It was a cool, dreary Tuesday evening in late April of 1996. Slowly, I was preparing for my weekly Scouts meeting. Button by button, my shirt was being meticulously fastened with the radio playing in the background. Suddenly, I stopped halfway up my shirt as something intriguing started to play. Within two guitar chords I had changed from bustling along to get out the door to being stuck frozen in that very moment. The song continued, and as the lyrics began, I sat at the head of my bed facing towards the window. Listening to where the song was going, I peered through the window staring at the church across the street knowing that was where I needed to be but was, seemingly being overtaken by the poetry of the music. A few minutes passed and it was halfway through the next song that I had realised that the song that had so entranced me was over. As I came to, I took notice of the time that glared back at me from the same device that had put a spell on me. I was going to be late for Scouts.
It was in this very moment that I became a Tragically Hip fan. The song, Ahead By A Century.
As a lot of other people, the most popular band to come out of Kingston, Ontario strikes a chord within my very being, my very soul. Especially the album that the aforementioned song resides on, Trouble At The Henhouse, track #6. Over the years, I have owned multiple copies of this album for multiple reasons. The first copy, which I had received the Christmas of 1996, was stolen from my desk at school in June of 1998. It had been taken, along with the rest of the CDs in a 20 slot envelope case which was blue with a silver zipper. The rest of the prank involved emptying a bottle of red paint within my Five Star zipper binder. As I had no friends at the time, this left me feeling more alone than usual. The second copy was replaced due to an abundance of love and listening. Frequent use and travels had left its mark in small, but eventually damaging scratches throughout the reflective surface. The third copy was misuse by a friend in 2006 as I had lent it to them for their travels away from the building course we were completing together. They left for mushroom picking in BC for three weeks, and upon their return, handed me back the album. I proceeded to survey the returned item and became quietly infuriated as this copy was in a condition far worse than that of the second copy. Deeply scored and even slightly cracked, they had no explanation other than a feigned apology. The fourth was lost carelessly in a move. I still have the fifth copy in my possession nestled carefully between 1994’s “Day for Night” and 1997’s “Live Between Us”.
They say that music can calm the savage beast. It may not work for all, but it certainly works on this beast and there is no quicker way to put me into a dulled silence, eyes closed, travelling to a place elsewhere than “Ahead By A Century”. Within seconds of the metronomic ticking at the beginning of the song, in private or public, I halt all I’m doing. I have used it to calm myself, soothe myself from angry or painful thoughts. Even when in a humourous or grandiosely happy mood, it can transport me into an absolutely euphoric state. The first time I heard it live was my first time finally seeing the band live was in our communal hometown of Kingston at a benefit concert on the grounds of the Royal Military Concert; Across The Causeway. It was a warm September Sunday in 2004, and I got to the venue at six in the morning to lineup even though the first act did not appear on stage for another six hours. I wanted to be as close to the front as possible and had arrived with a backpack filled only with water, some food, and the entire discography at that time hoping that within a slight chance I might be able to steal a moment of the band’s time for autographs. It was a very long, gruelling day but was entirely worth it. I was completely happy in that exact place, exact time. The evening was coming to a close as they ended their second encore. However, sadness started to set in as my favourite song was not played. I slowly made my way away from the stage towards the exit, leaving the crowd behind me. Then, as I was within feet of the exit, a familiar sound started to play in the distance behind me. I thought to myself, “The band wasn’t one stage for a third encore, were they?” I rushed back across the field and as I crested the hill, before my eyes was a stage lit up with five shadowy bodies taking grasp of the instruments once more. And that familiar sound? It was that very metronomic ticking that I had loved so dearly that made me a fan in the first place. I fell to my knees with tears starting to stream down my face as the moment completely washed over my entire being.
I have seen them live eight times since in other outdoor settings, arenas including the opening of the brand new K-Rock Centre in 2009, and a very special intimate free show in Toronto in 2012 to promote their newest release “Now For Plan A” where I had finished my night shift, hopped on a bus, and arrived at the venue with suitcase in tow. I was lucky enough to be early in the lineup, received my bracelet, and continued inside after a wait to realise that, not only was I front row, but was within reach of the band as they played. It was a very small three song set but included something special. Something that I had been close to, but failed at, every time since 2004, meeting, autographs, and photos with the band. I nervously moved through the queue, getting closer and closer. Then, the moment was upon me, I was meeting one of my heroes. I trembled as I handed the album over to be signed. The CD was taken from my hand by a dapper gentleman and replaced with his hand. He thanked me for coming out, asked my name, and commented on my straw hat as it was one of the merchandise items from a project outside of this band. I was shaking hands and talking with Gord Downie. I proceeded through the band, greeting them, having light conversation as each one signed the cover of the album and was even able to work up the courage to ask in a mumble guitarist Rob Baker for a photograph with him.
This year, a new album “Man Machine Poem” was announced with two singles already released. However, the news also comes with sadness as news of Gord Downie’s health was released days before the concert tour dates. When I first read the news, I uncontrollably gasped and started to weep. My next thought was that I was going to do everything in my power to attend the final show, which would mostly and actually is, in Kingston. When tickets went on sale, I was lucky enough to be able to take time aside at work to try to purchase some online. Right at ten in the morning, I was on the site and in queue for them. A few minutes passed but the page was still loading. I needed to return to work, so I admitted defeat returning the phone to my pocket and soldiered on at the task at hand. Reading articles later that day about the sale of the tickets brought several emotions to the surface. Anger, disgust, sadness, hurt. I had long knew that some people will take advantage of a situation they should not, only for monetary gain but thought maybe this one time that it would not occur as the band meant so much to so many. As usual however, I was proven wrong as tickets had been bought up by those with sophisticated computing programs only to be sold once more for absolutely outrageous prices. Everything has a price, but these were ridiculous.
So, I sit here listening to The Tragically Hip empty-handed, having come to terms with the realisation that I won’t do everything in my power to see them one last time. I am fully, completely content with this however because my cloud was tilted on that cool, dreary evening of late April of 1996 and my life has had a soundtrack ever since.