“The First of the Unplucked Gems” – Notes on Nationhood & Music, Canada & The Hip, Part Two

My wife and I sat on an orange towel – a bath towel, not a beach one – in Parkdale Park on the west side of Ottawa. Our heels and calves rested on the sparsely grass-covered ground, dirt and twigs sticking to them as we shifted uncomfortably throughout the night. We had arrived almost two hours before the show was to begin, so we’d managed to sit in the third, fourth makeshift row in a crowd that, by eight-thirty that evening, had grown to number four, five hundred. Most were better prepared than us, bringing camping chairs, large, comfortable blankets, yoga mats, clean- and grimy-faced children.

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Parkdale Park, Ottawa

By eleven or so, many were crying. No, not the children – the grown-ups.

On its east side, Parkdale Park is bordered by a neat row of tented farmer’s market stalls. When we’d arrived, the market had been – as many establishments in Ottawa are at that time of day – closed, but much of the produce and flowers had still been sitting on large tables behind a chain-link fence. At the south entrance to the park, adjacent to Armstrong Street and across from the building that houses Beyond the Pale Brewing Company (a small, local operation), is a low structure that accommodates a tiny storeroom and two washrooms. (No-no, not bathrooms – washrooms.) That evening, below the structure’s sloping awning, the neighbourhood’s improvement association had set up a plastic-covered table, selling cans of pop – yes, yes, pop, not soda – and small bags of chips for a loonie each. The proceeds, Jeff the organizer had said, were earmarked for the neighbourhood’s fire preparedness and prevention fund, which had been, in the last little while, tapped into much too frequently.

Past the washrooms (and, that evening, the pop’n’chips table) is a narrow paved path that, meanderingly, passes by a large, light-blue wading pool, a brightly coloured plastic slide set and standard-issue swings, wooden picnic tables and brown metal benches, and opens onto the above-mentioned, medium-sized grassy field. At the north end of this field, separated from Wellington Street by a few low, ugly tan structures, is a squat, covered, concrete stage that Jeff – shirtless on that muggy afternoon, sporting old-school tattoos we couldn’t get close enough to read – had used to set up a large screen made out of patched plastic sheeting and bungee cords. Two blocks of wood hung from the white sheeting’s bottom, preventing it from quivering in the warm breeze. On each side of the screen-and-stage, on tall, thin stands, rested large black speakers. A projector was set up twenty or so feet away from the screen and, when we’d arrived, it had been projecting Melissa Bishop’s fourth-place, eight hundred metre Rio run.

There had been much disappointment, and much pride.

At eight-thirty, as we’d shifted our legs and sore bottoms for the twentieth time, CBC’s coverage of the Rio Olympics had graciously, eloquently given way to the event we were all there for: the (potentially) final The Tragically Hip concert, our “fare-well” to the in-our-eyes-inimitable Gord Downie. Introduced by the gaunt face of the habitually sombre Ron MacLean (perhaps the side-effect of spending too much time with the flamboyant Coach), it was to take place – to joyfully, solemnly eventualize – some two hundred kilometres southwest along the Four-Seventeen, Four-Sixteen, and Four-Oh-One, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario. It was also to be broadcast live across the country by the national broadcaster.

kingston

Photo by Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press

“Goddamnit,” my wife had said somewhat equivocally as the CBC showed Kingston’s purple-lit Market Square where a gargantuan crowd had gathered, “maybe we should have gone there.”

I shrugged.

The Hip had launched into their set with “Fifty Mission Cap,” a song – I don’t have to tell you – about the disappearance and death of Toronto Maple Leafs’ Bill Barilko. Barilko disappeared in a plane accident in the summer of nineteen fifty-one, the last goal he scored that spring having won the Leafs the Cup. He was twenty-four years old. The Leafs, the song tells us, didn’t win another Cup until nineteen sixty-two, the year the plane Barilko crashed in was discovered. One of those strange things, I suppose, the song supposes, that happen all the time. (Sitting where we sit today, the Leafs last won the Cup – well, you know when. And you goddamnwell know why.)

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Photo by Mike Homer/The Tragically Hip

The sound coming out of the speaker system was awful – muddy and pitchy, distorted and warped by each thump of Johnny Fay’s finely tuned bass drum – but most people didn’t seem to mind. I grumbled to my wife twice, three times about it and she told me to hush and not spoil the moment. It was, I found to my surprise, relatively easy to do so – hush, I mean. (I am not one to not grumble insistently.)

Soon after, I let my guard drop, stopped noticing the quality of the sound.

The evening got a bit cooler and Downie sang, moved like a slowmotioned dervish.

Hip melodies caressed, embraced, shook us violently; Downie’s lyrics burrowed into us, laying – into the furrows of our brains – tiny, translucent eggs carrying capricious, symbiotic creatures.

At precisely ten o’clock – yes, I’m sure; riding a hunch I’d checked my phone – near or at the end of the delightfully monotone “Something On” – We’ll ride the monorail / Rocking gently home on the trail / You want to show me the moon – the power suddenly cut out and the audio and video feeds cut out with it.

The crowd, bathed in the cold, pale glow of the nearly full moon and the ersatz gas streetlamps that line the west side of Parkdale Avenue, gasped, then quickly fell into a laissez-faire, expectant silence.

Someone, we were sure, was on it.

I had almost immediately jumped to the conclusion – as, I’m unwarrantedly sure, most people in the audience had – that the cause of the cut was some sort of city ordinance that forbids the playing of loud music after ten o’clock at night, because of which the electricity supply for the stage was programmed to cut out at that time. Clean, uncomplicated: “Sorry, there is really nothing I can do. I wish—I truly wish I could. The switch is designed to automatically go off at ten. Sorry.”

So we waited, comforted by a deeply felt belief that we were here because someone must have gotten a permit – which means that it’s just a matter of time before someone else figures out how to override the automatic switch. After all, it’s just a fuckin’ switch! And, surely, surely – surely! – the road from someone to someone else to the switch (here, I feel, our certainty wavered a bit) is a well-mapped, if not a well-trod, one.

So we waited.

There happened, in the pregnant darkness of that moment, three things. One: Jeff, now shirted (“Hintonburg,” his shirt said in a plain, black font), quickly got up from the centre of the crowd and hustled off. “There,” we thought – “Someone.” After a few moments, he hustled back, checked a few wires, and ran off again. Then back – behind the screen – and off. A yellow light came on above the stage, a tiny blue one flashed on the projector, then both died. Jeff came hustling back, then off. The yellow light came back on, then the tiny blue light flashed again, then both went off. And again. I stood up, trying to discern the pattern in the warm, tranquil, composed chaos.

My wife asked me to sit.

Two: seconds after the music had stopped, realizing the problem was not a fleeting one, a burly, bald, bearded man sitting next to us on a large blanket with his wife and small child opened his knapsack, pulling out his phone and a small orange and white Bluetooth speaker. Gord was singing “Poets.” Spring starts when a heartbeat’s pounding / When the birds can be heard above the reckoning carts doing some final accounting. (I know! How do you even fit this into a four/four measure?) Other hands reached for their phones and a bevy of solitary machines lit up the field.

“Where did you find the stream?” I asked.

“CBC Music is streaming it on YouTube,” he said.

Buoyed by the notion of hundreds of souls working together in concert – forming a beautiful, anodic constellation revealing itself, one phone at a time – elated by the opportunity to concretize the symbolism of sitting in that park with hundreds of people in a National Celebration, I pulled out my phone and, with shaking fingers, found the stream. Sensing my enthusiasm and knowing that I’d want to communicate it, my wife held my forearm.

I pressed play and listened.

His, my, their phones played – out of sync.

We focused, listened, looked around.

And instead of the beauty of a unified soundscape meant to enact our at times desperate craving for a common experience, we got a sonic Frankenstein’s Monster, trudging gracelessly through the dense August air.

I, my wife couldn’t help but laugh.

Three: As “Poets” wrapped up, The Hip launched quickly, fluently into a new song that ricocheted brokenly around the field and, “What’s Bobcaygeon?” one of the three girls sitting behind us – latecomers who squeezed themselves into a space early arrivals had the luxury of maintaining – asked her girlfriends. My wife waited a moment, politely giving one of the two girls time to respond; then, just a little too hastily, too eagerly, she turned and “A town – it’s a small town in Ontario,” she said. They looked at her and smiled. “Thank you,” one of them said – truly, sincerely.

Before the next song began, someone, Jeff, singlehandedly or reaching someone else, found the notorious stubborn switch and, with a tractably barbaric yawp from the crowd, the moving pictures danced on the plastic sheeting, and the rollicking sound of “Fireworks” punched out of the black speakers, effervescing through the air to our hungry ears. And although the entire song’s lyrics bounce, echo palimpsestically inside my brain, there is one line that is repeated over and over and over and over and over, cutting through the musical, lyrical salmagundi: Isn’t it amazing what you can accomplish / When you don’t let the nation get in your way.

(To be continued.)

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