Friday, July 21, 2017

The Tragically Hip - Nautical Disaster

A friend asked me, “do you think any other country has a relationship with a band the way Canada does with the Tragically Hip.” I mumbled something about New Zealand’s The Feelers, and conceited that I was not sure. I was forced to conclude to myself the major reason I was so unsure if any country has their own Tragically Hip was because I have never lived in any other country. Our best kept secret is ours for a reason, no one else is paying attention. So, if any other unique relationship like this exists it has likely escaped my notice entirely, probably because I was not paying attention.

Unless I am correct about The Feelers and New Zealand.

Exactly four years ago I did a Music In Review about the Tragically Hip discussing how they were the most Canadian band ever:

I have always been very happy with that review, there were typically two reactions that review garnered, fellow Canadians wondering why I was stating the obvious and everyone else asking “who?”

To state that the Tragically Hip were popular in Canada would be a over simplification. Sure, the Hip are popular here, and almost exclusively here, but they are much more than that. There is a constant familiarity every Canadian has with the Hip, we all know their songs, and it pretty much an unanimously agreed that the Hip are fantastic.

While I believe I did a fair job of elaborating all the many reasons the Hip were Canada’s most Canadian band, I never really discussed the unique relationship they share with us, all of us, all of Canada. Imagine your local band that you know personally and you really enjoy. They mean a lot to you because they are your friends, and their music, well good, is wildly underappreciated, and this forgotten gem, this wayward band means so much more to you, because you know your love for them is deeper and truer than nearly anyone else. Now imagine an entire country feels that way about a band, and strangely the shared national love does not drown out the personal unique pleasure anyone person beholds for them. That is sort of what the Tragically Hip are to Canada. We all kind of know them personally, and we all love them more than anybody else, and this is only possible because of their total lack of fame outside of our borders. It is only possible because Canada is a proud, yet humble, influential, yet lesser important, nation.

The Tragically Hip are a national treasure to us Canadians, and their songs are as much part of Canada as our national anthem. The fact no one else cares about them endears them to us even more. Who outside of Canada knows all the words to “O Canada?” Who outside of Canada knows all the words to “Wheat Kings?”

There was a time when the Tragically Hip were nearly known in the United States. I remember the Hip playing Saturday Night Live with “Nautical Disaster,” which is surreal looking back on it, not only because the Hip were on SNL but also because Gord Downie still had hair back then.

Speaking of “Nautical Disaster.”

1994’s “Day for Night” would be the first Hip album to reach number one in the charts in Canada, though this had a lot to do with the strength and popularity of their previous album “Fully Completely” it also had something to do with the album being pretty damn decent, and it’s third single “Nautical Disaster” certainly helped.

During live performances of “New Orleans is Sinking” the band would improvise sometimes during the bridge, and as these impromptu sessions became more and more elaborate a unique song began to emerge, “Nautical Disaster.” This is perhaps why both songs share an aquatic theme.

I have read so many books of classical literature about seafaring and aquatic exploration, maybe there is an allure to the ocean for a foothills man like me, but my mind is often flooded, pun not intended, with memories of “Moby Dick,” Robinson Crusoe,” “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket” and others when I listen to songs like “Nautical Disaster. Recall the ending to Jules Vern’s “2,000 Leagues Under the Sea” where Captain Nemo sends the Nautilus into a maelstrom, and just imagine what sort of a disaster that would have been if the science fiction submarine were to be rip asunder, that would be a true nautical disaster.

The natural reaction for most is that “Nautical Disaster” is in fact about a very real disaster in the water. The Hip being the most Canadian band ever, most people speculated the tragedy in question would be the Dieppe disaster. In second world war an allied raid, off the coast of France, was made by five thousand soldiers from the Calgary Regiment and a thousand British troops. The raid was a complete disaster nearly four thousand men died.

So it is understandable that we all think Gord is speaking of Dieppe with lines like:

“One afternoon, four thousand men died in the, water here,
And five hundred more were thrashing madly,
As parasites might, in your blood.”

Also, “thrashing madly as parasite might in your blood;” wow, what a line.

However, Gord Downie has confirmed “Nautical Disaster” is not about Dieppe, and most people seem convinced now that it is all metaphorical to an ending relationship.

But that’s boring.

It all seems to specific to be a simple metaphor; “a lighthouse on some rocky socket, off the coast of France;” “four thousand men died in the water here;” and “I was in a lifeboat, designed for ten, and ten only.” All these words are so detailed like an actual event. For example, in The Hip’s “It’s a Good Life if you Don’t Weaken” the line “the forget your skates dream” was so oddly specific I knew that song had to be about a story, and it was, it was a Canadian graphic novel of the same name, but of course it was the Hip are the most Canadian band ever. I still believe that “Nautical Disaster” must be about a story about a shipwreck off the coast of France, whether it be historical or fictional is irrelevant. As a metaphor for an ended relationship “Nautical Disaster” is boring, as an account of post traumatic drama of a survivor of shipwreck “Nautical Disaster” is gripping, haunting and beautiful.

“Then the dream ends when the phone rings,
‘You doing all right?’
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 a sound in my memory,
As those fingernails scratching on my hull.”

Again, weirdly specific, who is Susan? The ex, or maybe his therapist? Or maybe the wife of one of the drowned men? Cause it is still out there, all those dead bodies and that sunken ship, and while it haunts our narrative’s dreams, he is still alive unlike the four thousand lost, so only a fool would complain. Do you know what this theoretical scene reminds me of? The end of “A Heart of Darkness” by Joseph Conrad, where the narrator must lie to the wife of Dr. Livingstone, for he is afraid to utter the reality of the doctor’s dark demise and the horror of the truths he discovered, for it is still out there, the horror, the horror.

I read a lot.

Anyway, that is why I love “Nautical Disaster” it brings my brain to so many different stories and ideas.

For me the Tragically Hip are like the Rocky Mountains, I take it both for granted. You see in live in Calgary, Alberta, and whenever I look west the beautiful Rocky Mountains are right there, okay I might have to drive a half hour out of town or take a run up centre street, but the point is there are right there and I never look at them. Hell, I have never been to Jasper and I’ve only ever been to Banff once. Meanwhile on the radio, thanks to Canadian content laws and their enormous popularity, the Tragically Hip were constantly being played, they were always there, yet I only owned a handful of their albums, I only went to see them live once.

Gord Downie, weirdo and
Canadian music god.
Now, after thirty-four years of producing Canadian rock and roll the Hip are presumably soon to be no more. Most bands do not retain the original line up of all five members for thirty plus years, but we, us Canadians, must come to terms that soon we will lose our beloved weirdo Gord Downie. I will explain to my majority readers who are not Canadian, front man and lead singer of the Hip Gord Downie has brain cancer, and ah… that is really bad; he is probably going to die soon. Like the good damn hero he is Gord went on a final farewell tour of Canada ending in their home town of Kingston Ontario which was broadcast live on the CBC, because of course it was. The Prime Minister was there and everything. It was in part, sort of like a morbid early funeral, because… Gord is probably going to die soon, but more than that, it was a celebration. It was the celebration of a life well lived, a band most beloved, and a nation connected. It might have been the most Canadian moment in Canadian history.

When it finally happens, when Gord Downie finally leaves us, I suspect I will be sad, most naturally so, but I will be filled with a sense of wonderment as well. He lived a good life, and he along with the rest of the Hip became something no one could possibly have imagined back in 1983. They have contributed to the Canadian music scene is such a profound way as to never be replicated.

- King of Braves

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