This is one post in a series. 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.
One of the most influential books ever written in history is Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. It is a book of military strategies for use by generals in times of war. Not surprisingly, over the centuries, The Art of War has, also, become a favoured resource for high-rolling business executives, as well as, politicians. The cut-throat corporate world that initiates battles for market share, marshals and organizes resources for a cause, mobilizes large numbers of people to carry out a plan of attack, all draw inspiration from The Art of War.
To win any battle during war time, any election, any race for ratings or profits, there needs to be a complete and maximized level of personal commitment. In The Art of War, one strategy used to entice full commitment from soldiers/workers is called “Burn the Boats”. The “Burn the Boats” strategy has been employed many times throughout History and, essentially, it occurs when an invading army purposely cuts off its own means of escape thus, forcing everyone involved to focus on advancing forward. One of the most famous examples of this military strategy being used was in the early 1500s, when Spanish conquistador/colonizer, Hernan Cortes invaded Mexico. His first order upon landing was to burn his fleet. This galvanized the commitment level of his soldiers who, now finding themselves stranded in a new and unfamiliar land, had no choice but to band together and move inland as a united force. They were fully committed to their cause and conquered and plundered the Aztec Empire in short order, as a result.
This brings us to Pigeon Camera by The Tragically Hip.
Pigeon Camera is not one of The Hip’s most famous songs but, it is a favourite of those who are fans of the band. The song was featured on the album, Fully, Completely and more than holds its own against such standard bearer songs as Courage, At The Hundredth Meridian, Fifty Mission Cap, The Wherewithal, Looking for a Place to Happen and, of course, Fully Completely, itself. All throughout this album, The Hip explore themes of commitment (such as what it takes to win the Stanley Cup, staying true to their artistic roots as Canadians, maintaining the highly literate level of their songwriting in the face of those fans who just want to dance and drink their beer while listening to the band), as well as, themes of the breaking down of boundaries (personal, sexual and cultural).
The song, Pigeon Camera, touches on various themes such as war and incest but, regardless of who views the song and how they view it, the over-arching idea at play is that, if boundaries are to be broken then, one has to be fully-committed for whatever follows. For those unaware, a pigeon camera was a real thing and served, at one time, as a way for armies to spy on one another. They were, in a sense, the precursor to drones. Carrier pigeons were trained to carry mounted cameras that clicked automatically at regular intervals and fly over enemy territory. They were used as recently as in the Vietnam War by the U.S. But, like anything, when you spy on an enemy or spy on your neighbours, you gain new information and are forced to deal with what you have just learned. This often causes you to change the personal dynamic of how you interact with the world around you. To start down the road to personal growth requires commitment on your part to follow wherever that journey may take you, which is kinda/sorta what this song is about.
“Where’s our pigeon camera? By now, he could be anywhere. And, after all that training. And, after all that training, with something we could no longer contain.”
Gord Downie must have been thinking of Cortes and his colonization of the Aztecs during the making of this album because he mentions “They don’t know how old I am, they found armour in my belly, a sixteenth century conquistador, I think.” in Locked in the Trunk of a Car and then, he closes Pigeon Camera, with his own take on the Cortes/Art of War-inspired line, “Its like we burned our boots with no contingency plan.”
But, even if exploring sexual boundaries or spying on other nations isn’t your thing, please give Pigeon Camera a listen here. It is a gorgeous sounding song. Each note by Rob Baker is lush, like painting a picture in warm colours. It sounds like a Hip song, if such a claim can be staked. If nothing else, listening to a song that you may not have heard before could be the catalyst for personal growth and changes that, like the song says, “we can no longer contain.” It could lead to something wonderful.
Thanks, as always, for reading this post. I appreciate the past few minutes of your life that you so willingly gave to read my words. If you have any comments about this song or the themes of privacy, expanding boundaries, personal growth or the commitment it takes to be fully-actualized, please leave your words in the comment box below. Thanks to The Hip for creating such a musical gem in Pigeon Camera. It is, easily, one of my favourite Hip songs. I hope that you like it, too.
5 thoughts on “The Tragically Hip: Song #19- Pigeon Camera”
Thanks . I learned a lot of history in this post!!!❤️
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You’re welcome. Not every song is an “Oh, Baby, Baby” song, I suppose. I like the sound of this song and I always like it when I catch a reference that a writer leaves that helps me understand the deeper meanings involved. So, as soon as I heard, “burn our boots”, I knew exactly what he was referring to and the song began to make greater sense. Anyway, I am glad you liked my post and I thank you for taking the time to comment.
I’ve wondered for years if “burned our boots” is actually another Gord Downie tongue-in-cheek lyric where he’s actually singing “burned our boats” but doing it with a very heavy Canadian pronunciation of “boat” as “boot.” Thoughts?
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I believe that you are correct. I have felt that way, too. Thanks for your comment. “Pigeon Camera” is one of my favourite Hip songs.
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Makes sense. Burning boots doesn’t make any real sense. Unless you’re talking about a group who have traversed ferocious terrain to engage in combative water polo and will only accept victory or death in the water as the outcome. 😀
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