Nautical Disaster references


From the Nautical Disaster exhibit: A murky guitar riff develops over a submerged bass line. Heated words and reconciliation unfold over the screams of men left to die at sea. The Tragically Hip created this sad, enduring and heroic rock ballad amidships. It developed in the middle of "New Orleans is Sinking" and its meaning became the most contested work in the Hip’s catalogue. Many fans were sure their analysis of events was being relayed within the song. Dieppe, the defining Canadian tragedy of World War Two was suggested, as were the Titanic and Lusitania disasters of earlier years. Gord Downie told the authors of the Can-Rock tome "Have Not Been The Same" that the songs nautical theme is in fact based on the doomed German battleship Bismarck.

"...I had this dream where I relished the fray
and the screaming filled my head all day.
It was as though I'd been spit here, settled
in, into the pocket of a lighthouse on some
rocky socket, off the coast of France, dear."

The song opens as our narrator finds refuge in sleep after suffering –as the song later reveals– a hurtful development is his relationship with "Susan." As he begins to dream, our everyman is about to come face to face with the heartless reality of war at sea, off the coast of France.        

On May 26, 1941 a squadron of British Swordfish torpedo planes broke through the Atlantic fog that had been concealing the Bismarck. One of the aircraft, flying at less than 50 feet above the water, dropped a 1,600-pound, 18-inch torpedo armed with 450 pounds of TNT. The projectile struck the Bismarck’s Achilles heel, the only part of the ship not encased with double thick armour: her twin parallel rudders. The attack did not harm the ship itself, but the Bismarck was now unable to steer, and headed straight into enemy fire.

While her steering capabilities were non-existent, her guns, which had recently sunk the British warship Hood, were still in perfect working order. A ferocious naval battle ensued and lasted more than ninety minutes. By 10:40am, British ships Norfolk, King George V, Rodney and Dorsetshire had blasted the Bismarck with torpedoes, aircraft fire and 2,876 shells. The firing became so intense that the paint on the Rodney began to blister; the vibrations of her guns ripped her deck. The British became frustrated with the Bismarck’s stubborn refusal to sink. Finally, it was the Dorsetshire –a boat that will play an important part with our dreamer– which fired the last torpedo into her side.

"...One afternoon, four thousand men died in
the water here and five hundred more were
thrashing madly, as parasites might in your
blood. Now I was in a lifeboat designed for
ten and ten only, anything that systematic
would get you hated. It's not a deal nor a
test nor a love of something fated. The
selection was quick, the crew picked and
those left in the water got kicked off our
pantleg and we headed for home."

As the Bismarck sank, many sailors dove headfirst over the rails, breaking their necks on the lower decks or the frigid, unforgiving Atlantic itself. While the song references the crew being “picked, in order” as part of a disciplined scuttling, this is pure poetic license. In reality, chaos reigned on the Bismarck as she sank. Some Luftwaffe pilots, armed with military issue pistols, shot themselves in mid jump rather than face the icy waters below. Other soldiers saluted the flag and sang the national anthem before leaping from the hulking wreck.

Once in the ocean, the Bismarck’s men found themselves immersed not in salt water, but in gallons of oil which had been spewing from the ship for over an hour. Some choked; others expended too much energy trying to find open water and simply drowned. At 48o ’09 north, 16o ’07 west, Captain Lindemann and thousands of his loyal seamen, technicians and soldiers, all fell into the Atlantic on board their ship. It took thirty secretaries, three full days to notify all the next of kin. 

I'm still not entirely convinced that part of the lyric isn't inspired by Steven Spielberg's "Jaws." Gord was clearly a fan. He studied film in university, he quoted the movie on stage often, "swim, honey!" and "you say shark..." being the most common, he wore the t-shirt and he of course directly named the film in The Dark Canuck. Robert Shaw's line from the film: "So, eleven hundred men went into the water, three hundred sixteen men come out, and the sharks took the rest,"

Regardless, it’s at this point in the song where our Nautical Disaster dreamer finds himself among the few sailors who managed to successfully commandeer one of the Bismarck’s lifeboats. He remarks: “I relished the fray/and the screaming filled my head all day.”

The Dorsetshire immediately approached to rescue the Germans who’d been lucky enough to survive the onslaught but were still left struggling in the water. The Dorsetshire steered for the thickest concentration of survivors and let fly with lifelines, docking ropes and nets. Some Germans came achingly close to safety before being bounced off the Dorsetshire’s sides or losing their grip on a lifeline. Eventually, a small raft was lowered into the water. Men used it as a base, a spot to catch their breath before giving all their energy to one last ascension.

Then, in what many consider an unnecessary and uncaring act; action which German historians still vociferously condemn, the Dorsetshire began to pull away. Men screamed for one more chance at the lines. Sailors desperately scratched and clawed at the hull of their departing saviour. Nautical Disaster sums up the simple and inconsiderate manner in which the condemned were doomed for a second time: “and those left in the water/got kicked off our pantleg/and we headed for home.”

"...then the dream ends when the phone rings,
you doing alright he said it's out there most
days and nights, but only a fool would
complain. Anyway Susan, if you like, our
conversation is as faint as a sound in my
memory, as those fingernails scratching on
my hull."

So what could bring about a dreamscape of such horrific consequence? Well, the love of a woman, of course.

Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, history's most famous dream weavers, agreed that moving experiences and emotional trauma could evoke vivid dreams. Freud believed that the unconscious would link up to the day’s residue once an individual had left waking life. Jung hypothesized that dreams were a projection of the soul, our deepest innermost feelings that could only be expressed by our unconscious. For our man to have dreamt such a dreadful scene, his waking moments must have been imprinted with some unforgivable deed.

Freud wrote that in dreams, hallow objects on water such as ships, often-represented women and the womb. Our woman, the "Susan" of the last verse, must have deeply scarred our dreamer.

The dream is interrupted by a phone call. It's her. Our man then interrupts his lovers appeal with a curt “Anyway, Susan…” having been illuminated by a tragedy, he has a new perspective. But just why exactly has he interjected, what does he have to say? The interpretation of the final lines in Nautical Disaster have drawn many Hip Heads into interpretive arguments. He has obviously been hurt, the nature of his dream tells us that, and now he’s ready to speak his mind.

Some see the “…if you’d like/our conversation is as faint a sound/in my memory/as those fingernails/scratching on my hull” passage as proof that our man has decided to forget whatever was said, throw the past overboard, move full steam ahead with his relationship.

I’ve always heard a more unreceptive tone in the lyrics. My reading has our protagonist realizing that he’d be better off without "Susan." Her voice is like finger nails on his hull, and he's fully prepared to leave her in his wake. But my interpretation may simply be due to the striking and aggressive image of finger nails scratching on a hull –coupled with Downie’s angry delivery– breeding a hostile explanation of the lyrics.

Hip Head Kyle, from Arlington Virginia, has this to add:

"Nautical Disaster is my favourite and your sentiments about its meaning, especially with respect to the final lines, mirror mine. In addition to the imagery of fingernails on the hull and the angry tone in the vocalization, this line also lends support to the idea that our protagonist isn't a big fan of Susan:

And five hundred more were thrashing madly, as parasites might in your blood.

Given your description of the historical event on which the song drew inspiration, the ocean was cold and toxic (from the oil). If the audience of the dream description is Susan (offhandedly addressed as "Dear"), then the protagonist's description could be interpreted to mean she is cold-blooded and/or sinister, adding further support to our conclusion that he's done with her.

I'm confident that this is not an original thought, just the result of idle time during a long commute. Anyways, thanks for the research and attention to detail in your work."

Hip Head Joe adds the following:

"Could it be that the "then the dream ends" lines are not Susan calling, but in fact the narrator's (presumably male) friend calling to make sure he's all right after his fight with Susan? The words "he said" point me to this not being Susan calling on the phone, but a friend calling to see if he's ok and tell him "there's plenty of fish in the sea" (i.e., "it's out there most days and nights, but only a fool would complain").

It seems like the dream and this friend calling to check on him are what make him realize Susan's cutting words are fading like the fingernails scratching at the hull of the ship as it pulls away...

Just a thought."

Play Song

Read the full Nautical Disaster exhibit here.