This is our life

I had the good fortune to see The Tragically Hip’s Hamilton show on August 16. It wasn’t my first time seeing The Hip, and I’ll confess a good part of me is still holding out some hope that it won’t be the last. It was, however, the first time I’d seen this most Canadian of bands in Canada.

I was in high school in London, Ont., during The Hip’s heyday, and I’ll confess I didn’t really care for them back then. That’s likely because the band seemed to be especially popular among the louts, but also because I was developing that adolescent species of snobbery that says if something’s too popular, it can’t be too good.

I got over that fairly soon after moving to the States for college. The Hip were more or less unknown there, so they scratched that snooty itch of being well under the radar. But more importantly, they were a sonic portal back home. Late at night, with eyes closed and headphones on, I could span the hundreds of miles between me and the places and people I missed most dearly. And when The Hip would come to Grand Rapids, playing three-quarter filled clubs for 15 bucks a ticket, I’d enthusiastically join the thronging, flag waving, beer-sodden Canadians – my people! – who’d bussed in for the occasion. It wasn’t all dumb, reflexive nationalism, though. My distinctly ex-pat brand of Hip fandom “peaked” in 2003, when I gave a lecture to a table of bemused American Culture Studies grad students on how the tune “Fireworks” subverted Canadian national mythology. (One of the most compelling tensions in The Hip’s fanbase: they seem to draw appreciation from both fratty and pointy-headed demographics).

‘Canada’s soundtrack’

This sort of thing might sound really familiar to you right now. There’ve been a good number of think pieces about The Hip over the past few months; pieces that have attempted to capture what this band means to Canadians, why this band never caught on below the 49th, how the band does or doesn’t challenge the thornier issues of Canadian identity.

I’ve enjoyed reading each piece. But as I’ve listened and re-listened to The Hip over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that the songs that mean the most to me have little to nothing to do with the whole Canadian thing. I love how “Ahead By A Century” recalls the feeling at being overawed by someone much wiser than me. The way “Music @ Work” is such a great remedy for when I’ve felt diminished by some dummy. The way “Nautical Disaster” describes the moment a relationship breaks apart and sinks into the deep. The way “In View” so perfectly captures those days when I first met my wife. I could go on. National identity is a big deal, but what Gord Downie and his band have given me goes so much deeper than that. They’ve given me a soundtrack for self recognition, they’ve articulated things I wouldn’t, or couldn’t have articulated myself, about myself.

Courage and grief

Somewhere in Syria, some centuries ago, a church father named Isaac said “to truly see oneself is a greater miracle than raising the dead.” That might as well be holy writ, given how true that seems to me right now, and how truer it seems every day, as life picks up speed and the sediment of experience. And I’ll contend right now that one of the marks of a great artist is the way they help you achieve a little bit of self-recognition, of self-awareness, a glimpse who you really are. And maybe that means that what Gord and The Hip are giving us now is their greatest contribution yet. Sure, art struggles to be universal; sure, it can so often be parochial and provincial. But if anything is universal, it’s illness, dying, death and the ungainly way we approach those things. To see Gord and the band engage that reality with courage and grief, with gratitude and solidarity, with love and celebration – all that is an encouragement to look for those resources in myself, to ask where I might find them when those days come.


Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *