The Tragically Hip: A Canadian Shield

The Tragically Hip are a national institution. They are the rarest of things in Canadian music, especially Canadian rock music: a band massive enough to polarize people and to ensure just about everyone from coast to coast has heard of them. We, being Canadians, always have an opinion. The Hip are also of  Canada and are a success story made pretty much exclusively in Canada – with a requisite shout to the American fans along the northern towns of our shared border who get it.

Canada of the 90’s and 2000’s (while The Hip released 12 albums) became known for some of the world’s biggest, record smashing, polarizing, sometimes embarrassing figures: Nickleback, Celine Dion, Alanis Morrisette, Michael Buble and Shania Twain; artists who have achieved the greatest heights of music acclaim, popularity and record sales the likes of which we’ll never see again in this digital age. They scaled these heights through the unlikely and lottery-like system of the American music industry and were supported by a suspicious amount of marketing money that makes promoters of today weep with longing, as well as a certain universal pop appeal. The Hip, the great little bar band that grew, are as big as it gets nationally through sweat and grit and endless miles on buses and planes traversing this big country, all while remaining true blue iconclasts. They’re truly world class. And yet, they’re OURS. 

As hard/impossible as it is for Canadian rock bands to crack the U.S. and global music industry, (RUSH and The Guess Who being two rare exceptions, along with Neil Young who’s really been a Californian for 40 or 50 years) it is also no easy feat to cross our enormous country made up of many unique regions and little empires that thrive on our perceived and asserted difference from one another. The Hip cracked this code early as they emerged from 1980’s Kingston, Ontario, an old-fort and University town that squats between the two self-righteous universes of Toronto and Montreal. Of course, like all shiny things, Toronto wants to claim them as our own, as they now come back to Tawrana for a victory lap of their extended (and regularly sold out) Fully and Completely tour. The tour began in January and includes a diplomatic and generous criss-crossing of Canada and the U.S. with a focus on playing 1992’s Fully Completely album cut for cut, along with other high points from their extensive back catalogue. And tonight, we Torontonians call them ours with this triumphant Canada Day show. On July 1, the unusually expressive and flag-waving (but only really comfortable doing so once a year and formally) Canada Day crowd comes fully alive at the Molson Amphitheatre. It’s the best possible way to celebrate our heritage that doesn’t include being at least 3 hours north of the city and near a cool lake.

This writer and this photographer spent many of our free, young, and easy 20’s going to Hip shows as they reached the peak of their output and career success in the mid 90’s, after they’d put in over a decades worth of solid work creating their sound, tightening their unit, and becoming Canada’s modern day poet laureates (voiced by national treasure Gord Downie)- something we really needed in contrast to the bombast of Celine and the crustiness of Nickleback, a band that was the unfortunate 3rd generation runoff of Creed and Live. As The Hip became bigger in the mid 90’s, and tickets harder to get, our friends took to rented minivans, just a few drivers over 25, in a happy period of road trips to see the band in small, intimate, inexpensive venues in places like Boston, Chicago, and Erie, Pennsylvania. Basically, we took the hockey fan’s approach to scoring tickets, and created great memories along the way as 6 or 8 of us would stuff ourselves into the kind of awkward, familial room sharing arrangements that you can only do with friends in your 20’s.

Before and after those trips were many shows and early festivals here like Another Roadside Attraction and Eden Music Festival, which The Hip would ably co-headline alongside The Cure & Bush, (with many others including Porno for Pyros, Catherine Wheel, Live and The Watchmen).

And always, always, from high school parties (where Fully Completely was played on a loop) up through endless, perfect days and nights visiting summer cottages with friends, The Hip were (and are) a big part of the soundtrack of our Canadian lives for a large group from coast to impossible coast. A deeply rooted part that for us, is as big as U2 without the baggage or weight of all those trucks that make up a show, without the preaching and the tinted shades or the patriarchal post-colonial leanings. Icons that have grown and yet stayed local in a way most of our great comedians never do, with backgrounds on northern lakes like our own and life in towns always named after bigger and brighter UK ones that our actors distance themselves from by adopting blank American accents or sometimes, bad Brando. As we’ve grown, this background, essential, casually cool rock music has dug and grown deeper roots within us, staying true and proud like all those symbols on our money and our stoic anthem once made us feel proud of as kids.

The kids who’ve followed the road with The Hip have all seen some of the world now, along with its impending darkness. We’ve grown and lost and loved and been let down, plenty now. We aren’t on a road trip anymore, free of mortgages or kids or even real jobs to prioritize anymore, but on the long and rocky road of life (“no dress rehearsal…”) where you are lucky to find even one co-pilot. And The Hip still rises up to meet us as perfectly as an Ontario lake breeze that seems oceanic, as poetical as the great Irish bards, as our very own stab at Shakespeare. Like so many of the 80’s and 90’s bands who’ve managed to survive a difficult, shrinking and starving music industry, The Tragically Hip are no slouches. Rather, they are the best of the best, like our impeccable, impermeable Canadian Shield rock that has stood since the time of Canada’s aboriginal tribes and their still beauty; long before generators and jet skis or our dirty industries came along. It’s that Shield rock that brings us back to Canada, the idea of a Canada resistant to American encroachment, its shabby culture and its endless need for our greatest natural resources, and an appetite only for our most vanilla, easy to swallow music. We don’t care if you don’t know what Bobcaygeon is. For tonight, and all the nights like this, we are a people and a country that is proud of its difference and itself, unsellable and incorruptable, rugged and beautifully permanent.

To the people who’ve said to me over the years, usually women, “I don’t like The Hip” I turn away and shrug. So much of the best music, MY music, is off the radar or unappreciated and so it shall be, that’s part of being cool. I take it as an endorsement of my own difference and discerning taste. They really don’t get it (or deserve to have it) and that’s a fact. For I can think of nothing better for a long summer night, on the old wood ledge in our friends’ amazing gem of a cabin next to a smoky mosquito coil while we play endless games of cards, or for a Canada Day, than to hear our poets sing about caribou; David Milgaard; “Bobcaygeon”; the “Wheat Kings” of “the Paris of the Prairies” where rusty breezes push around the weathervane jesus” (in a stunner of a song that incorporates social justice issues and farming in a way only Johnny Cash, Billy Bragg or Toots Hibbert could accomplish) to get the inside references of the checkerboard floors of an iconic rock club that still survives and even thrives; the mysticism and uniquely Canadian ghost story and myth of Toronto Maple Leaf Bill Barilko.

This last one, “Fifty-Mission Cap” is a graduate level Canadian literature stunner, and always brings a chill, mixed up as it is with our own still-young country’s history which is so fresh it is literally worked into our passed down grandfather’s old RCAF caps. Canada is still an oral tradition of recent myth and legend. And all this music, romantic, open hearted, tough as it is, goes well beyond Canadiana, with universal concerns and ideas mixed with wit, literature sarcasm and swearing. It’s goddamn great. It’s sometimes obscure. It’s authentic, in double denim, instead of turn your skin green bling and daisy dukes. It’s tough as hell. It’s us.

The Tragically Hip have over 30 years invested in this music and performance, and attendance at one of their dynamic and fluid shows should be mandatory for visitors and newcomers alike, just as getting into their discography could (and should) serve as contemporary literature and history texts & curricula which we anticipate will happen in another ten years. They move from rock anthems to dirges about love, life and maturity (often in the same four minutes) and never stop for a break. They have given us our real national anthem “Wheat Kings” and they have quiet songs that conjure up the feelings of uncomfortable dreams about now distant family members and the childhood pains that return and linger all day like a rheumatic ache in songs like “Pigeon Camera”:

” This house it has it politics
Over there that’s my room
And that’s my sister’s
And that’s my sister
With something we could no longer contain”

They have early, eternal songs like “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Little Bones” that rock as hard, as capably, and as – goddamnit why aren’t they as big as anyone for this is as good as Zeppelin, The Stones, and certainly U2– underrated as most of Canada’s vast beauty and its stubbornly diverse, individualistic, frontier minded, complex, rugged and true blue hearts that live in it remain. Fully and completely.

(*Photo gallery below.)

“My Music At Work” (The Tragically Hip)

Everything is bleak
It’s the middle of the night
You’re all alone
And the dummies might be right
You feel like a jerk
My music at work
My music at work
Avoid trends and cliches
Don’t try to be up to date
And when the sunlight hits the olive-oil
Don’t hesitate
The night’s so long it hurts
My music at work
In a symbol too far
Or the anatomy of a stain
To determine where you are
In a sink full of Ganges I’d remain
No matter what you heard
My music at work
(c.  Little Smoke Music/The Tragically Hip)
Jacqueline Howell
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