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A Hip Farewell
"I swear, that song is about the old school!"
That's my friend Tim Jeffares in 1992.
He was a fellow student at my tiny Saskatchewan boarding school and was trying to convince me and several classmates in our dorm one night that "Wheat Kings,” the iconic Tragically Hip song about the wrongful conviction of David Milgaard, referenced our campus.
"Listen to the lyrics!" he said "They talk about an old school that's now a museum, that has yellow and grey walls with pictures of past prime ministers hung on them. That's the old school!"
He made a good point - one we desperately wanted to believe.
Our campus DID have a former school-turned-museum exactly like The Hip described.
We were in Rosthern, Saskatchewan - known as "Home of The Wheat Kings,” which was also the name of the local hockey team
And, we were just 80 kilometers from Saskatoon, where Milgaard had been wrongfully accused, tried and convicted of murdering a woman a generation earlier. But why would anyone from The Tragically Hip come across a Mennonite boarding school in a small farming town?
Tim said he wrote to the band to find out.
When we graduated a year later, he still hadn't heard anything.
That song was from "Fully Completely,” in 1992 - my first Hip album.
The next was "Day For Night,” my first year of university, which I bought for a girlfriend who dumped me the same day, so I took the CD back.
Then came "Trouble at the Henhouse,” followed by "Phantom Power" - the first advance copy CD sent to my campus radio station in Winnipeg, which made us feel oh-so-important.
And, as I moved across the country, I learned everyone had a reason to claim The Hip as their own.
A buddy in Manitoba - "Thompson Girl??? Man, my second cousin LIVES in Thompson” to a friend from the west coast “Do you realize “Silver Jet” mentions BC???” to pretty much everyone in Ontario (ok, about three-quarters of The Hip’s catalogue)
But what I've also discovered in the months since Gord Downie's cancer diagnosis became public is how many of us stopped listening to the Hip by the early 2000s.
No - that's not entirely accurate.
We didn't stop listening to The Hip. We just didn't listen to their newer stuff.
It's like we wanted to hold on to The Hip of keg parties and first dates, not diaper changes and late nights at the office.
We were more likely to wear out our "Up to Here" cassette than download "Now For Plan A.”
Their live audiences also began to dwindle.
Not even two years ago, I saw The Hip play the Saddledome.
There were barely 9,000 people there.
I bought my ticket on Groupon for half price.
Yet the string of sold out concerts and added performances on this farewell tour seems to prove people are suddenly appreciating the live soundtrack to our formative years that is about to fade.
It's amazing how many parents are bringing their pre-teen kids to the Calgary shows - like they want them to witness a once-in-a-lifetime event, the way our parents made us watch the Royal Wedding 30 years ago.
And I hope they remember a man with tears streaming down his face, even if they don't understand the words he's singing.
I figured a 17-year-old pre-internet kid couldn’t find the answer, but a 40-year-old big city reporter could.
A few weeks ago I checked in with someone from The Hip's tour company, who passed me onto the label, who passed me on to their publicist.
I asked him the meaning of that specific verse in "Wheat Kings.”
He essentially said, "I don't know. Nobody knows...and we don't ask.” It’s as if asking Gord Downie the meaning behind some lyrics is like asking for the nuclear launch codes.
That's kind of cool actually.
This way, we can imagine they're singing about our high school, our hometown, or our hockey team.
Because, well, they are. And until The Hip, most Canadians never heard someone say that before.