for my autograph and to pose for a photo with a guy named Reg, who so loved the Hip that he drove for an hour to see us in Yorkton, Sask. We were a hit.

Most “into it” were the locals of La Ronge, a northern Saskatchewan fishing town. At Rowdie’s, the town drunks were free to stagger on stage for a closer look at the musicians. Security? Yeah, right. We earned every penny of the $2,000 contracted for the two nights there, which covered some of the $3,200 we credit-carded for the big, all-mod-cons van we rented back in Saskatoon. Sure, our booking agent at Feldman & Associates (Mr. Fifteen-Percent) cooked up some big-money gigs for us, but in the end we each banked enough cash to cover strings, drum sticks and a tube of Polysporin for cuts and scrapes from the crash.

Not only that, we suffered through a brutal tour schedule that had us playing until 2 a.m., packing up the gear and in bed by 3:30 or so, and awake by 8 to drive to the next show, located up to 12 hours down the highway. My vote: next time we hire somebody to drive.

But for me there will be no “next time,” no Totally Hip, no touring for weeks on end, no near-death adventures in a dusty Prairie ditch. A month after the original band hit a final chord in Nelson, B.C., the Mach Two version of Totally Hip motored forth with some new guy on bass. Reluctantly, I quit. I needed to get on with “real” life, after living out my rock-star fantasies. Weeks later, I ached to feel the dark groove of “Gift Shop,” the droning grunge of “Grace, Too,” but something told me it was time to stop playing mock star. And at least I lived to talk about it.

tom.zillich@thenownewspaper.com

 

 

 

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