This is one post in a series of fifteen. Each post will focus on one song by The Tragically Hip, a Canadian rock n’ roll band. I am a fan, not an expert. The thoughts expressed in these posts are my own, with the following two exceptions: I have drawn inspiration and knowledge from a book entitled, The Never Ending Present by Michael Barclay. I have, also, learned much from a website dedicated to Hip fans, entitled The Hip Museum. I will give credit to either source when applicable.
This is my favourite Tragically Hip song. This is a song that I like for many reasons. I love the history behind the song. Like “Lake Fever”, it is actually a story within a story….a retelling of a dream…..a conversation between the narrator and Susan, who is either a lover or a therapist, take your pick. It is based, on all accounts, upon the sinking of the German battleship, Bismarck during the second world war. But, the story of the song actually begins a few decades prior, during World War One.
The most famous ship sunk during World War One was the passenger ship, Lusitania. It was sunk by a German U-Boat. U-Boats changed the way naval warfare was fought in a very significant way which influenced what happened years later when the Bismarck was sunk and which inspired my favourite Tragically Hip line of them all. You see, what initially happened in WWI when a ship was sunk was that other ships in the area would stop and rescue any survivors who had ended up in the ocean. Humane treatment of prisoners was one of the unwritten rules of battle at the time and thus, the rescuing of survivors was a time-honoured tradition. However, with the advent of U-Boats, that tradition became deadly. What changed was that once a U-Boat sunk a ship, it would wait where it was until another ship in the convey stopped to rescue survivors. Then, as the rescue was being completed, the U-Boat would sink the rescuing ship, as it was sitting “dead in the water” as the term has come to be known. Such was the alarming rate of ship loss that the Royal Navy passed a new rule: no ship was to stop for survivors any longer. If they did, their safety could not be guaranteed.
Leaving fellow sailors to die in the ocean went against the moral code of seamen on both sides of the conflict. But, that was modern warfare in those days so, survivors were left in the water as ships sailed away to safety.
Fast forward, I once saw a documentary about the discovery of the wreck of the Bismarck. It was a National Geographic documentary featuring Dr. Robert Ballard (who discovered the wreck of the Titanic). In this documentary, Ballard set sail, along with a British sailor who had been in the battle that sank the Bismarck, as well as, a German sailor who, despite all odds, managed to find rescue. After the wreck was discovered, the two men, along with Dr. Ballard, held a peace ceremony and dropped flowers in the water. The sailors were interviewed about their memories and both said that they were haunted by the screams of the men left to die in the water. It was stated that some British ships left rope ladders down as they sailed past so that some men might be able to latch on as the ship sailed past. This is how the German was rescued.
When Gord Downie was interviewed about this song, he mentioned having watched “a documentary”. I know he saw the same one I did because the lyrics match the eye-witness testimony so precisely for it to be a fluke.
Anyway, Nautical Disaster is a song about the callousness and inhumanity of war and what war makes us all capable of doing to our fellow human beings. Yet, it remains one of the most popular and requested Tragically Hip songs of all time.
“Then the dream ends when the phone rings
You’re 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.”
The video for “Nautical Disaster” can be seen here.
I hope that you enjoyed this post and, if you have checked out all fifteen then, I hope you enjoyed the whole series. If you like what I did with these posts, let me know and, perhaps, I will be able to do something like this again with other Tragically Hip songs and stories. For now, I will thank you for being here and reading my work. But, most of all, I will thank Gord Downie, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, Johnny Fay and Rob Baker for making such good art. I am changed for the better because of your efforts and your personal and professional integrity. This series of fifteen posts doesn’t begin to say Thank You in the depth required but, it is a start. Thanks, Boys! I appreciate it all!