“Isn’t it amazing what you can accomplish, when you don’t let the nation get in your way”
I’ve seen the Tragically Hip live a lot - at Oshawa’s General Motors Centre twice, the infamous Markham Ontario edition of Another Roadside Attraction, Glastonbury in 1993 when they played late on Friday before not so much a sea of Canadian flags as a puddle but still the Maple Leaf was on display. Bare Naked Ladies played the same year but I don’t recall the same degree of national pride from the fans. I was at Edenfest in 96, saw them there and I have seen Downie solo as well as with The Sadies at Boots ’n Hearts,with Fucked Up at Field Trip and with the Country Miracles at Hillside. I have interviewed him twice and met him once. It was at Hillside, I asked him to sign my copy of Have Not Been The Same. He had written a poem for the intro. He stopped, took time to reread the poem and told me he still thought it had relevance. He then signed it. I have his own book of poems, Coke Machine Glow; I have the album but I like “Vancouver Divorce’.
Albumwise I’d put the debut EP and 98’s Phantom Power on the best of list. I would add Man Machine Poem too. Songwise I would put “In View”, “Fiddler’s Green”, “Fireworks”, “Thompson Girl”, “Coconut Cream” and “Great Soul” on my Top Five.
“Bobcaygeon” transcends The Hip. Its bigger than the band, thats why it can’t be contained on a Hip Top Five. Transcendence is a thing with the Hip. They manage to move beyond the bedrock bar blues they play, the oblique lyrics they sing, the stage oddities of their front man and the plodding routine of the musicians onstage. But perhaps its their very oddness, their strangeness that makes them so popular, their outsiderness makes them insiders. Everyone in Canada sees themselves in some Hip song somehow. They take this enormous vast country and with time and space and grace too build the mosaic piece by piece, diverse but inclusive; poets and thugs, coffee girls, wheat kings and those who don’t give a fuck about hockey.
I didn’t see myself in them but I don’t have to to understand them. I understand them as an outsider and I understood them most when I stepped outside of them.
They were outside at Edenfest, the headliner closing out the Saturday night. I was front of stage but it got pushy and tight very quick. I squeezed out and walked away, far as I could to the edge of the Mosport racing bowl, to the long white wall running along the rim. And there under a darkened Northern sky, complete with yes constellations, looking into the bowl of thousands lapping the stage, lit up, tiny figures under the lights, minuscule, minor players in the vast narrative enveloping, unimportant in the great scheme of things, the songs washed up over the crowd, over me and on up into the great ocean of the sky and I understood the Hip.
Understood their songs pull us together. Its nothing to do with like or dislike, popularity, genre, styles. They create seas of songs and the waters keep us together. “got to make it, that’ll make it by swimming”.
No matter how far away from this country you are, whenever, where ever you hear a Hip song you know you belong and I understood the flags at Glastonbury and I understood it wasn’t as trite as nationalism, it was as treasured as belonging.
That longing to belong is rarely satisfied. its a tough country, its offers “a good life if you don’t weaken”.There are few coast to coast to coast commonalities in Canada, too many pieces to Canada, it contains worlds but somehow the Tragically Hip were able to, without trying, without contrivance, to contain each of our worlds inside; from Churchill to Sarnia, Attawapiskat to Athabasca, Mistaken Point to the Paris of the Prairies, The band didn’t. doesn’t, need Canada but Canada most definitely needs the Hip.