#305: Little Bones by Tragically Hip

Peak Month: April 1991
12 weeks on Vancouver’s CKLG chart
Peak Position #3
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ did not chart
YouTube: “Little Bones
Lyrics: “Little Bones

In the early 1980’s bass player Gord Sinclair and guitar player Rob Baker were students at Kingston Collegiate Vocational Institute in Kingston, Ontario. They had performed at the collegiate’s Variety Show in a band they called The Rodents. In 1984 Baker and Sinclair were in their early twenties. The Tragically Hip formed in 1984 in Kingston, Ontario when the duo added drummer Johnny Fay and lead singer Gordon Downie. Their name came from a skit in the movie Elephant Parts, directed by former Monkee’s guitarist Michael Nesmith. The Tragically Hip added Paul Langois, a guitar player, to their line-up in 1986. When they performed at the Horeshoe Tavern in Toronto in 1984, they were signed to a recording contract with MCA after the company president, Bruce Dickinson, saw the band at the tavern. A self-titled EP (Extended Play) was released in 1987 with a couple of singles that got some airplay. The group was launched.

On August 5th and 6th, 1988, the Tragically Hip performed at the Town Pump in Vancouver.

In 1989 the band released their first studio album, Up To Here. The Tragically Hip proceeded to release five singles from the album: “Blow at High Dough”, “New Orleans Is Sinking”, “Boots Or Hearts”, “38 Years Old” and “Trickle Down.”  The first four of these singles received respectable airplay across Canada. “New Orleans Is Sinking,” a fictional tale, got some airplay on mainstream rock stations in the USA. Of the songs off their first studio album, “Boots Or Hearts” charted the best here in Vancouver.

On October 21st, and again on December 31, 1989, the band gave concerts at the 86th Street Music Hall. In 1990 the Tragically Hip appeared in concert on March 23rd at the 86th Street Music Hall, and on December 31st at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

In 1991 the band released Road Apples which featured the debut single from the album titled “Little Bones”.

Little Bones by Tragically Hip

“Little Bones”, as with all tracks from the Road Apples album, was co-written by all the bandmates in the Tragically Hip. Numerous fans of the Tragically Hip have mentioned online that they heard Gord Downie being interviewed, I think on the CBC, around 1990-91. One fan named Bill MacDonald wrote “I remember an interview with Gord and ‘Little Bones’ was the name of a cat in a book he was reading. At one point, he was eating chicken in the back of a cab. The driver remarked: “better eat that chicken slow, it’s full of all them little bones.” Gord said he liked the connection to the book he was reading and tied it to their experience of recording in New Orleans.” In the 1967 novel, The Last of the Crazy People by Timothy Findley, there is a cat named “Little Bones.” Gord Downie often liked to sprinkle obscure references to things Canadiana into the lyrics of Tragically Hip songs.

The first line in verse one of “Little Bones” is “…It gets so sticky down here, better butter your cue finger up.” This is believed to be a reference to the heat in New Orleans, where in the late summer of 1990, Road Apples was recorded. Gord Downie later wrote in Coke Machine Glow that in “20-watt New Orleans, envelopes lick themselves.”

The second verse of “Little Bones” begins “The long days of Shockley are gone.” William Shockley was born in London, England, in 1910, and raised in Palo Alto, California, from the age of three. After graduating from MIT with a PhD in science, he was involved in radar research during World War II.

In 1944, Shockley organized a training program for B-29 bomber pilots to use new radar bomb sights. In late 1944 he took a three-month tour to bases around the world to assess the results. For this project, Secretary of War Robert Patterson awarded Shockley the Medal for Merit on October 17, 1946.

In July 1945, the War Department asked William Shockley to prepare a report on the question of probable casualties from an invasion of the Japanese mainland. Shockley concluded:

If the study shows that the behavior of nations in all historical cases comparable to Japan’s has in fact been invariably consistent with the behavior of the troops in battle, then it means that the Japanese dead and ineffectives at the time of the defeat will exceed the corresponding number for the Germans. In other words, we shall probably have to kill at least 5 to 10 million Japanese. This might cost us between 1.7 and 4 million casualties including 400,000 to 800,000 killed.

This report influenced the decision of the United States to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which precipitated the unconditional surrender of Japan.

Shockley won the 1956 Nobel Prize in physics for his role in the invention of the transistor. He once ordered all of his staff members to undergo polygraph tests when he became suspicious that his workers were stealing his ideas. When one of the workers was injured in an accident at home, Shockley insisted that one of his other staffers must have been responsible and would have to be found and fired. Shockley was one of Time magazines “Men of the Year 1961.”

After Shockley left his role as director of Shockley Semiconductor, he joined Stanford University, where in 1963 he was appointed the Alexander M Poniatoff Professor of Engineering and Applied Science, in which position he remained until his retirement as professor emeritus in 1975. In this position, Shockley became interested in questions of race, human intelligence, and eugenics. He thought this work was important to the genetic future of the human species and he came to describe it as the most important work of his career, even though expressing his views damaged his reputation.

He claimed that blacks were genetically inferior to whites and that all persons with I.Q.’s below 100 should be sterilized. He said in a debate in 1974 “My research leads me inescapably to the opinion that the major cause of the American Negro’s intellectual and social deficits is hereditary and racially genetic in origin and, thus, not remediable to a major degree by practical improvements in the environment.” He endorsed the idea of creating a future super race of intelligent beings. He even established a “Nobel Sperm Bank” which he regularly donated to and was compared to Nazi gene-engineers by the Atlanta Constitution. Shockley won a lawsuit against the newspaper, though he only one one dollar in compensation.

“Little Bones”, along with the other tracks on Road Apples, was recorded in September 1990 and released in mid-February 1991. William Shockley had died in August 1989, just over a year before the album tracks were recorded. While it was true that the long days of William Shockley were gone, his views on white superiority remain. And federally funded forced sterilization programs took place in 32 states in the USA in the 20th Century. And PBS reported that in California, between 2006 and 2010, there were 150 female inmates who were sterilized.

In addition to the days of Shockley being gone, the Tragically Hip sing “so is football Kennedy style.”

John F. Kennedy, a World War II veteran, was a member of Congress from 1947-53, and US Senator from Massachusetts from 1953-60. JFK ran as a cold warrior in the 1960 United States presidential election, defeating Republican vice president Richard Nixon. With his young First Lady, Jackie Kennedy, the presidency of John F. Kennedy was nicknamed Camelot. There were games of touch football on the White House lawn. The Kennedy presidency was a time of innocence and hope.

When the Joint Chiefs of Staff pressured JFK to have American troops see action in Laos, Kennedy pursued a policy of neutrality and kept US troops out of Laos. In the spring of 1961 when the doomed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba was unraveling, JFK refused to invade Cuba and the effort failed. Declassified documents in 2000 revealed that the CIA learned the Soviet Union became aware of the date of the planned Bay of Pigs invasion. However, the CIA never told President Kennedy what they learned that the Soviets knew. Kennedy fired CIA Director Allen Dulles, CIA Assistant Director General Charles Cabell and CIA Director of Plans Richard Bissell. Kennedy confided to one of his aides shortly after the Bay of Pigs invasion: “Something very bad is going on within the CIA and I want to know what it is. I want to shred the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter them to the four winds.” At the time President Kennedy enjoyed an 83% approval rating.

With regard to Vietnam, President Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had authorized only training and specifically forbade combat of U.S. personnel. They only wanted U.S. personnel to assist in training South Vietnamese soldiers and let that nation fight its own battles. JFK instructed General Taylor, at the NSC meeting of October 13, 1961, to return with a recommendation to withdraw U.S. personnel from Vietnam. At a meeting on October 5, 1963, the JFK considered the recommendations contained in the report of Secretary McNamara and General Taylor on their mission to South Vietnam. The President approved the implementation of plans to withdraw 1,000 U.S. military personnel by the end of 1963.

On June 10, 1963, JFK gave a speech challenging the Soviet Union to a ‘peace race’ and suggested the nuclear arms race was a march of folly. On August 5, 1963, representatives of the United States, Soviet Union and Great Britain signed the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons in outer space, underwater or in the atmosphere. The treaty, which President John F. Kennedy signed less than three months before his assassination, was hailed as an important first step toward the control of nuclear weapons. The agreement was ratified in the United States Senate in a vote of 80-19 on September 24, 1963.

In September 1963 President Kennedy was working with his brother Robert Kennedy and others to seek to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba
. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963. Lee Harvey Oswald was charged with being the lone perpetrator. On January 27, 1964, at a closed-door meeting, Warren Commission General Counsel staff J. Lee Rankin revealed that during the time up until the assassination, Lee Harvey Oswald had also been on the payroll of the FBI and was receiving $200 a month. Jim and Elsie Wilcott, who worked at the CIA Tokyo Station from 1960 to 1964, in a 1978 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, said, “It was common knowledge in the Tokyo CIA station that Oswald worked for the agency.”
Dallas, Texas, Sheriff Bill Decker withdrew all police protection for President Kennedy’s limousine ride through the city. The Secret Service withdrew the police motorcycle escorts from beside the president’s car where they had been the day before in Houston. The Secret Service took agents off the back of the car where they were normally stationed to obstruct gunfire. In violation of security, on November 18th, on a dry run, they approved the fateful, dogleg turn where JFK’s limousine would come to almost to a halt – which it did on November 22, 1963. The House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded these were all actions taken by police and the Secret Service that Lee Harvey Oswald had no control over.
According to the Testimony of Dr. Robert Nelson McClelland at Parkland Memorial Hospital, March 21, 1964, to Warren Commission staff, Arlen Spector, McClelland stated “the wound in the neck, the anterior part of the neck, was an entrance wound and that it had perhaps taken a trajectory off the anterior vertebral body and again into the skull itself, exiting out the back, to produce the massive injury in the head. However, this required some straining of the imagination to imagine that this would happen, and it was much easier to explain the apparent trajectory by means of two bullets… than by just one…” McClelland states this was the view of all the doctors at Parkland. Dr. McClelland’s testimony posed a problem for the Warren Commission since their thesis had a bullet from Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun entering the president from the rear, not the front.
The HSCA wrote in their 1979 report “The committee believes, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that President John F. Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy.”
Almost three decades after the assassination of JFK, “Little Bones” was in synch with the times. It was the same year that Oliver Stone’s documentary JFK prompted passage of the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992.

Robert Francis Kennedy led a crusade against organized crime as U.S. attorney general. He was also among the first to publicly condemn the witch hunt tactics of Joseph McCarthy. RFK launched a successful investigation into corruption in the Teamsters union, and headed JFK’s 1960 election campaign. He had come to the side of Cesar Chavez, who broke his 25-day water-only fast and accepted bread from Robert Kennedy. RFK was standing with the United Farm Workers and defending their rights. While running for President in 1968, he campaigned in Indianapolis, Indiana, and learned that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated. He decided to go to his prearranged rally. Author Lisa Pease describes what happened: “As he informed the crowd of King’s death, he pleaded for understanding, not hatred and violence. He reminded them that his own brother had also been killed by a white man. And while ghettos all over the country burst into violent riots at the news, the ghettos of Indianapolis remained quiet that night.”

Two months later he was shot by multiple assailants in the pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Though there were multiple reported suspects, the LAPD settled on a young Palestinian-American named Sirhan Sirhan. The autopsy showed the fatal bullets the killed RFK entered from the rear, and Sirhan was standing 3 to 6 feet in front of the senator. However, a botched investigation was headed by CIA-connected staff Manny Pena and Hank Hernandez on the LAPD Special Operation Senator unit (later renamed Special Unit Senator) were determined not to find evidence of conspiracy. Witnesses, like Sandra Serrano who heard others leaving the Ambassador Hotel yell “We shot him. We shot Senator Kennedy,” were strapped to a chair and subjected to two and a half hours of bullying police interrogation until they changed their story.

Author Lisa Pease, who spent 25-years researching the assassination of Senator Kennedy in A Lie Too Big To Fail: The Real History of the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, concludes “Anyone who has looked closely and honestly at the evidence has realized that more than one person was involved in Robert Kennedy’s death. So why can’t reporters see this? Why can’t the media explain this? Because the media and the government are two sides of the same coin, and those who challenge the government’s version of history…all too often lose status and sometimes even whole careers.”

In “Little Bones” there is a refrain: “Happy hour, happy hour, happy hour is here.” But, the singer’s voice is agitated, creating incongruity, discordance. The message seems to be ‘when the world is unraveling – when the truth is found to be lies – may as well go and have a stiff drink.’ The lyrics of the song continue: “So regal and decadent here. Coffin cheaters dance on their graves. Music all, it’s delicate fear.”

“Little Bones” climbed to #1 in Hamilton (ON), #3 in Vancouver (BC), and made the alternative-rock charts in Tempe, Arizona. As part of their Road Apples Tour, the Tragically Hip had a five-night stand at the Commodore Ballroom in Vancouver from July 16th to 20th, 1991.

Twist My Arm” and “Three Pistols” followed as subsequent singles from Road Apples. A “road apple” is slang for horse manure.

They released four more studio albums during the 1990’s. One of these, Fully Completely, featured six single releases. The first single release, “Loaded in the Trunk of a Car” climbed to #11 nationally on the Canadian RPM singles chart. However, the song didn’t chart in Vancouver. Still, the third single release from Fully Completely, Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)“, charted in Vancouver.

The Tragically Hip appeared in concert on December 2, 1992, at the PNE Forum. The band performed in Vancouver on July 17, 1993, on Seabird Island.

The Tragically Hip charted 16 songs into the Canadian RPM Top 30, including seven Top Ten hits with “Ahead By A Century” being their first #1 hit in Canada in 1996. They repeated their feat of getting a chart topping single in Canada with “In View” in 2006. Between 1990 and 2017, The Tragically Hip have received sixteen Juno Awards in Canada for a range of honors including Best Single, Best Rock Album and Group of the Year. The songs “Gift Shop” and “Poets” climbed to #4 on the Canadian RPM singles charts in 1996 and 1998. In 1999, the band had a #3 hit across Canada with “Bobcaygeon”. “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” was the first of fifteen singles to crack the RPM Top Ten on either the Pop chart or the Canadian Alternative/Rock chart. The final song to crack the Top Ten nationally was in 2016 with “In A World Possessed By The Human Mind”.

On July 1, 1992, July 13, 1995, and July 17, 1997, the Tragically Hip appeared at the Thunderbird Stadium. They also gave concerts variously on February 25, 1995, November 8, 1996, and November 15th, 2000, all at the Pacific Coliseum; On September 19th and 20th, 2002, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre; On June 25, 2004, at Richard’s on Richards; May 26th, November 3rd, 4th, 6th and 7th, 2006, all at the Commodore Ballroom; March 11th, 1999, and November 14, 2004, and July 12, 2007, all at General Motors Place; On July 22nd, and 23rd, 2009; and September 9th, 10th and 12th, 2013, all at the Orpheum Theatre; And at the Rogers Arena in Vancouver on February 6, 2015. They also gave a concert in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby on July 15, 2011, in Deer Lake Park.

In 2016 Gordon Downie was diagnosed with cancer and the Tragically Hip did what the media billed as a farewell tour. The Tragically Hip appeared in concert in Vancouver at Rogers Arena on July 24th and 26th. On October 13, 2016, Downie and his brother Mike, along with the Wenjack family, announced the founding of the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund to support reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. The fund is a part of Downie’s legacy and commitment to Canada’s First Peoples. Chanie Wenjack was a young aboriginal boy who died trying to escape a residential school, who became the centre of Downie’s Secret Path project. The Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund is a registered charity.

At a gathering of the Assembly of First Nations on December 6, 2016, National Chief Perry Bellegarde honoured Downie with an eagle feather, a symbol of the creator above, for his support of the indigenous peoples of Canada. Bellegarde also bestowed on Downie an honorary aboriginal name, Wicapi Omani, which is Lakota for “man who walks among the stars.” Downie spoke before the House of Commons on July 2, 2017, to speak in solidarity with Canada’s young indigenous people. Downie died in October 2017.

May 26, 2021
Ray McGinnis

Michael Barclay, “Remembering the Life and Legacy of Gordon Downie (1964-2017),” MacLeans, October 18, 2017.
John Mazerolle, “Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie dead at 53,” CBC, October 18, 2017.
Tragically Hip bio, Canadian Bands.com.
Lisa Ko, “Unwanted Sterilization and Eugenics Programs in the United States,” PBS, January 29, 2016.
Michael Hiltzik, “The Twisted Legacy of William Shockley,” Los Angeles Times, December 2, 2001.
Robert Kennedy Jr., American Values: Lessons I Learned from My Family(Harper Perennial, 2018).
James W. Douglass, JFK and The Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why It Matters(Orbis, 2008).
John M. Newman, JFK and Vietnam: Deception, Intrigue, and the Struggle for Power, John M. Newman, 2017.
Lisa Pease, A Lie Too Big To Fail: The Real History of the Assassination of Robert F. Kennedy(Feral House, 2018).
Brian Bender and Neil Swidey, “Robert F. Kennedy Saw Conspiracy in JFK’s Assassination,” Boston Globe, November 24, 2013.
David Talbot, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government, (Harper, 2015).
Stephanie Haney, “New Probes Demanded into Murders of JFK, RFK, and Malcolm X: Celebs and Relatives of Martin Luther King Jr. Call for New Probe into his Death Ahead of his Public Holiday as they claim his Assassination and JFK, RFK and Malcolm X’s killing were Conspiracies Covered up by the Government,” Daily Mail, UK, January 20, 2019.
Tragically Hip ~ Canada concert dates,” setlist.fm.
CKLG Top 40,” CKLG 730 AM, Vancouver, BC, April 29, 1991.

For more song reviews visit the Countdown.

One response to “Little Bones by Tragically Hip”

  1. Kevin Moul says:

    Ray, Thanks for this remembrance of an amazing band who’s songs had so much subtext. Little Bones is a great example of this and truly a classic. You capture the essence of it in this composition. Who knew reading song reviews could teach so much sociopolitical history.

    I also love the fact you dug up the reference to the late Timothy Findlay’s book. A reminder for me to revisit some of that Canadian author’s amazing novels.


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