Hep to the Hip

Writing about the Tragically Hip feels like coming out of the closet. I was born and raised in Canada, and have revealed as much in print and to my American colleagues, but the Hip are to Canadians what Mariah is (and Cher was) to the gays: canonical, emblematic signposts imbued with an excessive interest in or knowledge about uncovering their true colours. I mean, “colors.” I feel like I might cry.

The Tragically Hip played a vital role in my musical upbringing because a) I was spoon fed their music and other Can-Rock due to strict radio and TV content laws promoting home-grown talent, b) because my ridiculously influential older siblings were bar-going students when this consummate bar-band hit it big, and c) I heard the Hip's raucous bluesy-rock single “Courage” at the exact moment that I wondered if maybe the Aladdin soundtrack was kind of babyish.

The Tragically Hip are from Kingston, a beautiful eastern Ontario port town with a preppy university and a massive jail (Dan Aykroyd, the very same who invited the Hip to play SNL when he hosted in 1995, and Ryan Malcolm, who won the first Canadian Idol, bless his misguided heart, are also from Kingston). My first Hip show was at “Another Roadside Attraction,” the summer tour series they founded (and named after Tom Robbins' first novel) to support Canadian rock. I was probably 4'2″ at the time, so my heroic brother David upturned a garbage pail and stood me on it. It was a rapturous event, being a little kid spending her midnight in a field of FUBARed grownups, protected only by the haphazard efforts of her siblings. Staring through the cone of blinding white stage light at the gyre of howling frontman/super-performer Gord Downie from my trash can roost was nothing less than Holy Communion.

The band makes complete sense as a musical institution in a country like Canada. The Hip are adored the most by the “Mr. Canada's,” a subculture hallmarked by plaid flannel, maple leaf tattoos, and tons of “WOO-HOO”ing. My trashcan brother is a Mr. Canada. Much like the Hip, these men and their derivatives are the natural cultural product of a rebellious frontier nation that grew into a thoughtful pillar of civility. The band has always played roadhouse rock and roll, their albums melodic bangers tempered by the occasional stoic ballad about the land and about freedom.

Downie springs from Canada's fertile literary tradition, and his lyrics are often richly elegiac. He's made (Canadian) hits out of distinctly Canadian subjects, like David Milgaard, a wrongly imprisoned son of the prairies (“Wheat Kings”); hockey; and tiny northern outposts (“Bobcaygeon,” named for a town I speed past every summer en route to the cottage). The band has turned in the fistfight epics for music that's more in tune with modern rock radio, though not purposefully so—the Hip are a band with an easily discernible character, and it doesn't involve forsaking their lifelong devotees for a shot at commercial success.

The Hip have the financial misfortune of only having grazed the American consciousness. Their anthemic sing-along “New Orleans is Sinking” was hit with a sensitivity ban post-Katrina by U.S. radio types, but on the whole, the biggest rock band in Canadialand is absent from the American mainstream. The Hip are good to the fans they have, releasing a new record every few years, including B-sides, live tracks, and fan-selected collections. My high school friends still love them; have them all over their iPods. Even though I quit on the Hip in 1996 when I didn't buy their record “Trouble at the Henhouse,” or any albums after that (by then I was a surly teen, exclusively listening to Joy Division and the Velvet Underground), I admire their endurance. I also admire their output, and I admire their allegiance to values that I've long abandoned. Again, I feel like I might cry. What a hoser, eh?

The Tragically Hip with the Sadies at House of Blues, 1530 S. Disneyland Dr., Anaheim, (714) 778-2583; www.hob.com. Fri., 7:30 p.m., $22.50-$25.

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