About four months ago I stood in stunned silence and listened to Ross Mercer’s Tragically Hip theory.
To paraphrase it: the Tragically Hip revels in their Canadiana because they are not good enough to make a splash on the international scene. Furthermore, we gladly swallow such pandering because we are often happier to applaud self-aggrandizing mediocrity than true excellence.
It’s an uncomfortable argument, made more uncomfortable by Ross's history as a world-record holding snowmobiler, which forces me to grant him a certain gravitas with regards to the “mediocrity vs. excellence” issue.
For me, the Hip is one of those bands that illustrate the degree to which music and memory can fuse together.
I bought Road Apples (1991) when I was 17 and from the moment I heard the meat n’ potatoes guitar intro on “Little Bones” I was hooked — quickly adding Up to Here (1989), Fully Completely (1992), Day for Night (1994), Trouble at the Henhouse (1996), and Phantom Power (1998) to my CD collection.
Now, whenever “Ahead by a Century” or “Courage” comes on the radio, I am transported nostalgically to that three-or-four year period at the turn of the millennium when I was — frankly — obsessed with the Tragically Hip.
So, against my better judgment, I didn’t just accept Ross’s argument as a piece of music criticism, I took it as a personal affront; he wasn’t just talking about a band, but also about the soundtrack of my transition to adulthood.
I have always accepted the prevailing wisdom re: the Hip’s inability to crack the U.S. market.
The official story goes that they have never made it big in the States because their music touches on something quintessentially Canadian — something Americans will never understand en masse. The story never goes that they haven’t made waves in America because they kind of suck — until Ross asserted it to be so.
I listened to all my old CDs and asked myself if my enthusiasm for the Hip was well-earned or whether I had just been duped by a misguided sense of musical patriotism.
After some research I still have no idea what the answer is; and I’m too entwined with the subject matter to render an impartial verdict. But I’ve decided that whether they suck or not, I’m going to love The Tragically Hip anyway.
But before I leave it at that, I want to draw your attention to one verse in one song.
The 11th track on Road Apples is a down-tempo little ditty called “Fiddler’s Green,” about the loss of a young son and the mother who survives him. Here’s the second verse:
His tiny knotted heart
Well I guess it never worked too good
The timber tore apart
And the water gorged the wood
You can hear her whispered prayer
For men at masts that always lean
That the same wind that moves her hair
Moves her boy through Fiddler's Green
This verse is as precise and powerful in its poetic economy as any set of rock ‘n’ roll lyrics I have encountered. If nothing else, Mr. Mercer, grant me that these eight lines are truly, truly excellent.