The Tragically Hip Philosophy Exhibit
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There are a few leitmotifs that I'm sure we've all noticed in the work of The Tragically Hip. Some popular reoccurring themes include the use of film terms on Day For Night and Fully Completely. Water imagery appears in many songs including "Nautical Disaster," "The Dire Wolf," "Poets" and "New Orleans Is Sinking." The name for this site, a museum after dark, is taken from references made in "Never Worked That Hard," "Scared," "We'll Go Too" and "Wheat Kings." In the course of this project, I've noticed another ever present message within many of the Hip's songs. It's the idea of perseverance, of dedication, of seeing things through with indefatigable will. Gord and the boys seem fond of referencing those who achieved, overcame odds, never gave up and made the most of their time on earth. Some existential thought, defined as "a philosophical movement or tendency, emphasizing individual existence, freedom, and choice" seems to creep into a few songs as well. I'd argue that next to the paradox of The Hip and nationalism (which you can read about in the introduction) this 'carpe diem' approach is one of the more intriguing aspects of the Hip's work.

I've attempted to list below all the examples of this tendency to venerate those without fear, those who aren't afraid to fail in the process of chasing a dream. Some are simply lyrics, while others contain my ramblings from various points throughout the museum.

From Use It Up:

"Use it up, don't save a thing for later."

The 'fictive dream' lyric which appears in quotations, is attributed to "On Becoming a Novelist" by John Gardner. Gardner was a famed novelist who had written "Nickel Mountain," "October Light," and "Freddy's Book" as well as scholarly books works including "The Life and Times of Chaucer," and "On Moral Fiction." In addition, Gardner was a medievalist, a banjo player, a poet, and what one biographer called a "dispenser of general good advice."

"On Becoming a Novelist" is a hard luck tale of a writer wondering about his abilities, hoping for a big break, and praying to God for any small semblance of success. It is the often told tale of a writer seeking justification for his craft. The book matches the theme found in "Use It Up," "All Tore Up" and "My Music At Work," which preaches that struggling bands and writers (both song and otherwise) must actively seek success, make their own breaks and never give up.

The forward to "On Becoming a Novelist" is written by one of Gardner's former students; the above mentioned Raymond Carver.

Carver wrote: "Failure and dashed hopes are common to us all. The suspicion that we're taking on water and that things are not working out in our life the way we'd planned hits most of us at some time or another. By the time you're nineteen you have a pretty good idea what you're not going to be; but more often, this sense of one's limitations, the really penetrating understanding, happens in late youth or early middle age. No teacher or any amount of education can make a writer out of someone who is constitutionally incapable of becoming a writer in the first place. But anyone embarking on a career, or pursuing a calling, risks setback and failure. There are failed policemen, politicians, generals, interior decorators, engineers, bus drivers, editors, literary agents, businessmen, basket weavers. There are also failed and disillusioned creative writing teachers and failed and disillusioned writers. John Gardner was neither of these."

Gardner died in a motorcycle accident in 1982, one week after uttering this quote which could have come straight from Carver or MacLennan and seems to sum "Use it Up" nicely: "All my life, I've lived flat out. As a motorcycle racer, chemist, writer... I was never cautious."

"In a kind of Randy Newman take."

Randy Newman is the composer and songwriter best known for his contributions to film soundtracks, most notably Disney film soundtracks. ...Fittingly enough, Newman also fits into the existential realist attitude shared by Carver and Gardner and admired by Downie, saying on his website that it's not his style to "look forward with optimism, or look back either in anger or emotion."

From All Tore Up:

"Ya play yer Fuck-Off-Nows right
and don't clear the place
Wreak some havoc on the way out
You might make it"

From My Music @ Work:

"Everything is bleak. It's the middle of the night.
You're all alone and the dummies might be right.
You feel like a jerk.
My music at work.
My music at work.

Avoid trends and cliches. Don't try to be up to date.
And when the sunlight hits the olive-oil, don't hesitate.
The night's so long it hurts
My music at work.

In a symbol too far or the anatomy of a stain;
to determine where you are, in a sink full of Ganges, I'd remain"

From Courage (For Hugh MacLennan):

Hugh MacLennan was among the first authors in Canada to embrace his surroundings and tell the stories of his homeland. Previously, as is detailed in the Courage exhibit, this sort of storytelling was thought too parochial to be profitable. After all, the publishers figured, how many people would want to read about this little colony anyway? Judging by MacLennan's sales and the cultural impact of books like Barometer Rising and Two Solitudes, the answer was; a whole bunch. During 1991’s Road Apples tour, Gord Downie began reading “The Watch That Ends The Night.”

"...Courage, my word. It didn't come, it doesn't matter
Courage, it couldn't come at a worse time"

Before MacLennan wrote The Watch That Ends The Night, the book that inspired "Courage," he had suffered through a period of self-doubt and depression brought about by the death of his wife. He began to suspect everything, including modern life and all its trappings.

In fact, MacLennan considered “The Watch” a statement against modernity. He explored how modern man would justify his existence given the fact that previous generations had suffered and survived through two World Wars and a Great Depression. The novel was a post-modern attempt at explaining the mystery of life for those who had no clear path. Downie would succinctly sum up MacLennan’s critique on stage, ranting in 1996 that he “never fought for anything,” “was raised on TV” and had “nothing to live or die for, no religion too.”

A more in-depth study of “The Watch” concluded that MacLennan’s George Stewart character finds that modern man “has abandoned the masterworks celebrating the human spirit,” and “gone whoring after false Gods.” Stewart displays the same anxiety and self doubt that MacLennan suffered through and found common in modern man. When asked why he didn’t propose to his lost love while he had the chance, Stewart replies: “No prospects, too much pride. The depression. But mostly, not enough courage.” (49)

Eventually, MacLennan would credit the emotional support of his protégé Marian Engle for his personal recovery. His newfound confidence and perspective allowed him to lay bare all that had been infecting him during the most troublesome point in his life. He would shed the nihilistic feelings that brought him to the brink, and embrace the mystery and uncertainty of life as an adventure worth living. Writing “The Watch” was a therapeutic experience, one that may have spared him of an all too common fate afflicting spent and lonely writers.

The chorus from Courage evokes praise for a dejected figure, probably MacLennan himself, who stared down and defeated the penultimate option. Courage exposes suicide as a selfish and impractical urge and expresses relief that our protagonist rejected it. “Courage, my word, it didn’t come it doesn’t matter/Courage, it couldn’t come at a worse time.” These lyrics read like a personal nod of thanks from all those influenced and inspired by MacLennan’s greatest work, which in 1957, was still yet to come. It represents genuine appreciation for a life, sometimes in painful progress, that was allowed to continue, overcome, and produce lasting art.

"...Watch the band
Through a bunch of dancers
Quickly follow the unknown
With something familiar"

"...Sleepwalk, so fast asleep
in a motel that has the lay of home
And piss on all of your background
And piss on all your surroundings."

In his seminal work, MacLennan criticized modern man for being untrue to himself by keeping his “distance in fear of the excessively unfamiliar.” George Stewart, the protagonist of “The Watch,” –who bares many similarities to the author himself– explains that musicians were among the few artists who still spoke with conviction. “Go to the musicians,” Stewart says, “in the work of a few musicians you can hear every aspect of this conflict between light and dark within the soul.”

Worn down by his writing and the demands brought about by his success, Hugh MacLennan’s personal plight arrived at the worse possible time. By 1957, MacLennan was often accused of selling-out to nationalists, of writing unsophisticated Canadian stories for their commercial value at the expense of his own authenticity as a writer. This same criticism would eventually find The Hip, allowing Gord Downie to rightly dismiss it as the ironic tendency of insecure nationalists to “piss on” their local talent and history.

This ill conceived analysis stung MacLennan; he wrote to a friend that he felt exiled while at the same time expressing a gnawing human desire to belong. He added in his letter that “the trouble with writers is usually loneliness,” and lamented the public’s appetite for the familiar over the unique. He remarked that at this difficult moment in his life, he felt homesick even at home.

The opening verses of Courage sketch a link between MacLennan’s conflicting disappointment and desires with a band who can relate. The repetitive nature of daily concerts, hostile crowds awaiting the headliner and the all too recognizable motel rooms can become as tiresome as the road itself.

MacLennan, who was very critical of the modern appetite for pop culture, felt literary critics were too narrow in their view of his work. Much like a rock and roll crowd that only wants to hear the familiar hits by the familiar band, the critics wanted more of the same while he wanted to change it up. MacLennan was upset with the creative limits imposed on him by depression, and the expectations imposed on him by success.

"...So there's no simple explanation
For anything important any of us do
And yea the human tragedy
consists in the necessity
of living with the consequences
Under pressure, under pressure"

Paraphrased directly from the below passage in "The Watch That Ends The Night," this verse is a modern "Carpe Diem" for MacLennan and embodies the message in "Courage:"

“But that night as I drove back from Montreal, I at least discovered this: that there is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.” (274)

Rather than fear his existential awakening, the main character in "The Watch" comes to embrace the fact that life is a series of serendipitous events caused by free will and personal choice. It is a path unchained from some ancient idea of an itinerary set-out from above.

The courage inherit in all of us is the will to carry on undeterred. To accept our choices, and adapt accordingly when the choices of others affect us. Move forward into the great unknown.

From Inevitability of Death:

"Terry's gift is forever green, it got me up, back on the scene"

From Flamenco:

"Flamenco" Chuck Keyser wrote a well known academic expression of Flamenco philosophy. It is introspective and ponderous and carries similarities to the writing style and sentiments of Gord Downie: "My own view of Flamenco is that it is an artistic expression of the intense awareness of the existential human condition. It is an effort to come to terms with the concept that we are all 'strangers who are afraid, in a world we never made;' that there is probably no higher being and that even if he/she (or it) is irrelevant to the human condition in the final analysis. The truth in Flamenco is that life must be lived and death must be faced on an individual basis; that is the fundamental responsibility of each man to come to terms with their own alienation with courage, dignity and humour, and to support others in their efforts. It is an excruciatingly honest art form."

From the Three Pistols Exhibit:

He said, "Bring on the brand new renaissance
Cause I think I'm ready
I've been shaking all night long
But my hands are steady."

One famous occasion, which may be the inspiration for the Three Pistols lyric, saw Tom painting outside in the frigid winter. Though his body shook from the cold, he warmed his hand with a fire, managing to paint with an incredible steadiness and ease.  

That graceful and elegiac image of Thomson, creating art amidst his elements, is the landscape that emerges every time I hear Three Pistols. The song deals with a tragic accident and the all too familiar artistic misfortune of receiving recognition only after losing your life. In addition to being a straight laced rock tune with a bluesy roadhouse attitude, Three Pistols is a tribute to the difficult, humbling and often thankless work of those who create. It honours a man not because he died young, but because he made the most of his potential energy. A later Hip song would begin with the lyric “use it up/don’t save a thing for later.” Tom Thomson left nothing but his body at Canoe Lake. He left his soul to a collection of canvases, and his spirit of relentless toil to artists everywhere.

From Grace, Too:

"Armed with will and determination... Armed with skill and it's frustration
And grace, too"

From the Story of Live Between Us:
(which probably doesn't help my argument any, but I think illustrates how choice and a serendipitous event affected the boys early in their career)

As legend would have it, late one evening before Davis made his decision (choosing between the girl and the band) known, he walked to the corner of King and Princess Streets in downtown Kingston. There, in an alley that now stands beside a tattoo parlour, he painted a huge mural featuring a weeping eye and a shooting star. He painted "The Hip Live Between Us" in large letters across the wall, in apparent reference to he and his lover.

In the end, Davis chose the girl, left the band, and continues to be an active musician to this day. His mural was used as the CD art for the Hip's 1997 live release. The disc, in a clever turn of phrase, was called "Live Between Us."

From Tiger The Lion:

"John Cage had come to feel
Art in our time
Was much less important
Than our daily life."

John Cage was a composer, artist, critic and intellectual whose first Hip link stems from his work on the subject of existentialism which is often referenced in academic studies of Hugh MacLennan. Cage was fond of experimenting with music, and was often heralded in the same ways as Canadian master pianist, composer and eccentric genius; Glenn Gould. Like Gould, Cage was interested in the process of making music, the technologies that could improve that process, and the ways in which that process affected human beings. Cage sought to discover if creative choice could be completely replaced by random luck. He famously composed a piece of music by flipping a coin to select which bars would come next.

When not recording 4 minutes and 30 seconds of silence or collecting mushrooms, Cage was fond of lecturing on the role of art in society. The Cage passage from "Tiger" comes directly from a 1980 book called "Off The Wall" which dealt with art in the post modern world. Cage's 1961 address to Wesleyan University is also footnoted in Music@Work's lyric booklet.

Fighter pilots going silent, (One of Cage's favourite "states" of sound) and later skimming through the clouds, seems to provide a nice metaphor for John Cage's notion that modern man could not adequately navigate his world without first embracing art. By neglecting our understanding of culture, art and expression, John Cage had come to feel that we were all flying blind.

From Problem Bears:

"Well, you're a sober and green eyed Voltaire"

Judging by his work, Gord is a fan of those who seize the day. Men and women who make the most of their talents and limited time on earth. Folks like Terry Fox, Tom Thomson, Pierre Trudeau, Bill Barilko, John Gardner, Raymond Carver and Hugh MacLennan, people who for lack of a better term, used it up, and didn't save a thing for later. The latter three were also believers in an existential outlook on life. One of the pioneers of existential and 'make the most of what you've got' thinking, was Voltaire. A philosopher and author who lived and worked during the 18th century, Voltaire was at the time a radical reformer who believed in the ideas of Isaac Newton and the liberal philosophies of John Locke. He may be best known for his prescient quote: "those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities."

From It's A Good Life If You Don't Weaken:

Well that one's kinda obvious innit?

From Springtime in Vienna:

"We live to survive our paradoxes
We'll live to survive our paradoxes"

From Leave:

"I dunno...but why suppose
it's not the way it should be?
When you can fly above the great waiting list,
as the crow implies we won't be missed,
We can leave

It's a routine flight for this bird tonight
There's more worms than earth
in the afterlife
Where the blind feed the blind,
whispering things like;
'On the money' and 'Bullseye'
She picks up the little leaves
Where human wrecks are left to seed
Left to repaint their deities
And plaster away at their villainies

Where there's love
there's hope

From Ahead By A Century:

"No dress rehearsal, this is our life"

All non-lyric content and Hip photographs © 2009 Stephen Dame
Lyrics are the property and copyright of The Tragically Hip.
Lyrics are provided for reference, education and personal use only.