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

A song or two before the ten o’clock Parkdale Park blackout, the Hip played their shortest recorded song: “The Last of the Unplucked Gems.” Shining a light on its enigmatic title, the song – I think – basks in the difficulty, impossibility of interpretation and the way our failure to understand – songs, lyrics, poems, novels, films, each other – makes us feel: Violins and tambourines / This is what we think they mean / It’s hard to say, it’s sad but true / I’m kinda dumb and so are you.

Smiling impishly, on every “you,” from the stage, the screen, Downie pointed a finger at us.

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Downie in Toronto – Aug 10, 2016 (Photo by Arthur Mola/Invision/AP)

I have always been a semi-distracted listener of lyrics.

I first absorb melody and composition; the drum kit and percussion are the first instruments I isolate and focus on; and as long as the lyrics are not obtrusively bad – Come here girl / Come to the back / VIP / Drinks on me – I relegate them to the background, their focal place taken by the tonality, texture of the voice and the way it interlaces with the other instruments. This is probably why I’ve generally had a hard time buying pop as a vehicle of transformation – its unchanging melodic and tonal structure bespeaks traditionalism and orthodoxy. But I suppose I’m cheating here, as I’d be the first to deny revolutionary pop the status of pop. (“The major work,” Tzvetan Todorov – a Bulgarian! – writes in his discussion of literary genre, creates “a new genre” as it “transgresses the previously valid rules of the genre. … One might say that every great [album] … establishes the existence of two genres: that of the genre it transgresses … and that of the genre it creates.”) As everyone knows, and as I’m wont to deny, pop has often been an agent of change. It’s just that, most frequently, it’s someone else’s generation that’s caught up in this process.I have always been a semi-distracted listener of lyrics.

I have always been a semi-distracted listener of lyrics but it was hard, it seemed nearly impossible, to escape Downie and The Hip’s “I’m kinda dumb and so are you.” The line grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you, especially when Downie’s finger moves to you, locates you in the audience, across the border of the screen, from only feet, or hundreds of kilometres away. There was a special kind of perturbing poignancy to this playful gesture in the context of the carnivalesque celebration taking place that night.

“You’re dumb” is an ostracizing denunciation. It makes me, the dummy, different from you; it separates us. In the context of that evening’s celebration during which we all, in pain sadness joy, sought a unifying, collective experience, it was an especially discomposing accusation. And despite the statement’s formulation, despite the fact the finger is first pointed at the self – “I’m kind of dumb and so are you” – its initial or perhaps most marked effect is this, common one: it makes me, us, at whom you point your finger, wince with hurt at being singled out.

Except, of course, I’m not, we were not being singled out. I’m, we were being included.

Yet it takes a bit of effort, a bit of time – a few spins of the brain’s rusted cogs – to get there, to the inclusion bit. So yes, it took a few moments for us to, smilingly, give our assent that night – and we were, in turns star-struck, euphoric, melancholy, ready to give it more readily then than perhaps ever before.

“Yes, yes, ha ha ha, yes-yes, yes, we are kinda dumb.”

But is there more we can, need do beyond this simple, communal assent?

Yes, there is power behind this simple admission, a fact evidenced by generations of drunk, stumbling students (and not just students) who, in our intoxicated idiocy and its ritual retelling, find a bonding, communal experience that can and often does serve as a foundation for friendship, for affection and love – sometimes liberating, sometimes confining. So, you know, I think I’m going down to the well tonight / And I’m going to drink ‘till I get my fill / And I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it / But I probably will.

But then, now what?

Is there more we can draw from this affirmation?

What is it, for example, that makes us dumb?

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Road Apples (1991) – Front Cover

When the mystique varies thus / You can send a man to bury us / It’s hard to say, it’s sad but true / I’m kinda dumb and so are you. Are fluidity and inconstancy of meaning and interpretation, their continual metamorphosis, a kind of death? Do we need to be on solid ground, to start with first principles and build up, ever up, to make sense out of life, to live? Or is the very act of trying to explain what ought to remain, in some sense, mystical, a kind of death? Ought we to leave that last of the unplucked gems – unplucked?

It’s hard to say.

That night, sitting in the park with a few hundred people, in musical silence with just a smile and open eyes, as we were pointed at, I, we affirmed our dim-wittedness. That made us a kind of community. Yet I can’t help but feel that there was something more in this act of affirming a negative characterization. I don’t like to think I’m dumb; I’ll do it here, I’ll do it now. This contradiction – evidenced by the conflicting emotions generated by accepting this externally imposed self-conceptualization – opened up a space in which we acknowledged what makes us Canadian, in which we embodied the perfect transparency and aloof opaqueness of what it means to be here, now.

At this moment, the absurdity of nationhood, of all group identification, was – imperfectly, always imperfectly – embraced and celebrated, conjured by a simple act of naming ourselves dumb. And the conflicting emotions it, the event, spurred – via our focus on Downie and The Hip, on the inevitability of death amidst joy and life, via the ambiguity of their lyrics, and via having our attention drawn to that which we, as Canadians, were “trained our entire lives to ignore” – gave rise to a dynamic, metamorphosing notion of Canada. Parkdale Park is a park. Add another swing-set, add a sculpture, take out the cracked slide, play around with the washrooms, repurpose the storeroom and it will still be – a park.

(To be continued.)

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