“Two-fifty for an eyeball and a buck and a half for an ear. Happy hour is here.” If you were a rock-listening Canadian anytime since the 80s, you know the Tragically Hip. You may not have known what their lyrics meant, or even been sure you were singing them right, but you knew them pretty much by heart.
The music was mostly straight-ahead guitar rock, but man, the words could be strange. As a 23-year-old in a rock band, I sang that lyric, from the song Three Pistols, who-knows-how-many-dozens-of-times, and yet to this day I still can’t tell you what it’s about.
The Hips’ lyrics came from the mind of Gordon Downie. He was – is – a strange storyteller. Maybe his most compelling song lyric is Nautical Disaster (watch the video here). The bulk of the song is the narrator relating a richly detailed and disturbing historical seafaring dream; then at the end, he breaks from the dream narrative to talk to the girl he’s been telling the dream story to.
Given all that, when my family and friends in Canada told me last year that Gordon Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and the Tragically Hip were giving their farewell concert tour, you’d think it would’ve hit with some kind of emotional weight, but I felt surprisingly little.
Why wasn’t there that spark of kinship? We shared the whole brain tumor thing. I’d sung his songs. Saw the band live. Owned a half-dozen albums and memorized most of the songs off them. I’d even used one of them as an example in a failed multimedia Magical Realism class presentation in my honors Canadian Lit class back in University.
Then a couple of days ago, something strange and magical happened. Gordon Downie came to visit me.
I had the speaker turned up in an effort to drown out Rachelle’s piano student, and the Hip song Yer Not the Ocean came up.
Something pulled at me. I replayed the song. I looked up the lyrics and gave them a quick skim. They didn’t make sense. I watched the video. It was simple to the point of being trite, and didn’t have anything to do with the lyrics.
I went back to work. And listened to the song three or four more times. (Yes, there are perks to working at home.)
The connection didn’t sink in until a while later. On re-reading, I figured out that the lyrics are about a guy standing at the shoreline telling the ocean it’s just a lake. As the song progresses the water is at his knees and then his chin and he’s still telling it it’s not the ocean. (Maybe the Lake is a metaphor for a girl or something—it is a rock song, after all—but that doesn’t change my point.)
The video is of a guy being chased by a polar bear and when he thinks he’s finally escaped, the polar bear turns up again. The guy in the video is a mournful-looking, and middle-aged, Gordon Downie.
It’s doubtful Gord knew he had cancer when he wrote the song ten plus years ago, but on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, time and location were irrelevant. The music was about him. He was sharing it with me.
Gord and I were hanging out there in my sunny glass-walled office, both understanding what it meant to deny the rising of the water even as we felt it at our chins, and the futility of trying to outrun the polar bear that couldn’t be outrun. It brought a strange peace. Sometimes emotions and art just don’t make much sense.
Even tonight as I listen to the song a few more times and the rain pounds outside in the dark and I look forward to starting a new job and enjoying the challenge of a long trail race a couple of days from now, the mournfulness of it all brings a strange comfort.