1- Nautical Disaster.

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!

2- New Orleans is Sinking

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.

While not the first song to get the band airplay, “New Orleans is Sinking” is widely regarded as The Hip’s first big hit. Lost in the warm glow of nostalgia, many people, today, think that this song is about Hurricane Katrina and the devastation that storm caused the city of New Orleans and the surrounding towns. It is not about Hurricane Katrina.

What “New Orleans is Sinking” is all about was a thematic undertone of much of their early work and that is, the band declaring their intention to not play the Pop Music game but, instead, to stay as authentic to the roots of their craft as possible. The first clue to this is the fact that the sing is set in New Orleans which is part of a geographic area hailed as the birthplace of The Blues. The Tragically Hip always felt that The Blues were an integral part of the music that wanted to produce. The sweat, the craftsmanship, the heart-and-soul nature of the lyrics and notes that swell up from the depths of the totality of one’s experiences, were all a source of inspiration and attraction for the band.

Secondly, The Hip spent part of their own song talking about what they see as what ails the Music industry. “Colonel Tom, what’s wrong? What’s going on? Can’t tie yourself up for a deal.” Colonel Tom refers to Colonel Tom Parker, the man who managed the career of Elvis Aaron Presley. Many people say that Elvis rose to fame on the backs of the Bluesmen and women who came before him and who, in his wake, never fully received their due. The Hip didn’t regard Elvis as being an authentic Bluesman and they didn’t want to chart the same path as he did. In the same verse, The Hip have Colonel Tom respond to their criticism, “Hey North! You’re South! Shut your big mouth! You’ve gotta do what you feel is real.” The Tragically Hip kept it real, including having as much say as possible about the production process of their records. After recording this album, The Hip purchased a farm in Bath, Ontario, which became known as Bathouse Studios. They recorded much of the rest of their musical catalogue there, under their own roof, on their own terms, working with people they respected and, as always, The Blues were still required.

This would be me, standing at the foot of the driveway at Bathouse Studios in Bath, Ontario, this past summer. I was fanboy enough to stand were I stood but, not fanboy enough to knock on their door. But, never-the-less, that is where much of The Tragically Hip’s magic happened. The search for that magic was on-going at the time that “New Orleans is Sinking” was written but, it is clear from the lyrics that The Hip knew where they were going. They were going home. This is where they went. This is home.

The video for “New Orleans is Sinking” can be enjoyed here.

Thanks for coming along on our musical journey this day. I hope your enjoyed this post. If you have any comments about The Blues, Elvis, this song, New Orleans or Bathouse Studios, please feel free to drop me a line in the comment box below. Thanks, as always, to The Tragically Hip for having the confidence to, among other things, make God a woman.

3- Springtime In Vienna

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.

I love a good line. The Tragically Hip are known for their imaginative, poetic, intelligent use of words in their songs. It is one of the qualities of the band that endears them to me. Sometimes, it is the language, itself, that catches my eye…..such as, “A bum’s eye for clothes”. Sometimes, it is an ordinary line that Gord’s voice makes extraordinary…such as, “I want to help you lift enormous things.” from At Transformation. Sometimes, the line they come up with is interesting because of the language used and then, how that language reflects a broader truth that the band is aiming for. For me, that is the case with Springtime in Vienna. The line that I love is simply, “We live to survive our paradoxes.”

“Springtime in Vienna” explores the nature of paradoxes and, in particular, the contradictions inherent in any act of creativity. True creativity is the ultimate in freedom of expression. However, for a band who understood the business implications of their creative decisions, lines like “Instructions from the manual could have been much more plain. The Blues are still required. The Blues are still required again.” offer insight into the artistic compromises that must occur. Creativity is freedom but, there must be rules. As soon as there are rules, then freedom is no longer pure. The band accepted that it lived a paradoxical life thus, “We live to survive our paradoxes.” They would be creative, on their terms but, within reason it seems.

(#HM) The origin of this song occurred one evening in New Orleans, when the band witnessed a lovers quarrel. Paul Langlois is credited with saying that the quarrel made him feel it was Springtime in Vienna. This is a reference to when the evil that was the Nazis invaded the beauty of Vienna, flush with the awakening of springtime. That Hate can emerge in the amid Love, as in the lovers quarrel or, Evil can temporarily push aside Beauty, as in Vienna during World War II, caused Gord to think of the very creative paradoxes that the band faced early in their career, as they sought to define the uniqueness of their voice in an industry that demanded conformity and predictability.

For me, I appreciate the choice of the word, paradox, for this song because it is a rich, literate word that gives a sense of the intelligent discourse the band wished to have with its fans. But, juxtaposed to this was the realization that for many fans, screaming the word, paradoxes, from the cheap seats was really just an exhilarating, cathartic experience. Let’s be honest, the word sounds cool to shout out. The dichotomy of expression; from band to fan and from fan, back to band, is at the heart of The Hip’s creative paradox. That they kept producing such excellent work for over thirty years is, to me, evidence that they have, indeed, learned to survive their own paradox…and, quite nicely, at that.

The video for “Springtime in Vienna” can be found here.

Thanks, once again, for stopping by to read my words. I appreciate it very much. If you have any comments to add about this song, about paradoxes in your own life, about screaming words out in public or anything else that may tickle your fancy, please feel free to do so in the comment box below. Thanks to The Tragically Hip for the integrity of their creative expression. It is most appreciated..

4- Looking For A Place To Happen

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 a song about explorers and the exploitation of Indigenous cultures. It is funny to listen to this song, with lines about being on this land and seeing someone like Jacques Cartier, with his “bum’s eye for clothes” coming down the river toward you. We, as white, anglo-saxon Canadians of European descent take our History so very much for granted. Of course, we tell ourselves that expanding our empires was justified. Of course, the treasures reaped were warranted. We are all so quick to forget about those who were here first. As the lyrics state, “Come on in. Sit right down. No, you’re not the first to show. We’ve all been here since, God, who knows?”

While The Hip may have played this song for years as part of the standard concert lineup, we have not done much in the way of learning its lessons. I say this in light of the Climate Change movement that has, out of necessity, sprung up around the world. One of the main points they are attempting to drive home with their marches and sit-ins is that we need to stop exploiting indigenous cultures around the world as a formal part of government policies. However, last time I checked, the Amazon Rainforest was still on fire and many First nations communities in Canada still had undrinkable water. It is difficult for us to look at cultures and worlds different that we are used to, with eyes trained to see only through the filters of our own experiences.

Wayward ho, away we go
Its a shame to leave this masterpiece 
With its gallery gods and garbage bag trees.
So, I’ll paint a scene, from memory,
So, I’d know who murdered me.
It’s a vain pursuit but it helps me sleep.”

The video for this song can be viewed here.

Thanks, as always, for coming here and hanging out for awhile. I hope that you enjoyed this post. If you wish to leave a comment about this song, the topic of exploitation of indigenous cultures, climate change or whatever your heart desires, please feel free to do so. Thanks to the Tragically Hip for writing a song that can speak to something so important but, doing so in such a rocking’ way!

6- At The Hundredth Meridian

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.

The Tragically Hip are the quintessential Canadian band. They shared our stories with the world in ways that didn’t pass judgment or praise false idols. Their songs are sung from coast to coast to coast. They are as iconicly Canadian as Terry Fox or hockey or lakes soundtracked by the cries of the loon. They are ours.

But, throughout their career, there has always been talk about why the Tragically Hip weren’t bigger in the U.S. and, for that matter, did that even matter when it came to defining how successful the band really was. “At The Hundredth Meridian” is a song that touches upon what it means to be a Canadian band. It has several references to the struggle of becoming an established band in this country. For example, the line, “Driving down a corduroy road” is a term often used to describe travelling on a surface that is rutted and not easy to get across without great effort and, occasional, discomfort. Every band who were their own roadies, piling instruments into a cramped van, driving from Legion halls to county fairs to small bars in the middle of nowhere, can attest to the truth behind this words. The line right off of the top, “Me, debunk an American myth and take my life in my hands” refers to the group questioning the conventional wisdom that speaks of the proper measuring stick for success for Canadian bands being commercial sales in the States. Record sales and concert gross were not, by themselves, what motivated The Hip to move forward as they did. The complexity and originality of their song lyrics across the breadth of their catalogue speaks to that. 

Overall, this song is about the nature of what success meant to the band and how they defined themselves as musicians and songwriters. I always had the sense that all five guys were comfortable in their own skin and never needed external accolades as motivation for crafting the music they made. They never wanted to be pop stars.

If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me
They bury me some place I don’t want to be
You’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously,
Away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees
Whispers of disease and acts of enormity
And lower me slowly and sadly and properly
Get *Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.

*Ry Cooder was a legendary bluesman who was never what one would call “a big star”. He stayed true to his musical roots and, in doing so, helped serve as a role-model for the type of performer the band members wanted to be. Respect. Craftsmanship. Longevity. This is what The Tragically Hip looked for in themselves and hoped that we saw, too.

The video for this song can be seen here.

Thanks, again, for visiting my blog and reading this post. Your presence here means a lot to me. If you have any questions or comments about the nature of commercial success in music, any aspect of this particular song or any experiences such as those referenced in the lines, “I remember Buffalo. I remember Hengelo” feel free to jot those down, too. It is always good to talk shop when it comes to that most Canadian of bands, The Tragically Hip.

7- Fifty Mission Cap

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.

When most people evaluate the legacy created by The Tragically Hip, one of the most common responses is that the band celebrated Canadian stories. That assessment is undeniable. When you go through The Hip’s musical catalogue, it is filled with references to noteworthy Canadians such as Tom Thomson, David Milgaard, Hugh McLennan, Bobby Orr and, in “Fifty Mission Cap”, Toronto Maple Leaf hockey player, Bill Barilko. The other thing that stands out about The Tragically Hip is that they loved a good story. So, when a noteworthy Canadian was the subject of a good story in his/her real life, that subject matter was mined for gold. In Barilko’s case, his story became the hit song known as “Fifty Mission Cap”.

I really like this song for many reasons. First of all, the song is about hockey and, despite my love for Keri, I still love hockey. Secondly, the song is about the Toronto Maple Leafs and I still love the Leafs, even though it is been over fifty years since they won The Cup, as the song points out. But, mostly, I love this song because of a writing technique the band employs that helps to replicate the setting of the song within the lyrics of the song. Let me explain.
If you have ever found yourself somewhere where a group (of guys, probably) are talking hockey, the structure of their conversation is often the same no matter where you go. There is usually one guy with a bigger voice than the others who tends to use it to dominate the conversation with his stories and/or opinions. Then, his friends will interject their smaller thoughts when the dominant talker takes a breath. If you listen to “Fifty Mission Cap” and, specifically, to the interplay between Gord Downie (as the big voice in the room) and Paul Langlois (as the little friend who is trying to get a word in edge-wise) you will see that they have replicated the boys-in-the-bar style of talking hockey, perfectly. So, for me, it is not always the words that The Hip uses in their songs that does it for me, it is, also, the way the lyrics are structured. In this case, a hockey tale is told for all to hear, as if the boys were in a basement rec. room watching the game on TV.

*In this verse of the song, Gord sings the main words and Paul whispers the words in parenthesis.

“Bill Barilko disappeared that summer (in nineteen fifty-one)
He was on a fishing trip (in a plane)
The last goal he ever scored (in overtime)
Won the Leafs the Cup.
They didn’t win another ’til nineteen sixty-two
The year he was discovered.”

The video for “Fifty Mission Cap” can be viewed right here.

***A tiny bit of Tragically Hip trivia courtesy of (#NEP): Bill Barilko was a defence man who played for the Leafs. After scoring the overtime, Cup-winning goal, Barilko flew in a plane to go on a fishing trip. The plane crashed and was not found for almost a decade. Flash forward, when the band travelled up to Attawapiskat for that benefit concert, they flew over the exact location where Bill Barilko’s plane had crashed. Do with that bit of trivia what you will. 🙂

As always, your comments are welcome on all matters, whether they are hockey-related or not. Thanks to the band for telling such good stories about the people and institutions that make Canada the terrific country is it.

8- Courage (for Hugh McLennan).

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.

I have been to a few Hip shows in person. Whenever “Courage” starts up, the crowd always goes wild and there is lots of singing along and dancing in the aisles to accompany the song’s lyrics. However, this song is one of those examples of audiences not really understanding what the song is all about and, not really caring, anyway.

(#HM) Hugh MacLennan was one of the most respected authors that Canada has ever produced. He is best known for his books, Two Solitudes and Barometer Rising. Initially, his desire to write stories about Canada was mocked and ridiculed as being overly provincial. Who would ever want to hear stories about this place? Well, evidently, many people did and, as a result, MacLennan is rightfully credited as being one of the authors who helped to establish our literary culture in Canada. But, like many writers, MacLennan suffered through periods of self-doubt and depression. He wondered if his life’s work had any meaning. It was only later on in his life that he began to appreciate what, in fact, he had managed to accomplish.
The Tragically Hip were much the same as MacLennan. They believed in the stories our country had to share and set out to give meaning to them through song. But, being a rock n’ roll group, at their core, The Hip, often found themselves lost in a whirlwind of hotel rooms, hockey arenas, beer-swilling fans all singing and dancing but, not necessarily, appreciating the nuances of the lyrics the band worked so hard to create. So, “Courage” is really a song about finding meaning for yourself and your life’s work, amid the cries of those who take you for granted. It is a salute to a kindred spirit whose books influenced the band tremendously but, in all likelihood, have never read by most of their fans. And, like MacLennan, himself, The Tragically Hip can, at this late stage of their being, look back upon their career with a fair bit of satisfaction for what they have accomplished, too.

“There’s no simple explanation
For anything important any of us do.
And yeah, the human tragedy
Consists in the necessity
Of living with the consequences
Under pressure, under pressure
Courage, my word, it didn’t come, it didn’t matter.”
 

*This verse is taken, almost verbatim, from The Watch That Ends The Night by Hugh MacLennan.

The video for “Courage (for Hugh McLennan)” can be found here.

Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog and read this post. If you have anything to say, of literary merit or otherwise, please feel free to do so in the comments box below. Thanks to everyone in The Tragically Hip, for having the courage of a Hugh McLennan, and writing songs that have helped shape the culture of our country.