Tragically Crypt

On September 24, a Saturday, record stores across Ontario reported an odd but encouraging trend: People were lining up around the block to get into their outlets. Lining up, it might be noted, in freezing cold weather.

That should come as little surprise to fans of the supermegacool band R.E.M., who released their new album Monster that week. Except that buyers weren't looking for Monster. They were clamoring for an album called Day for Night by a band named (quite unfortunately) the Tragically Hip.

Reviews of both albums ran the next day in the major papers across Canada. The critics were, for once, pretty consistent in their opinions. If Monster rated three stars, Day for Night rated four. If Monster earned four stars, Day for Night snagged five. Some reviewers dubbed Day For Night an instant classic, and the Hip's slavish fans immediately made it the number-one-selling disc in Canada, a status it maintained for the next four weeks. The record has since sold nearly a million copies up north, an astounding accomplishment above the 49th parallel.

In the U.S. Day for Night has sold, to date, a grand total of zero (0) copies. As in zilch. Nada. The fact is, you couldn't buy a copy of Day For Night if you wanted to.

The answer to that big fat question is one of the sadder stories in the history of rock and roll, a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, and underwritten by the hacks at MTV and Rolling Stone.

But let us begin at the beginning, nearly ten years ago in Kingston, Ontario, where guitarists Bobby Baker and Paul Langlois hooked up with drummer Johnny Fay, bassist Gord Sinclair, and vocalist Gordon Downie to form the Hip. The band's self-produced debut was a raw piece of work, brilliant in snatches, bumbling in others. What the band plainly had was talent and chemistry. They quickly won a record deal with MCA, a label with a knack for breaking country acts, but one with a lesser reputation with rock acts.

There was some optimism about the Hip's 1989 release, Up To Here, especially after the wicked first single, "New Orleans Is Sinking," won some radio airplay. Two years later, when the band released Road Apples, the feeling at MCA was that the Hip was sure to cross over into the American market. They were young, good-looking in a roguish sort of way, and had just released an album full of driving, bluesy stompers and piercing ballads, each built around melodies that stuck to the brain like Velcro.

Downie's lyrics, delivered in a knock-down-drag-out contralto, were brilliant evocations. He could sum up a dead romance in seven words, singing, "We don't go anywhere/Just on trips." Or describe a small town in Canada where, "All you hear are the rusty breezes/Pushing around the weathervane Jesus."

I can still remember listening to an advance cassette of Road Apples in the summer of 1991. I was, at that time, working in El Paso, Texas, as a full-time music reviewer who half-listened to about two dozen records a week. Road Apples floored me. (The album remains, in my view, the finest collection of music released in this decade.)

Not long after, I went to see the Hip at a little club in El Paso. The band played for 90 minutes. Downie sweated through three shirts and his blue jeans. By the end I was so wired I was ready to put my fist through a wall. It seemed apparent to me, to everyone on hand that night, that the Hip was a band destined for the major leagues. Even Downie and his mates seemed to understand that at some point soon everything was going to get bigger. Much bigger.

Everything did not. Road Apples won raves from those who bothered to review it. But Rolling Stone and Spin, the sort of mags that can break a band with one review, ignored the release. And, much to the bemusement of the Hipsters themselves, MCA selected one of the album's least accessible songs ("Three Pistols") as a single. Road Apples came and went.

In 1992 the band released Fully Completely, rekindling all the talk about conquering America. In Canada, where the band was now routinely headlining stadium shows, Fully went platinum. It sold huge in Europe and Australia, as well. Fans, dubbed Hipheads, began following the group from gig to gig.

But the record was barely a blip on the pop culture radar in the States. And all that heady talk among fans dissolved into grumbling. This grumbling eventually organized itself into a set of theories, all designed to explain why America was giving the Hip a cold shoulder.

Some believe the group's music is too diverse. They aren't straight ahead cock rockers, or mopey alternative whiners. They don't write politically correct anthems, or perform trendy covers. They are sort of in their own indefinable category, one that radio programmers find risky to mess with.

Others feel the band's refusal to produce fancy, MTV-ready videos doomed them. Some more cynical loyalists suggest that the Hip's incendiary live shows have actually hurt them, because bigger established acts are reluctant to tour with them and chance getting blown off the stage. (This was said to be the case with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.) The most popular speculation involves the band's name, which was chosen in the spirit of ironic humor, but is often viewed as dorky and pretentious. "People expect that we're going to come out on-stage in black berets or something," guitarist Bobby Baker told me.

Now understand, this setup suits Baker and company just fine. Like any self-respecting band, the Hip has a reputation for anti-establishment behavior that extends beyond a refusal to endorse beer products. One fine example occurred in 1993, when the Hip was invited to perform at Penrod's on Labor Day with a bunch of geezer bands.

Though the Hip was allowed to play just five songs, the crowd was dangerously hyped up after four. People were shoving into each other, spilling beer, baying at the top of their lungs. The security guards charged with overseeing the event quickly ordered -- ordered -- the Hip to play a ballad. "We did the fastest, hardest song we could think of," Gordon Downie told me later, giggling. "It was chaos."

Downie admitted after the show that the band was disappointed and, quite frankly, baffled by their lack of success in America. But he insisted they were also relieved. "I like that we have different levels of fame," he said. "In Canada we have to deal with being rocks stars. But here we're perfectly obscure. That's nice. It keeps things in perspective."

Which would all be fine and well. Except that the band's deal with MCA was terminated last year, right before the release of Day for Night. That makes it nearly impossible to buy the release here unless you enlist a bunch of envoys from Buffalo to make a run across the border.

There is now talk of the Hip signing with Atlantic and of the album being released in the States later this year. In the meantime, the industry trade sheets have been having a ball with the story, clucking their tongues over the paradox of Canada's top rockers getting blanked by the Yanks.

In the end, I'm not so worried about the Hip. If anything, eluding the pressure cooker of American superstardom will probably prolong the group's life. More than anything, I look at the Hip story as (yet more) incontrovertible evidence that talent and integrity and the sheer beauty of music have almost nothing to do with success in America. Because the folks who once prided themselves on scouting out these qualities -- the FM programmers, the big-time rock writers -- aren't looking out for us any more. They're counting beans. That's why you see a guy like Sebastian Bach, the lead singer of Skid Row, prancing his crotch bulge all over the cover of Rolling Stone, or why your local disc jockey is, even as we speak, cuing up another double shot of Aerosmith.

Each of these actions marks small victories for commerce in the continuing war against art.

The wonderful hidden punch line here is one that Gordon Downie explained to me back in 1991. Downie was telling me about how some reporter from Rolling Stone had gone to see the band in L.A. After the show, he had paraded into the dressing room, announcing his presence in a plume of cologne. "He told us he loved the show and, seeing as he was this big-deal writer, he was going to make sure we got written up," Downie recalled. "Now that guy -- he was tragically hip.

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Steven Almond