One weekend in the summer of 2002, my friends, Nicholas and Todd, and I drove down to Minneapolis to see our favourite band, The Tragically Hip.
We planned the trip on a whim. During the second weekend of July, Nicholas mentioned that there was a show the following weekend. So we bought the tickets. $20 each (plus fees). The following Friday afternoon we packed up Todd’s truck and headed south from Winnipeg.
In Violet Light, the Hip’s 8th full-length studio album (9th if you include their 8-song eponymous debut), had been released the previous month. The CD was inserted into truck’s CD player and played on a loop for the entire 7-hour trip.
We dissected the album during the drive. We made fun of the cheesy opener “Are You Ready.” We debated which song should be the follow-up single to the first single of “It’s a Good Life If You Don’t Weaken.” We agreed that it would definitely be “Use it Up” (it was actually “The Darkest One”). We sang along with the abstract poetry of Gord Downie. I declared my favourite song to be album’s closer “The Dark Canuck” – a beautiful, meandering song that abruptly morphs from a twangy stutter step into a hard-driving rock ditty. Nicholas and Todd laughed at me. They didn’t think they would even play that song.
We knew that album inside-out by the time we reached our hostel in Minneapolis. It was already quite late by the time we arrived and found the hostel owner getting high out back in the hostel’s courtyard. He fished a couple of keys out of his pocket and directed us to our room, saying he’d grab our payment for our two-night stay later.
The next day we met about 20 other hostel guests representing half a dozen countries. We quickly became known as the crazy Canadians who had driven 7 hours to see a band that none of them had heard of.
So much has been discussed about how The Tragically Hip are Canada’s band. How we can’t understand why The Hip haven’t really caught on anywhere else. How that’s the very thing that makes them ours. How we’ve figured it out, and no one else has. We played some of the Hip’s biggest hits for the group of international backpackers and they remained nonplussed.
Fucking hell. If hearing “Poets” for the first time does nothing to your soul, then maybe you don’t have one. If “Courage” doesn’t send electricity to your toes, then you must be made of rubber. If “Ahead by a Century” doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, then you are a jellyfish.
That night we went to the show at First Avenue in downtown Minneapolis. The venue has a capacity of about 1500 and it was general seating. We got there early and positioned ourselves near the front row on the floor. 80% of the crowd must have been Canadians. Maple leaf flags and hockey jerseys were everywhere. For the life of me, I couldn’t tell you who the opening act was. We weren’t there for opening acts. We were there for The Hip.
They opened with “Are You Ready”. We laughed having incessantly made fun of that song on the drive down. It was fucking awesome. They played “Silver Jet”. It was awesome. They played “Dire Wolf”. It was awesome. They played the entire In Violet Light album, plus a few other hits from earlier albums. It was so awesome.
It was the dead of summer. It was probably 30 degree Celsius outside. There was no air conditioning in the venue. It. Was. Hot.
We were almost too wrapped up in the music to be uncomfortable. Before long, everyone was soaked to the bone in their own sweat. The entire band was drenched. They looked like they were playing in the rain. Gord Downie’s button-up cotton shirt clung to his skin like he’d just jumped in a pool with his clothes on. We were close enough to see the sweat beading off him in a continuous stream. It was torturously hot. Almost unbearable. The bouncers sprayed water on the crowd to prevent people from passing out. But the band played on.
This was 2002 so we didn’t have cell phone cameras. I seriously brought a disposable camera with me (you know, the kind you had to wind for every shot and develop the film afterwards). At one point Todd, a very tall man, snapped a few photos of the band. Gord saw him taking the photos and posed mid-song. It’s an awesome picture. I’ve searched high and low for that photo but I can’t find it. I know it’s somewhere. As a placeholder I’ll insert an amazing photo taken by my friend at the Winnipeg show on the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour.
To conclude the show, they played my song, “The Dark Canuck.” I’ve never figured out what it means. It’s all over the place. It’s vintage Gord Downie poetry. “Or pretend all understanding, turned out to be pretense. Then pretend the pretense of understanding. How long does it take? Depends.”
In the second half of the song when it changes course, there’s reference to a drive-in double feature, beginning with “Jaws” followed by the fictional film “The Dark Canuck.” In my mind it’s a superhero film in which the protagonist fights impolite maple syrup bandits with a hockey stick.
After the show, we returned to the hostel for one more night. The next morning we packed up the truck to return to Manitoba. As we were about to leave we realized that we still hadn’t paid for our two nights at the hostel. The hostel owner hadn’t collected from us and wasn’t chasing us down that morning. “I guess we got a free stay,” it was remarked as we pulled away from the hostel. In Violet Light continued to play on the CD player. We found a nearby restaurant and ate a greasy American breakfast while recapping the previous night’s show. Goddamn, what a show.
But something wasn’t sitting right. We knew it. After our meal we got in the truck and returned to the hostel to pay for the two nights we nearly skipped out on. We walked into the courtyard where the hostel owner was lounging. “Hey, there they are! I knew you’d come back to pay. You’re Canadians!”
In hindsight, I feel like Gord Downie was sending us a message telepathically. He used his superpowers — the hostel owner was his medium. I could almost hear Gord’s addendum, “Yep. Good Canadian kids. Don’t forget!”
We sat with the hostel owner and the contingent of international backpackers and shared a few beers before getting back in the truck for the 7-hour drive home. We made the trip back with our hearts full and our consciences clear. All thanks to the Dark Canuck.