The Great Canadian Band:
a review of The Tragically Hip, Self-Titled
….Canada: that cold wasteland that hangs politely over our heads, geographically and politically. The guys who keep showing the world what Americans could be like, if we weren’t all raised in the collective barn.
Free health care for all citizens. Unemployment insurance that covers you for a year, if you’re laid off. Being able to walk to the corner store at 9:00 p.m. without having to worry about someone busting a cap in your ass. Having your government actually pay for something resembling art without squealing like a pig being raped in a slaughterhouse.
When I first came to Vancouver in 1995, I was tempted to demand political asylum.
In the years that have passed since then, I’ve come to know Canada and Canadians a little better. It has taken time for me to understand the country, and the small, lonely towns where so many Canadians are born. This is a vast nation, one of the largest land masses on Earth to be controlled by one government, but there are only 35 million Canadians…as opposed to 350 million Americans, roughly.
You know how freaking lonely you can find yourself, in some parts of the USA? Physically, emotionally, socially, politically? Do you know what it’s like to try and live in a small American town if you were born with more than two brain cells to rub together?
Well, multiply that by 10, and that’s what it’s like to be Canadian.
Two of the best teachers I’ve had, in this great quest for understanding, have been the two Gordons: Gordon Downie and Gordon Sinclair, who write most of the lyrics for what may be the Great Canadian Band…the Tragically Hip.
Just about any Canadian with any interest in rock and roll knows the Hip. Considering the quality of their music, it’s almost strange that they aren’t better known in the States. It isn’t surprising if you come at it from an American perspective, though. We aren’t used to thinking of Canada as another culture, with its own deeply-held truths and icons of shared experience. Listen to the Hip for a while and you’ll start to hear something moving through their songs which is unique, unsettling, and thoroughly alien to anyone who grew up under the Stars and Bars.
The self-titled first album of the Hip is the subject of this little review, and a juicy offering it is. Any band’s first album is sweet, vulnerable, full of those aching needs that inspire anyone to get up on a stage and disembowel themselves for a screaming crowd. But when a band is going to be truly great, you can always tell.
In the early ‘80’s, The Tragically Hip came roaring out of a prison town with their guitars on their backs and a chip on their collective shoulder. They introduced themselves to the world with 7 songs, simply and skillfully played. They weren’t just kids who got lucky: when they laid down these tracks, they were already veterans of at least 200 brutal gigs in the small towns of Canada. “The Road” has implications in this country that Americans can’t even dream of. Don’t believe me? Sit down and watch Hard Core Logo again…and be reminded that these guys drove nearly 2000 miles to play three little clubs.
Makes you shiver, eh?
Here we have all the tools that The Hip used to rip open the heart of the country in album after album: the pain-drenched baritone of Gordon Downie, full of rage and loneliness and its eternal murmuring sorrow; the guitars of Bobby Baker and Paul Langlois, giving up a fat surf-band sound that always makes me feel as if I’m driving through the desert at night; the pulsing bass of Gordon Sinclair and backbeat and high hats of Johnny Fay.
Crowning it all, for me, are the lyrics. On the one hand, we’ve got Sinclair’s oddly evocative snippets of Canadian life, like “Small Town Bringdown”, “Last American Exit”, and “Evelyn”: These are all songs that tell us specifically what it means to be born, to live, and love, and die in Canada.
On the other hand, we’ve also got the crazed power of Downie’s manic depressive poetry: his songs have a kind of magnetic resonance that speaks to the dark and primitive part of my brain, dragging out whatever he wants me to feel. In this album, his poetic powers are still young and not fully formed, but even in his raw state he still writes better songs than many men twice his age.
If I was having a polite conversation with the Pope, and Downie’s “Killing Time” came on the radio, I’d make His Holiness shut up so that I could hear it. There’s something in the Starkweather-esque refrain that will always move me:
“I need your confidence
Need to know you’re mine
When it gets right down
To the killing time…
I know your heart is bad
But it’s all I’ve ever had
We can live our lives
On this righteous crime…”
It’s just too easy to close my eyes and see Downie sitting in the front seat of a beat-up Chevy Nova with a greedy small-town girl beside him, getting ready to run in and rob a convenience store or shoot her old man for the insurance money. “Killing Time” is a song that says it all, everything that you’ve ever needed to know about what a guy was thinking when he did a terrible thing for the woman he thought he loved…even while his gut was telling him that if she’d let him do something this bad, she couldn’t possibly love him back. She can fuck around on him, get him beaten half to death, make him wish that both of them were dead, but in the end he can’t stop wanting what he wants and needing what he needs…because sometimes love is a bottomless pit.
“I got kicked when I was down
And a sailor took my girl to town
Then she licked my wounds with the sea dog’s salt
I drank a half a bottle of Jack
Swore I’d never take you back
By the bottle’s end, I was one that phone…”
On the other hand, Downie isn’t always given to tragedy; he’s just as likely to write a song which has a kind of mad hilarity to it. “I’m a Werewolf, Baby” is one of those. Manic surf guitar and a bass line that pleasantly reminded me of one of my favorite Police tunes, “Demolition Man”; then the music backs off and Downie delivers the goods in a near-punk shout:
“The moon goes up…I start to sweat
Call the doctor…call the vet.
My brain goes numb, my blood gets hot
All I need is what you got.
I’m a werewolf baby, and here I come
I’m a werewolf baby, and here I come…”
The true refrain of this song is just a long, drawn-out howl, followed by growling and snarling noises that are almost disturbingly realistic. By the time I got to the second verse, I was already starting to chuckle:
“I lose control, I just can’t stop
You look so good…like a big…pork…chop
Ripped my pants…ripped my shirt
I’m gonna eat your mother for dessert!”
Another howl, more predatory snarling half-buried in the music, making you wonder if there might be an autobiographical element to this song (seriously, if someone told me Downie turned feral and went cannibal once a month, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised). Then the last verse, which sold me for life on this band:
“I can smell your blood…I can hear you breathe…
I’m gonna eat your heart…right off your sleeve
Eat you cooked, eat you raw
I’m gonna rip you up like a big…chain…saw!”
Of course, there’s still more on this album. “Cemetery Sideroad” speaks directly to my own personal experience as a teenager, when getting ‘faced in the town cemetery was a common once-monthly ritual, and sitting on the sideroad leading up to the bone-yard and looking out over the town at night was something I did at least four or five times a week. I gained and lost a lot of friends at that time of my life, before I made a permanent escape from small town America…and I can tell just by listening that Downie knows me like the back of his own life.
Have you ever been running from the cops at night, with twenty pounds of liquor you’re not supposed to have clinking and gurgling in your arms, and stepped in a fresh grave in the dark? If not, you may not understand this song quite the way I do…but the promise of a better existence, someday, of a time when you will blow this small town hell and have a life that you can stand living? That’s something most of us can understand.”Cemetery Sideroad” is a song addressed to the girl who won’t put out, even though a little sex might make Downie’s torturous boredom go away for a little while…and there’s no mistaking Downie’s bitterness and sense of betrayal when he sings this one, or the malicious pleasure he gets from the last verse:
“I had heart, but I used to be older
I’m not like I used to be
Had you, but I guess it’s all over
You talk, but you’re not like me.
You talk and you talk like you’re some weird saint
What do you think that we could taint?
When you’re nothing I am and I’m something you ain’t?
Hold me until the night makes us colder
Tell me how life’s made you bad
Kick me when I choke and I smolder
When I’m not what you had
I’m looking for a cemetery sideroad
I’m screaming like a lighthouse lamp
I’m chasing after what I think that I’m owed
Like a French Foreign Legion tramp….”
The question that Downie asks at the end of “Killing Time” is obviously one that was important in his life at the time: “How do you walk away from the woman who gone and done you wrong?” The answer is: as fast as four wheels can carry you. At some level, this is an album about small town boys making good; about seizing your destiny; about squeezing every last drop from the twisted rag that is life in Small Town Hell. Before the Hip, Kingston, Ontario was a town known only for its prison: there’s a certain irony in producing a band which has written so many powerful songs about liberation from petty BS.
In short, I highly recommend this album: if you’re unable to appreciate the irony of a hard rock Canadian surf band, however, come to this one as your second or third helping of Hip. I’d recommend beginning with their second release, Up to Here, or even Road Apples, which is probably their most popular album to date: it took a few years for the group to come completely into its own, and start producing the rich, intense, and accomplished music which has made them Canada’s most popular band.
first published in 2000 by Online Music Review.
Number of Discs: 1
Label: Sire / Wea
copyright 2011, all rights reserved by Arinn Dembo