A beautiful and at first blush enigmatic song, Bobcaygeon is named after a small Ontario town on the Kawartha Lakes, which composer Gord Downie is said to have chosen for the lyrics because he wanted a place name that came as close as possible to rhyming with the word “constellation”.
A close listen to the lyrics, and its description of being on horseback, trying to restore order, reveals what’s made explicit in the video: the protagonist is a cop, grown weary and stressed by the challenges he confronts daily in the concrete canyons of Toronto, where the skies are “dull and hypothetical” – the latter, perhaps, because often, when you’re downtown between the tall buildings, you can barely see the sky at all, those times when you’re actually outdoors. On foggy days, the grey nothing above can blend in with the tops of towers and seem to vanish. I remember telling myself once, it’s gotta be up there somewhere.
One thing that has always struck me in the video is how utterly credible Gord looks, garbed as a police officer.
The narrative’s central event, set out in the bridge, is about things going south at a concert at Toronto’s legendary Horseshoe Tavern, the place with the “checkerboard floors”. The Men They Couldn’t Hang isn’t a description, but the name of an English band described in Wikipedia as “folk-punk”, whatever that is, and one gathers that Gord must have seen them at the Horseshoe at some point, and heard them perform their song “Ghosts of Cable Street”. The song within a song was about a street battle that occurred in 1936 in London’s Whitechapel district, involving members of the British Union of Fascists led by the notorious Oswald Mosley, the thousands of police detailed to protect them and prevent violence, and a mixed throng of anti-fascists, anarchists, communists, Jewish activists, socialists, and just about everybody else in Greater London who then had an axe to grind. The Battle of Cable Street was no small thing, as detailed in Wikipedia:
The main confrontation took place around Gardiner’s Corner in Whitechapel. An estimated 20,000 anti-fascist demonstrators turned out, and were met by 6,000–7,000 policemen (including mounted police), who attempted to clear the road to permit the march of 2,000–3,000 fascists to proceed. The demonstrators fought back with sticks, rocks, chair legs and other improvised weapons. Rubbish, rotten vegetables and the contents of chamber pots were thrown at the police by women in houses along the street. After a series of running battles, Mosley agreed to abandon the march to prevent bloodshed. …Around 175 people were injured including police, women and children.
It’s often suggested that Downie was also alluding to a smaller but locally famous street fight that occurred in Toronto in 1933, in which Jewish citizens and supporters from the Italian community clashed with Nazi sympathizers in what came to be known as the Christie Pits Riot. Perhaps. Whenever I hear the song I’m reminded of the neo-Nazi group with which I had dealings as a lawyer, the Heritage Front, who were involved in a similar street brawl in the early 1990s, not long before Bobcaygeon was written. In the video, the neo-Nazi who stirs up trouble on stage actually looks a lot like the Heritage Front’s then-leader, Wolfgang Droege.
Perhaps it’s about all of that, and nothing so specific. In the song, it seems as if the riot is taking place right there at the Horseshoe, forcing the narrator to wade in, but in any case, violence between extremists and their antagonists is something this cop knows more about than he’d care to, and supplies the context for the character’s primary motivation: surprisingly, Bobcaygeon turns out to be a tender love song. It’s the town where his lover resides, his haven, a rural retreat where everything stands in stark contrast to the urban unpleasantness of the GTA. In one of the prettiest sentiments you’ll ever hear in a pop song, Downie contrasts the dull skies of downtown Toronto with what he sees overhead out in the countryside:
’cause it was in Bobcaygeon
where I saw the constellations
reveal themselves one star at time
…a reference not just to the myriad brilliant stars that you can never see in the city, where their existence can indeed seem purely hypothetical, but also to the rejuvenating power of making love when you’re really in love.
Musically, as befits a love song, Bobcaygeon is more sweetly melodic and accessible than a lot of the Hip’s most celebrated songs, which tend to be chord-driven, and often rock pretty hard; this is the one your mom would like. Don’t be misled, though – sweet and tuneful it may be, but Bobcaygeon is no piece of pop puffery. It’s a powerful, emotional song about serious things, which is the only way Gord knew how to write them. There’s a cinematic sort of sweep to it, too, this depiction of the beleaguered riot cop thinking only of getting back home to his love, even as the violence bids fair to swamp both him and his horse. The only sure antidote to the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, it seems, is to be far away in your lover’s arms. If that doesn’t get you right in the pumper, then, well, I guess I just don’t know.
It’s hard to think of Gord Downie, felled young by brain cancer, without tearing up a little. He was the real deal, a great talent, a deep thinker, a quintessential Canadian, and by all accounts a lovely guy. He left behind a trove of that rarest of things, pop songs with lyrics that really mean something, and move the listener in much the same way as good literature, with stories that fascinate, resonate with genuine emotion, and often embrace some pretty big ideas. With Bobcaygeon, he left us a very fine piece of himself, which doesn’t make it all better, but hey, if you can’t live to a ripe old age, burning brightly while you’re here, and being loved and remembered for your art when you’re gone, has to be reckoned a fair second best.