I’m pretty sure her name was Jenny. She appeared to me to be 6’7″ but might have been closer to 5’10” – any legitimate measurement was obscured by my lowly vantage point – and was the sort of girl you mightn’t take a second look at passing in the street. There was nothing immediately distinctive about Jenny bar her awkward, vaguely familiar but slightly off accent. In one capacity, as babysitter, punishment-giver, stern warning producer, we probably despised her. But in another, her more natural role, she was intriguing, young and excitable. I couldn’t see much past her towering frame and the disciplinarian young woman who filled it at the time. 11 is not a particularly good time to be making friends, absorbing cultural difference. But somehow, between the fun and words of censure, Jenny inculcated a young me in the ways of The Tragically Hip. Desperate to try anything new – and probably to get on her good side – I took to this strange band and their foreign pronunciations with relish.
The Tragically Hip must have been a genuine suggestion from Jenny. There’s no way I would have picked up on the band myself. It certainly wasn’t a question of fundamentally connecting with the lyricism or the vibe of the whole thing. ‘Fireworks’ was an upbeat exception amid a suite of tracks I located online that were heavy, blues-tinged and carried names like the prophetic ‘New Orleans Is Sinking‘ and refrains like ‘38 years old, never kissed a girl‘. Up against the bubblegum pop and boy/girl band fare that made up the majority of my musical diet at the time, The Tragically Hip were seriously earnest, inescapably more mature than my limited years. Even ‘Fireworks’, most readily accessible with its beachy guitar riff and distinct late-90s humility, spoke with nostalgic affection of a sport I did not understand and a time (1972) I couldn’t begin to comprehend. There was something about the way The Hip seemed so invested in their hockey memories, something in ‘you said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey’, that demanded my attention.
What I think it is now about The Tragically Hip and ‘Fireworks’ – which has remained a firm favourite over the years – that resonated was an obvious musical competency complemented by a certain nonchalance regarding the whole musical enterprise. As against the nipped-and-tucked shiny brilliance of the Backstreet Boys, Smash Mouth and even Blink 182, ‘Fireworks’ had a homely quality to it; as though, in spite of having won 14 Juno awards and being what I can surmise is about as close to a Canadian national treasure as a band can get, The Tragically Hip remained in sync with their moniker, unflinching in the face of commercial pressures to sound a certain way. ‘Fireworks’ would go down well at a backyard barbecue, over drinks at a bar or as a pre-game soundtrack – probably because it was written in close proximity to these everyday scenarios. There is no pomp or pretension with the band. They might bring to mind The Killers if Flowers and co weren’t so frequently high-camp. ‘Fireworks’, in its almost-chanted background harmonies, fervent chorus and messy guitars is a great rock song done without an awareness that that’s what it is – and that is tragically, terrifically hip.
The Tragically Hip – Fireworks