The Tragically Hip and the Enneagram

The Tragically Hip gave their farewell concert on Saturday, August 20th. Seen through the lens of the Enneagram, I see front man Gord Downie as a Five, and the Hip as a band that oozes the ethos of Type Six, which has helped cement their status as Canada’s greatest band.

Gord with hankie on his faceType Five is the Investigator, the Specialist, the Observer. Fives are cerebral, intense, private and weird. Gord Downie’s Five-ness can be seen in multiple ways.

Firstly, his lyrics are cryptic and obscure. Even the band’s most ardent fans are at a loss to explain the meaning of the many of their best loved songs. Try to decipher the meaning of these lyrics, from their song Springtime in Vienna:

Instructions from the manual/Could not have been much more plain/The blues are still required/The blues are still required again

Past territorial piss posts/Past whispers in the closets/Past screaming from the rooftops/We live to survive our paradoxes/We live to survive our paradoxes/We live to survive our paradoxes

Gord riding the mic standWhat the hell do they mean? Who knows! Doesn’t matter.

During guitar solos, Downie engages in eccentric stage movements that can loosely be called dancing. He shakes. He strikes a strange pose and holds it for a full minute. He pantomimes actions that have no relation to the song. I saw him mime mowing a lawn with what was clearly an electric mower – he stopped at the edge of the stage, flipped the mimed handle to the other side, and mowed back across the stage, and then flipped it, and mowed the other direction again. One YouTube commenter on this compilation likened his movements to those of David Byrne of the Talking Heads – another Five.

Gord making a weird faceAnother of Downie’s trademarks has been his improvising strange poetic rants during songs – a tendency somewhat reminiscent of Jim Morrison – who I believe was also a Five. Like his lyrics – what do these rants mean? Again, who knows. And again, it doesn’t matter. If you have an appetite for more, these improvisational explorations can be heard in abundance on the band’s 1997 concert album Live Between Us.

Fives can have a sort of gallows humour. In an interview, Downie referenced a song from the band’s 1995 album Day for Night: “Even ‘The Inevitability of Death’ is kind of a funny song more than anything. I mean, I thought it would be funny imagining radio deejays cueing it up and announcing it as people are driving off to work.”

The Tragically Hip Gord Downie’s Five-ish weirdness is very well held in the container of the band’s overall Six-ness. Type Six is the Loyalist, the Questioner, the Devil’s Advocate, the Buddy. Sixes are a bundle of opposites – alternately trusting and suspicious, introverted and extroverted, fearful and courageous. A group of Healthy Sixes will have a sort of all for one/one for all feel to them.

Sixes are very egalitarian. They often have an every-person quality. The Tragically Hip have always been very down to earth. An early profile referenced them wearing the same clothes on stage as they had on playing street hockey a few hours before the show – and this was in 1992, when a band’s image often eclipsed their actual music. Even with the Hip’s massive success within Canada, they never dressed or acted like rock stars. There have never been tales of excess, meltdowns or feuds.

The five band members went to high school together in Kingston, Ontario. Their friendship is the glue that’s held them together. In a CBC documentary, rhythm guitarist Paul Langlois described how the band chose him because he was someone they could get along with, despite The Tragically Hip, Photo: Gordon Hawkinshim not being the best guitarist in the world. Downie confirmed friendship as the basis for the band, saying “If we weren’t in this band, some of us wouldn’t be playing at all. You have tiffs with someone when he has smelly feet in the touring van, but we all respect each other as friends first.”

Healthy Sixes have a sense of being part of something bigger. The back of the band’s album covers have always prominently featured the sentence: “All songs written by The Tragically Hip.” This makes a big difference in terms of the income of each band member. Keeping it equal has perhaps contributed to their cohesion as a group. They’ve never had any substitutions of members. A replacement vocalist for Downie, who’s recently revealed he has an inoperable brain tumour, is unthinkable.

A notable exception to the Hip’s obscure lyrics is the song Wheat Kings, about the twenty-three year imprisonment of David Milgaard for a murder and rape he didn’t commit. The Hip helped Milgaard’s sister get signatures for a petition and raise money for the costs of his legal fight which won his freedom. Wheat Kings is one of the band’s best loved songs, and serves as a reminder that legal injustice happens in Canada too.

Hip fans with flag If Canada were to have an Enneagram type, it’d likely be Six. Canadians are egalitarian to a fault. It’s an extreme social taboo to toot your own horn, as an American friend of mine living in Canada once observed. Canadians ingest a steady diet of American media, but are very nationalistic, vocally proud of the country’s socialized health care.

But Canadians who feel superior to other nations must contend with the institutionalized racism and abuse of the residential school system. First Nations children were separated from their families, forbidden from speaking their indigenous languages and physically punished to astonishing degrees for doing so, and in many cases were also sexually abused. The residential school system was studied by South Africans as the model for apartheid. The legacy of suffering and trauma in First Nations people continues to this day, and it’s the responsibility of every Canadian to help bring about restitution.

gord-downie-justin-trudeau-and-the-complicated-magic-of-national-mythmaking-body-image-1471876504In the band’s final concert, Downie gave a shout-out to Prime Minster Justin Trudeau, who was in attendance, wearing a Tragically Hip shirt. He said “Prime Minister Trudeau’s got me, his work with First Nations. He’s got everybody. He’s going to take us where we need to go.” Later he added “He cares about the people way up north, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s going on up there. And what’s going on up there ain’t good. It’s not cool and everybody knows it. It may be worse than it’s ever been … [but] we’re going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help.”

This drew rapturous applause from the audience. With this public expression of admiration and call to action, Trudeau will have much to answer for if he hasn’t done anything by the next election.

Ultimately, the Tragically Hip’s legacy is one of unity. In that final concert Downie said from the formation of the band, they had the idea that everyone is invited, and everyone is involved. They could play at the university in Kingston, or for the bikers. And their music, while not beloved by every single Canadian, is tremendously popular – the broadcast of their final concert pre-empted the Olympics, and was seen by one third of the country. Their audience includes blue collar workers who love a driving beat, and artsy intellectuals who enjoy exploring the possible meanings of Downie’s lyrics. Disparate types stand shoulder to shoulder, passionately singing along to lyrics whose meaning they’d be stymied to explain.

Canada is a nation of opposites, of conservatives and progressives, of environmentalists and oil patch workers, of bankers and hippies, of hockey jocks and peace protestors, of Tim Hortons coffee drinkers and locavores, of conformists and weirdos. And as the Hip have pointed out, we live to survive our paradoxes.

the Hip band shot

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