By Steve Newton
I love a lot of Tragically Hip songs, but if you asked me which one was my all-time favourite, I’d have to say “Nautical Disaster”, off the 1994 Day for Night album.
I adore every second of that tune, like the way it calmly opens up before Rob Baker and Paul Langlois’ guitars fabulously kick in at the 54-second mark and everything meshes into a raggedy, Neil Young & Crazy Horse-type stomper.
When Gord Downie tears into the line “One afternoon four thousand men died in the water here,” I sometimes get a pleasureable tingle in the back of my skull, which I’m pretty sure means that I’m totally fvcking entranced by the song. I might experience another brain-tweak just when he finishes the next line: “And five hundred more were thrashing madly, as parasites might in your blood.” And if it’s a really good day, I’ll get a third buzz when Downie croons that last line about “those fingernails scratching on my hull.”
Once those stirring lyrical tidbits have blown me away I just give myself over to Baker’s uber-tasty, minute-long guitar solo, which reminds me of Shakey picking his way through “Down By the River” or “Cortez the Killer” or something awesome like that.
Back in 1995 I got the chance to ask Downie about the inspiration for that tune, and here’s what he had to say:
“I remember at the time I saw a TV program on the sinking of the Bismarck or something,” he recalled. “All these German navy men went into the water when the boat was sank, and there was hundreds of them in there. The ship that had torpedoed them was picking them up, and then it got called on the shortwave or something that there were U-boats in the area, and they had to pull out.
“The idea of the boat pulling away as men were clawing away at the hull was a good starting point,” he added. “But I like to think of that song in different ways every time I listen to it.”
I had this dream where I relished the fray
And the screaming filled my head all day
It was as though I’d been spit here
Settled in, into the pocket
Of a lighthouse on some rocky socket
Off the coast of France, dear
One afternoon four thousand men died in the water here
And five hundred more were thrashing madly
As parasites might in your blood
Now I was in a lifeboat designed for ten and ten only
Anything that systematic would get you hated
It’s not a deal nor a test nor a love of something fated
The selection was quick, the crew was picked in order
And those left in the water
Got kicked off our pant leg
And we headed for home
Then the dream ends when the phone rings
“You doing all right?”
He said, “It’s out there most days and nights
But only a fool would complain”
Anyway, Susan, if you like
Our conversation is as faint a sound in my memory
As those fingernails scratching on my hull