Turning around to grab something from my backpack, I noticed it. Two rows back, this bright yellow album cover. The owner of the record was my friend Jesse, quite possibly the only popular kid in my grade that ever gave me the time of day. Jesse loved music, and we shared a mutual bond, a melodic kinship, over the usual bands and musicians that teenagers first come across — Jimi Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, Bob Marley. And as the bell rang and class was dismissed, I approached Jesse’s table. I inquired about the yellow album.
“‘Phantom Power’ by The Tragically Hip,” he said.
“Who?” I replied.
“You don’t know The Hip?” he shot back.
He put the CD into his handheld player (with 15-second skip protection), placing the headphones over my ears. Immediately, the loud thump of a kick drum and catchy rock guitar riff echoed throughout my body. Soon, the unmistakable voice of Gord Downie roared ahead of the instruments, leading the charge of opening track “Poets.”
I was sold. A few days later, I tracked down “Phantom Power” at the nearby Ames Department Store, tucked within the record section between TLC and UB40. Back in science class, Jesse and I would compare notes about the album, about the legendary Canadian band, and how Gord and Co. were such a unique and singular sound — nobody sounded like The Hip, and nobody ever will.
Amid the recent news of Gord being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, and the band embarking on (what some might say is) a farewell tour this summer, my thoughts began to drift to the power of The Hip, and how they will forever be linked to the musical fabric of my native North Country.
For my 14th birthday (Feb. 5, 1999), my mother drove Jesse and I to see The Hip right over the border at the Molson Centre in Montreal. Immersed in an arena-sized cloud of weed smoke, Jesse and I somehow were able to buy a couple Molson Canadians. We saluted the beers high in the air, to Gord and Co. onstage, to my birthday, and to the unknowns that lay ahead in the impending minefield that would soon be high school.
As I got older, as we all got older, what remained in the background was always The Hip. Give me a rollicking Saturday night in the North Country, and I’ll give you someone throwing a dollar in the jukebox and requesting “Wheat Kings” or “Bobcaygeon” at last call, or a local cover band of your old friends blasting through yet another glorious “New Orleans Is Sinking.”
The Hip have always been there for us, which makes it that much harder to think of them not being around, physically and melodically. The Hip was (and is) “our band,” where their songs spoke of the cold, unforgiving winters we all take pride in facing and surviving every year. Their tunes brought us together on a hot summer night, in some backwoods field or dive bar around the corner. And they were also a security blanket for those of us who left the North Country to seek our fortune, their records finding their way into our stereos as we were thousands of miles from home, but the distance and space between home and far away was erased within the lyrics and guitar chords.
Living in Western North Carolina these days, I put on The Hip every-so-often, probably more often than I actually realize. All those faces and places that are familiar to me, way back there in Upstate New York — those old lovers and long gone family members, those lifelong friends and unforgettable characters — they appear across my field-of-vision when I put on “Phantom Power” — the yellow record that held the key to the secrets of me, the “where to from here?” question that always seems to emerge underneath a silent twilight moon as I look up into the sky.
With The Hip embarking on this bittersweet tour, I don’t look at it with sadness, but more so with an attitude of gratitude and love — a victory lap by a band that will forever hold a special place within the soundtrack of my life, of all our lives, as we all push a little further on down the road.
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.