|Introduction: A Museum After Dark|
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|"I know it's only rock and roll..."
The National Gallery of Canada is a massive cathedral of glass and steel overlooking the Ottawa River. It is home to some of Canada’s premium works of art. A mansion of so many masterpieces, it’s the kind of place where a stick-man-sketch-master such as myself can only be awed by the art. There are a few pieces at the gallery which carry a certain finger-painting-first-grader appeal, but it’s a safe bet they’d still easily cover your next dozen mortgage payments after even the briefest time on e-bay. From Emily Carr to Jean Paul Lemieux, from abstract photography to contemporary canvas, the gallery’s walls are at the pinnacle of artistic recognition.
During the summer and fall of 2002, inside one of the gallery’s airy and track-lit display rooms, rock and roll lyrics had been scrawled across an otherwise picture perfect wall.
Now, the gallery isn’t exactly a magnet for rambunctious teens. It’s not the sort of place young lovers document their affections in spray-paint. In fact, the writing wasn’t graffiti at all. It was part of a tribute to one of Canada’s greatest cultural enigmas, Tom Thomson. The lyrics, which simply read “Tom Thomson came paddling past/I’m pretty sure it was him,” were from Three Pistols, a song by Canada’s band The Tragically Hip.
Most folks breezed by the lyrics. They looked up, they moved on. You can’t blame them really, ‘The Jack Pine’ was waiting in the next room. But for me, seeing those lyrics was reason to smile. I’d been a Hip fan for years, since I first heard a rough and energetic voice breaking from my dad’s car radio. It told an improvised story about a Killer Whale. Gordon Downie, the bands lead singer and the owner of that voice, broke into the tale right smack in the middle of a live performance. At 12 years old, still slowly shifting away from the Chipmunks and towards Kurt Cobain, this seemed like a serious breech of radio rules. I was hooked, and hooked for good.
Growing up, it was reassuring to know that not only were these guys writing music that could piss my parents off, but they also laid bare a few common connections. They were from Ontario, they liked hockey, and it was nice –and rare– to hear songs on the radio about Prime Ministers instead of Presidents or Lake Ontario instead of the Mississippi. As a kid discovering his identity, growing up in a nation often pre-occupied with doing the same, it was a refreshing beat beyond the usual.
By the time I saw those lyrics on the gallery wall, I had seen the band live more than fifteen times. I had also fallen into the habit of examining their songs for meaning. Now, this might seem like a colossal waste of time, it is rock music after all. Yet the music of The Tragically Hip goes beyond the chord slashing, slam dancing, recycled rebellion of pop rock and neo-punk. Their songs have an intriguing depth to them. They are full of terms and references that stand out and ask to be examined. The Hip write about me, about you, about Canada, about culture and community. They also write about history, politics and the education that is everyday life. Believe it or not, I was learning things from their music, and I wanted to learn more. When Peter Mansbridge called them ‘the musical chroniclers of our time’ I knew exactly what he meant.
These reflections of our fisherman’s paradise –a term Downie used to describe Canada– come quickly and irreverently within various songs. In 1998 for example, the Hip released Poets to radio stations. The lyric: ‘there’s nothing more that you need now/lawn cut by bare breasted women’ rang familiar to myself and my fellow adolescent Ontario males. At the time, we were eagerly expecting the summer of unrequited toplessness. This state of bliss was supposed to result from the ‘Gwen Jacobs’ court ruling. This decision, by the Ontario Court of Appeal, granted women the right to bare all in public. Although the topless trend never materialized, the media hyped this emancipation in a major way.
Editorial pages and television fluff pieces made mention of the coming topless revolution. A woman, usually pictured with bare back to the camera, would be seen happily cutting her grass or performing some other outdoor summer activity. The general tone of the pieces was light, often with one or two corny questions as a closer: “could this topless thing catch on? How could any woman resist the freedom?” To the disappointment of hormonal boys Province wide, they all somehow managed to resist.
At an age when my friends and I were content to drive around for the sake of driving around, when nothing was really ours, it was enjoyable to hear a familiar voice paint a familiar image on the radio. We could identify with that lyric, that image, that song. It was simple, it was silly actually, but we knew where that lyric came from. We lived there.
Other Hip Heads have told me about similar experiences with radio recognition. After hearing a line in a song, identifiable images or recollections emerge. This happens with many fans of various bands across different radio waves each day. But there is something undeniably ours, some collective knowing nod, at the mention of the “forget your skates dream” or a “bemused Trudeau.”
The Tragically Hip invite their fans to indulge. Beyond the riffs and crashing symbols stands a museum of citation, saga and society. From the stage, Shakespearian passages flow into reminisces of the wrongly convicted. Questions of our crumbling common-bond mix with melodic movements of pounding bass and ringing rhythm. The Hip provide their fans with the type of blues and roots rock which appeal to both the adrenaline and academic junky.
This song writing style gently pushes rather than pokes. Personally, it nudged me to go further, to investigate. I’ve found myself googeling “John Cage” and listening to Eric’s Trip after hearing their names in respective Hip tunes. In my teens, their music opened my eyes to aspects of culture that I knew little about. It brought me the horror of the Montreal Massacre and the unpolished realities of Jacques Cartier. In my twenties, the band continues to broaden my horizons.
With each trip to the dictionary or a history website, I continue to pick up new definitions and details. There’s something satisfying about listening to a Hip song after unlocking a particularly mysterious metaphor or reference. The feeling of “getting it” allows me to feel a more personal connection to the songs. I’m with it guys; I hear what you’re saying.
Understanding the significance of the songs allows the music to speak to me with a unique clarity. I find the songs much more enjoyable when the meanings and rhetorical flourishes reveal themselves. Perhaps it’s the simple satisfaction of researching, discovering and uncovering. Like watching a favourite film a second or third time and picking out all the clues, hints and subtle plot devices you initially missed. Listening to Hip songs is a far more enjoyable experience when the words and rhythms are complimented by reasons and recognition.
The Tragically Hip Paradox: Nationalism
But once you’ve realized that The Hip are Canucks who write layered songs, often referencing their homeland, you’re only just getting started. It’s at this point where the band and their front man step right into their greatest paradox: nationalism. Nationalism is both a souvenir and a suffering for The Tragically Hip.
When asked about Canadiana, Gord Downie has remarked that he simply writes what he knows. His songs evoke images of Northern landscapes and legends. He and his band have left, and continue to leave, a trail of exhausting and exciting live shows from The Rock to The Left Coast. This is how The Tragically Hip became "Canada’s Band."
One of the realities of existing next to a cultural Leviathan is that your media, your schools and your role models can lack any in-depth reference to home. While the Canadian majority values our neighbour and recognizes our intricate relationship, there is still a genuine appreciation for the recognition of little things Canadian, perhaps anything Canadian, within our mainstream culture.
Otto Friedrich, Glenn Gould’s biographer, described Canada as a “relatively empty land… still rather nervously examining the connected fibers of its own identity.” If nothing else, The Tragically Hip have sewn many of these fibers of Canada into a patchwork. It is a cultural quilt visible to everyone, no matter which flag flies over their head. They celebrate not only what makes Canada different, but what makes Canada, Canada.
Still, to some The Hip are more than just great Canadian musicians. These five guys from Canada’s colonial capital represent a larger struggle. As the band’s efforts go largely unheralded in the United States, they become a symbol of a neighbour ignored by the Super Power next door.
There is of course a fine line between pride, patriotism and the divisive dirge of nationalism. By demonstrating their respect and awareness of Canada, The Hip were easy targets for those searching for a negative nationalist icon. Those who wished to define Canadian as ‘anything not American’ had found an unwilling patsy in the public domain.
These negative nationalists have seen a rise in ranks over recent years. International trade deals, foreign wars, cultural differences and even hockey rivalries have inflated the expression of ‘Us vs. Them.’ The negative nationalist sees The Tragically Hip as something that hasn’t been corrupted by the American media machine. They feel The Hip belong to them, whether the band likes it or not.
To be fair, The Hip’s early stages may have fanned the flames. Their breakout hit, 1989’s New Orleans’s Is Sinking, contains a ubiquitous Uncle Sam figure informing Canadians: ‘Hey North, you’re South, shut your big mouth.” A reference to the Free Trade Agreement negotiation –the defining issue of the 1988 Canadian Election– which sparked wide spread opposition to closer Canadian ties with the U.S.
Long before free trade, John Matheson –the MP who headed the committee to find Canada’s flag– remarked on the irony of the Prime Minister championing the patriotic cause. “It was Lester Pearson, who philosophically would have pulled down all flags everywhere, who showed his raw love of his country by producing the symbol of Canada’s yearning to survive.” Today, Downie and The Tragically Hip share Pearson’s distrust of nationalism as well as an iconic status among nationalists. While The Hip haven’t stopped speaking their political minds –2004’s In Between Evolution was loaded with poetically disguised shots at the Bush administration– the bands music has taken a subtler, more introspective tone.
In 1996, Downie explained his change of heart to Charles Foran of Saturday Night magazine. “I was watching as nationalism began to metamorphose into something creepy and affiliated. Too much ill will was being generated by nationalistic feelings. I had to bail out." In 1992, The Hip’s front man sardonically told a July 1st crowd that Canada Day was “a tool of oppression the man uses to keep us down." A decade later, he took to shouting, "what has nationalism brought you?! Don't say you're better than anyone else!" It appears, over time, that the flag wavers up front didn't follow their leader. At their worst, the negative nationalists co-opt The Hip and their music as part of their quest to build themselves up by knocking Americans down.
There are segments of Hip Heads who both practice and preach this nouveau chic nationalism. At live shows, the movement shows up in front of the stage, usually in the pit. It is often aided and abetted by beverages, some of which, fittingly enough, carry the brand name Canadian.
Rather than cater to this increasingly accepted idea of ignorance, the Hip have stayed far away from fist-pumping comparisons and clichés. They don’t bluntly write hockey or Prairie songs for their own sake, for their non-Yankee factor. The band acknowledges such aspects of the Canadian fact using historical reference and allusion. These winks to Canadian culture are found within songs that often carry a deeper message, or many messages intertwined.
These songs touch on events and individuals who represent both the positive and negative marks on our history. There is not a sterilized Dudley Do-Right impression of Canada within the music, but a reflection of a diverse and dispersed nation. The band invites the listener to discover that yes; there are truths and myths and magical aspects of Canada that don’t begin with “compared to them.” No, we’re not a cultural empire, but we are a rich cultural community.
The late novelist Pierre Berton, a fierce nationalist in his own right, said “a country has to have a mythology. There has to be a rich fabric and background that tells us what kind of people we are.” John Raulston Saul, eminent intellectual and husband of Canada’s former Governor General, wrote that in Canadian culture “there is constant re-balancing between victimization and self-confidence.” The Tragically Hip remind us that we shouldn’t be afraid to examine this culture, not by balancing it opposite other national mythologies, but by allowing it to stand capably on its own. Like Berton, The Hip have successfully spun such tales onto the public record. And like Saul, they’ve done it with a confident stride that feels no need to diminish anyone else.
When Peter Mansbridge spoke of “the musical chroniclers of our times,” perhaps the CBC anchorman was aware that for so many, The Tragically Hip have been their only chronicle of Canadianna. Before Heritage Minutes, before grainy footage of Paul Henderson was used to sell brew, and before the negative nationalism had really picked up speed, the Hip turned many of us on to Hugh Maclennan, Tom Thomson and Canadian folklore in general.
With this project, I’ve tried to include the best examples of this museum-within-music. If a few notes have fallen over an image of Terry Fox or a name on the Stanley Cup, I’ve attempted to flesh out the reference. How did this person earn a mention? What’s so special about this particular place? Why does that ring a bell? These questions, along with the ever popular ‘What did he just say?’are the ones I hope to answer with this site.
Find Your Message
Most questions regarding Hip songs pop up for two main reasons. First, the band speaks in a veiled and imaginative manner. This beautifully avoids abrupt and inelegant music, it is artsy and appreciated, but it doesn’t always lend itself to easy explanations. Second, The Hip are reluctant to simply glorify their surroundings. The references can be swift before a song veers off to take a critical look at art, history or modern life.
This moving on, moving forward, progressing at all costs, makes it clear that The Hip and their music wait for no one. There is a touch of the outsider, observer perspective often attributed to Canadians. The bands work contains a postmodern view of authority and custom. Change is good.
'Evolution, energy, and the embrace of experimentation' may just be the best seven-word-summary I can write for The Tragically Hip. My personal favourite Downie quote deals directly with this aspect of the band. It came when the singer was asked about testing out new sounds and songs on stage. This often happens –as it did once with a story about a Killer Whale– while the band is performing a long established number. “We’re not trying to hide the lights,” Downie told a Much Music interviewer. “It’s like the Big Apple in Colborne where you can watch the bakers do their thing.” Colborne, an Ontario highway-side village, is home to the world’s largest artificial apple. The apple sits beside a functional bakery-on-display. The opportunity to glimpse the process of pie making has drawn many from the road. The bakery in the round is an apt metaphor for the moments Hip fans spend staring into the stage waiting for unplucked gems to emerge. This process of listening for songs to be born has become the makeshift pastime at live Hip performances. Stories, quotes and characters from Downie’s mid-stride soliloquies are often song lyrics in their embryonic stage.
The music that does emerge from The Tragically Hip, while far from revolutionary, has been reliably progressive for twenty years. The band, their sound and the depth of their material have changed and improved with time. They are a part of what Saul calls the “great Canadian strength,” a movement which embraces a “cultural mix without the depressing drive towards sameness.”
Success, however defined, has not soured the spirit of the members, nor has a cynical “been there done that” tone entered their work. Rhythm, reference and meaningful melody have become their trademark. Their early covers of Monkee’s tunes have evolved into existential ponderings on everything from family to Falstaff to fair trade. The Tragically Hip are able to poignantly reflect on politics, culture and just about anything while keeping our toes tapping and our mind’s moving.
The great thing about the band –perhaps the greatest thing– is that every song can mean something different to each fan. The Hip avoid standard song writing traditions and cliché’s. The bands work is free of uninspired lyrics and forced imagery. The creative use of prose and loose narrative allows each fan to form a unique mental image. Instead of saying ‘here’s my song and here’s my message,’ the Hip’s music states ‘here’s my song, now find your message.’
It would be impossible to say this song is about X or that song is about Y. Dissecting any art is a subjective task. With this project, I have not tried to explain the songs. Only the writers of the music could do them justice. What I have tried to do is put many of the men, women and myths mentioned by The Hip in one place. This site is not an academic study of a rock band. Consider it a reference tool, maybe even a quick history lesson, for either the long-time Hip Head or the relative newbie.
You’ll notice above and occasionally in the individual descriptions which follow that I’ve avoided using plural terms such as “the listener.” I’ve tried to stick to singular, first person terms, since I can only give my opinion, backed by my research. As I mentioned before, the greatest strength of the band is that they provide for each fan to arrive at their own understanding.This Music Speaks To Me
Exploring The Hip’s music provides the enjoyment of greater understanding. I’ve found a satisfaction in finally adding a character to the content or a new meaning to the message. Hip songs suddenly seem more significant after making these discoveries. They’re enlightening and simply more fun to listen to. It’s always more gratifying to dive in than hang back, and that’s something I wanted to share.
I’m not sure what else I can write to explain my appreciation for The Tragically Hip, or why I felt this project had merit. During my research, I found a 1922 pamphlet hyping the Group of Seven’s latest exhibition. It seemed to fit the bill. It read, “Artistic expression is a spirit, not a method, a pursuit, not a settled goal, an instinct, not a body of rules.” To me, this band embodies that spirit.
For those who are fans, no explanation is necessary. For those who aren’t, no explanation will do. But, it’s probably best to just quote Paul Langlois, Johnny Fay, Bobby Baker, Gordon Sinclair and Gordon Downie themselves and say “this music speaks to me.”
After all, nobody ever says it better than The Tragically Hip.
All non-lyric content and Hip photographs © 2006 Stephen Dame
Lyrics are the property and copyright of The Tragically Hip.
Lyrics are provided for reference, education and personal use only.