The Men They Couldn’t Hang

I love live music. I love the energy of a band as they dive into a treasured song. I love the way a crowd of strangers unite in response; jumping and swaying and fist-pumping in time with each note. I love it when a crowd sings as a choir and becomes as one with the band; a shared journey made possible through the poetry of song. I have been to many concerts that have left me sweat-soaked and emotionally-drained. That is my kind of fun!

CINCINNATI – JUNE 23: Iggy Pop of the Stooges rides the crowd during a concert at Crosley Field on June 23, 1970 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images)

The best concert I ever saw live was Iggy Pop at The Warehouse in Toronto in the mid-90s. Iggy ripped through a set dedicated to his seminal album, Raw Power! That music was as loud as I have ever experienced. My ears rang for days afterward. But, it was an amazing time, just the same. This concert was my first real experience with a mosh pit that teemed with violent mayhem. Sweat and beer and testosterone; a potent combination, especially when soundtracked by the driving beat of one of Rock’s sonic pioneers. I truly believe that a Rock n’ Roll Show should have elements of violence and sex in it. After all, if you are not worn to the core by the end of it then, what really was the point of it all? Iggy Pop at The Warehouse was definitely a Rock show, in all regards. Music, as catharsis. Visceral and muscular. Fun beyond measure.

When it comes to great Canadian live acts, the best I have seen in person was The Tragically Hip. They were a tight, five-piece band out of Kingston, Ontario. Some describe The Hip as playing straight-ahead guitar-oriented rock. But, that does the band a disservice. What elevated The Tragically Hip to the top of the musical mountain in Canada was combination of the poetry of the lyrics to Hip songs and the showmanship of lead singer, Gord Downie. Simply put, Downie was one of the single-most electrifying frontmen for any band, anywhere in the world. With Gord, you never quite knew what to expect on stage. He sang. He primped and pranced. He played excellent guitar. He offered monologues that, may or may not, have had anything to do with the song being played. He sweated and wiped that sweat away to theatrical effect. He made eye contact and bore his thoughts into our brains. He was amazing. A hint of the intensity of a Tragically Hip performance can be seen in their performance of “Grace, too” from a concert in London, Ontario. That clip can be seen here.

A Tragically Hip performance was only part of their package. Their enduring legacy will be the songs they sung. It is, somewhat, cliche for us as Canadians to say that we have an unnatural relationship with that cultural juggernaut to the south of us called America. We bathe in their references, their personalities while, at the same time, revelling in all that makes us different and separate from “them”. Gord Downie and The Hip wrote songs about Canada and about Canadian things in ways that made them seem like secrets that we could hoard. Like school children, we liked looking at the pictures of ourselves that The Hip painted. A Hip concert laid our Canadian souls bare. We danced to our History. We shouted out our stories. And, at the end of it all, as sweaty a mess as we physically were, we all felt proud of being who we were at the moment. We were Canadians in the presence of beautiful artists and storytellers. Like the weather, we were all affected by the experience.

So, in 2015, when it was announced that Gord Downie had an incurable brain tumour, it shook us all to our core. To have Gord taken away from us seemed unthinkable. As we digested the news reports, it was almost as if we could all hear the Gods laughing. In response, Gord and the boys announced a final, cross-country, ten concert tour. It seemed equally unbelievable that someone with a brain tumour could still summon massive amount of will and physical energy required to perform at the level of intensity that we had all come to expect from a Hip show. But, there he was. For ten nights, Gord Downie stood on that stage and gave every last bit of himself. At each venue, paramedics stood on guard should Downie collapse. But, at each venue, the band played on. Every song a parting gift to a grateful nation. Canada was never more unified than on the night of The Hip’s final show. It was played in their home town of Kingston, Ontario and was billed as a “National Celebration”. Our national TV broadcaster, the CBC, aired the three-hour concert commercial-free. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau donned a Canadian tuxedo and attended in person. People gathered in arenas and parks, taverns and town squares, back yards and living rooms to give thanks for everything Gord Downie and The Hip had done. It was all coming to an end and, when it did, with “Ahead by a Century”, the tears were real and they flowed freely. McLeans Magazine did a good job of capturing this emotion by filming the reactions of Canadians as they gathered in various locales across the country. This video ALWAYS makes me cry and leaves me spent; like all good music should, I suppose. It can be viewed here.

One of the things that happened during this farewell tour was that more scrutiny was given to the lyrics of The Hip songs. One of the most appealing aspects of their songwriting was that they often welcomed us, as an audience, into their stories by starting off with recognizable, universal truths. But, as often was the case, they would proceed to confound us with symbolism and/or obscure references that, at first blush, didn’t always connect with how the song began. Thus, their music invited you in but, if you stayed, you had to prepare yourself to think and engage. As a fan and as a reasonably intelligent person, I enjoyed learning more about these stories being shared. I will conclude this post by talking about one of their most popular songs, “Bobcaygeon” and how I am still learning new things about it even now, long after Gord has gone to walk among the stars.

Like many of the people, events and settings referenced in Hip songs, Bobcaygeon is a real place. Located about two hours northeast of Toronto, Bobcaygeon is situated in a part of Ontario affectionately known as “Cottage Country”. The Kawartha Lakes region is where city dwellers come to get away from the noise and congestion of city life. As cultural myths go, Canada conjures images in the mind of lakes and forests, soundtracked by the cry of the loon, illuminated by a firework of sparks from a thousand camp fires. Bobcaygeon is that myth brought to life.

The song “Bobcaygeon” contains one of the most beautiful and popular verses in their entire musical canon. “It was in Bobcaygeon, that I saw the constellations, reveal themselves, one star at a time.” *(When I retired from teaching, the staff at my school gave me a framed print of those lines.) Even the most beer-swilling of Hip fans recognizes the beauty of those words. You only have to experience country-darkness once in your life to know how lovely the stars can be. This was the universal truth that pulled listeners, like me, into this song. But then, as I said above, The Hip added elements to the second half of the song that had always puzzled me….until recently.

The first half to two-thirds of the song has a peaceful, cottage pace-of-life feel to it. But then, the final third roars to life, “That night in Toronto, with its checkerboard floors, riding on horseback, keeping order restored, until The Men They Couldn’t Hang, strode to the mic and sang, and their voices rang, with that Aryan twang.” I never knew what this had to do with being in Bobcaygeon and under the night sky. I had always thought the “Men they couldn’t hang” part and the “horseback/order restored” lines were talking about an outlaw and the police. I was wrong. Here is what I have learned about what they were really singing about. The Bobcaygeon video is here, for those who wish to view it.

In Toronto, there is a legendary bar called The Horseshoe Tavern. It has “checkerboard floors”, as you can see in the photo. Also, if you watched the McLeans Magazine video of The Hip’s final song, The Horseshoe Tavern was one of the spots they filmed at. Anyway, The Men They Couldn’t Hang is an actual musical group from the UK. The are described as being folk-punk. Like The Hip, they sing about History and real people, places and events. And, like The Tragically Hip, they are amazing live. I am going to share with you a live performance of theirs singing a song called The Green Fields of France. It is, simply put, one of the single best live performances I have ever seen! First of all, the song is gorgeously written and speaks of the senselessness of War, as seen from the perspective of a fallen soldier during The Battle of the Somme in World War One. I had never heard of this song before this past week but, it is easily one of the best anti-war songs ever, I am certain. But, along with the glorious lyrics, if you watch this video, you will bear witness to a band and an audience as one…..and, I don’t just mean singing along together. Such fantastic trust on display. You have to watch it for yourself to appreciate it. If they played at The Horseshoe Tavern for The Hip members, the way they do in this video then, I can see why The Hip name-dropped them in one of their most popular songs. you can watch this extraordinary video here. I get goosebumps watching this; especially the rousing chorus. This is what live music is all about.

So, who inspires those who inspire us? For professional musicians at the level of an Iggy Pop or The Tragically Hip or even, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, they gain inspiration from their fellow musicians, as well as, the time and the place they find themselves. “Bobcaygeon”, for me, is now a song about finding inspiration; be it from the stars above or from the close, sweaty confines of a tavern where the poetry of song oozes from every pore of every human there, as well as, dropping down in balls of condensation from the ceiling to the floor. Inspiration sounds like a story and smells like a beer. It is sticky and sweet and, if your are fortunate at that moment, it will leave you changed.

I love live music. Do you? If so, what are some of your favourite memories of watching live music being performed. I would love to hear your stories. Feel free to leave them in the comment box below. Thanks for reading my work. Your willingness to do so inspires me.

2 thoughts on “The Men They Couldn’t Hang

  1. Always liked wheat kings. Ahead by a century. Bobcaygeon. Well. 150 year old family cottage on Sturgeon lake. Sturgeon point. Really cemented it for me. I always wanted to know if he went there? I guess he did.

    Like

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