Thursday, August 18, 2016

Wheat Kings

It seems every Canadian is writing about The Tragically Hip this month, and of course, because this ubiquitous Canadian band has been especially ubiquitous this summer. They are playing their very last shows, and it's sad, and admirable, and even those of us who aren't really fans are, as Canadians, so tied to this event.

In the fall of 1994 I moved to Sudbury to attend Laurentian University, and I lived in residence. It was a strange experience for me. My last year of high school had been spent at an alternative school where the status quo was constantly being questioned, and where I was surrounded by artists and musicians and weirdos. Laurentian, in contrast - and especially, residence - was a very different world. I found people I liked, and even (a very few) people I connected with, but I mostly felt out of place and out of sorts there. The drinking and late nights I could keep up with, but not the loudness that accompanied them. There was a testosterone-fueled, jocky atmosphere I recognized from American movies about American high schools, but I never had that kind of high school experience until I went to university.

I don't believe The Tragically Hip are those kinds of people, but when I think about them, I think about that kind of crowd, and I imagine the band lost amid a sea of keggers, where they are both encouraging and separate. I don't know what band Sloan is referring to with the line, "It's not the band I hate, it's their fans," but it has always made me think of The Tragically Hip.

But my fondest memory of their music is of sitting in the stairwell between the ninth and tenth floors of University College residence and singing along to "Wheat Kings" in a quiet moment of respite from the loudness, the falling-down-drunk of it all. It's the sitting-down-drunk, and the sharing of songs. Even though I am not really a fan, I really love that song, and we all knew all the words and in that moment of sharing I felt okay - even good - about the place I was in.

My other favourite Hip song is Courage. I read Hugh MacLennan's The Watch That Ends the Night in my Canadian Literature class at Laurentian, and it was one of my favourite books for many years. It was the version sung by Sarah Polley, in one of my favourite films, The Sweet Hereafter, though, that really made me love it.

Mostly, I have always thought The Tragically Hip were kind of boring musically. Always, though, I would follow that opinion up, quickly, with, "but I really respect them." It's undeniable that the lyrics are good. It's also undeniable that the spirit of the band is good. Gord Downie and his band have tapped into something that unifies every Canadian, and not just because so many of their songs are about Canada but sure, and of course, partly because of that. Downie is a storyteller, and he is not a blind nationalist, but someone who is curious and manages to light up dark corners and show them to people who might not otherwise listen or know where to look.

I'm going to be at a folk festival in Peterborough the night of the Hip's last show, which is being broadcast across Canada, but I think I will try to steal away for a bit, to find a television set in a nearby bar that is broadcasting it (I don't think this will be difficult).

When I feel like I don't fit in, it's not usually because I don't want to, but because I don't know how. And I love it that The Tragically Hip can tear down those walls. Gord Downie is such a strange and original frontperson for a straight up rock band and that alone lets you know it's not, actually, just a straight up rock band. And what I felt, sitting in that stairwell and singing "Wheat Kings" with those other voices, was connection and inclusion.

Canada loves you, Gord Downie, and I love that.

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