(Pictured: Pure. Sex.)
If you missed it yesterday, east and west down Portage Avenue, winding south toward Graham was the inaugural Winnipeg Parade of Grown Men Crying. I chose not to attend, myself fallen pray to far too many excruciating cancer cries over the last three years of my life. But with my deep affection for the subject, I remained somewhat plugged-in keeping Trouble at the Henhouse, Phantom Power and In Between Evolution as close companions for the past week as I drank as much carefree sunshine as one could in a healthy summer.
Moments of mournful clarity have an odd way of showing face. One imagines that the artistic exploration of mortality and pain is what will catch you in your weak moment. The morning after tears spilled down Portage, I made way to the store to forage, headphones and Hip in tow.
“Wheat standing shoulder high – a ferris wheel is rusted, out in the distance. At the Hundredth Meridian.” That’s where I froze, and took a detour for groceries as the levy of stiff upper lip broke, and wept like the parade from the night before.
An everlasting lesson from my own cancer journey is the preciousness of the small fixtures we take for granted: A mother’s warmth, morning coffee, national security. In my case it was the beautiful release of squatting on the toilet and taking a shit. One of life’s most gracious dignities, such a seemingly permanent fixture one cannot appreciate until they go with out. There’s something about getting on your knees, to worship the porcelain in front of you, in prayer that the feces you’re cleaning from a bag on your abdomen won’t spill onto the floor – at a fashionable dinner party hosted by a client. I’m extremely lucky that this was this was only a temporary reality for me and to this day, time spent on the toilet in release is a primal joy. That reality is permanent for legions of others, some I count as close friends.
In Manitoba, wheat standing shoulder high is one of those precious fixtures that is impossible to appreciate as fleeting. It’s fleeting because everything is fleeting. Like joy, wealth, health and the Tragically Hip, so too are vast prairie skies. For my American friends, what makes The Hip are so special in that they’re such elemental and impossibly vast artists, a quintessential allegory for such an elemental, impossibly vast impossible nation.
Imagine if you will that a man decides to drive from Toronto to Brandon (stay with me here) without crossing the US border (A DUI from a lifetime ago, perhaps.) After a drive through the brawny and breathtaking Canadian Shield, past Falcon Lake he hits Winnipeg’s perimeter highway and sticks it to make a detour of the city before lunch at Nick’s Inn in Headingley. At the Hundreth Meridian. Where the Great Plains begin. With another two hours on Highway One before tea with Mom in Brandon, to his right he sees Churchill and to his left, Texas. A ferris wheel is rusted, out in the distance. “Getting Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy,” a voice is heard singing on the radio.
Everything in life, especially the things so small and seemingly permanent in life are fleeting.
When The Hip played Woodstock in 1999 they carried themselves with the hyper-awareness of any Canadian with an international audience vis-à-vis an American institution. Introducing Nautical Disaster, Gordon introduced the song saying, “This is a Gordon Lightfoot song.” With the twinkle in his eye, they tore into the dream of thousands of men dying at sea and the crippling guilt of survival – taking Lightfoot’s account of the Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald and ratcheting it up hundreds of notches with the creative license that only a deep sleep night terror can afford. Nautical Disaster is so steeped in the elemental omnipresence and the figurative and literal darkness that grips Canadian minds and frozen wheat fields with such regularity. But even that too is fleeting and on a beautiful summer day, with the wheat shoulder high, the drowning cold is a lifetime away.
This is why Gord, Gord, Rob, Johnny and Paul are such treasures. Only Canadians could make superstars of artists that take us so honestly and fearlessly to our cold and dark places. Gord as a poet and the band as artists rank among Pierre Burton and the Group of Seven as Canada’s institutional voices. Stark, true blue beauties.
Art is a reflection of self and artists the looking glass needed to look inward at ourselves and outward to the world. And in a world that is increasingly more pageant than parent, Canadians are so lucky to have artists speaking for us who do so with a twinkle in their eyes, in on the joke. Speaking declaratively in universally accessible prose of the dark and joyous landscape.
Bill Barillko disappeared that summer. He was on a fishing trip. The last goal he ever scored, won the Leafs the cup. They didn’t win another until 1962. The year he was discovered. With Kaufmaneqse Kafka, the Tragically Hip are immersed in a tale so steeped in dark irony that it could only be a yarn spun by Gordon himself. Going to Canadian city to Canadian city, touring his own slow death for a cold, elemental, vast nation to see, before parades of grown men crying.
Dave Shorr is a grown man crying, as well as a writer and communications expert based in Manitoba.