The Tragically Hip – Escape Is At Hand for the Travelin’ Man

Phantom Power
Year :
REM / Counting Crows / Tom Petty

Last month I spent some time in America’s Hat attending meetings in the great bi-lingual province of New Brunswick. While there, my Canadian colleagues remained ever-vigilant in reminding me about all the popular actors, television hosts, and musicians that are actually their compatriots and not my own.  Some of these revelations did not surprise me; some rankled me to no end.  Alex Trebek, you are not the national treasure I took you for. When it was revealed that I am a contributor to a music website, I was recommended all sorts of Canadian bands, from the classic rock of The Band to the Maritime country of Stompin’ Tom Connors. Now, I’m a fan of plenty of modern Canadian bands. I could have put pen to paper (or keystroke to internet) on the new Arcade Fire or some such. I decided, however, to set the relevance time machine back a decade or so and write up a song by The Tragically Hip.

This song is about the fleeting connections which we all make; the ones which don’t escape their circumstances yet stay with us. It must be the fate of the touring musician to take any personal interactions at face value: here is someone he or she will probably never cross paths with again. That reality brings a contradiction to the conversation. The lack of permanence or consequence brings an outgoing honesty that most people withhold from normal conversations within their interconnected network of acquaintances. So these connections form quickly, yet by their nature they can only be of a moment. We are most ourselves among strangers. The song is about two musicians who are opening on the same show. ”We were fifth and sixth on the bill / We talk a little about our bands / Talk a little of our future plans / It’s not like we were best friends.” The things that define us and the things that we want for our lives are what connect us to others. It doesn’t take much time or opportunity to get that across to someone else, if the will to is there.

The headlining band in the song is called Escape Is At Hand for the Traveling Man and (true to its name) it’s got some really lonesome tunes in its set list: “Lonely from Rock ‘n Roll,” “They Checked Out An Hour Ago,” “All Desires Turn Concrete.” These are only titles but they say so much about the transience of life on the road. The two musicians have made a connection that’s lasted throughout the concert, but the singer is paralyzed by something that prevents him from making it more meaningful. ”Maybe dive in or maybe hang back.”  I think he’s paralyzed by velleity of the sort that belongs to someone who has spent enough time on the road to know that personal connections can flare up out of nowhere… but not amount to anything beyond the moment, beyond the heartbeat.  He’s also not the headliner, though; he’s fifth on the bill. His desires are not yet all turned concrete.

He lets the moment pass and tries to follow up later by going to this fellow musician’s hotel room. The lyrics gets a little heavy-handed with symbolism—the hotel’s revolving door, the room on the 7th floor, pigeons on a wire. But they’re getting at the confluence of circumstance, impermanence, and luck that these types of connections are built upon. What defines escape for the traveling man? Is it to shut off all serendipitous connections, give them no quarter in daily life, and assign them no meaning?  Or is it the opposite, to abandon the travel and commit to those connections, which are so fleeting and rare on the road?  The lyrics are vague about the singer’s intentions with regard to the follow-up visit at the hotel. It’s clear, however, that this particular connection will not escape its circumstances: they checked out an hour ago. Such is the touring life.

I remember one afternoon when I was really young, probably six or seven, my aunt brought me to her friend’s home. Her friend had a daughter of the same age as me, and they had us go into another room and play board games while they caught up. We hung out and played the Game of Life for a couple hours, spinning the wheel and advancing the board, trying to more accrue money, fame, and family members than the other while avoiding financial ruin. In this perverse version of Life, our major milestones are reduced to a competitive spin of the wheel. In reality, we have a fair amount of agency in our accomplishments but generally not in the people that we meet and connect with along the way. Those chance meetings are the matters of circumstance that are more analogous to a spin of the wheel or a roll of the dice. I remember asking my aunt about that girl shortly thereafter and found out that she had moved away somewhere. Every once in a while, I think about that afternoon—it seems like such an iconic expression of childhood innocence, removed from the adults in the household, the game providing an anecdotal framework for the lives we were each wading into—and can’t help but wonder who that girl’s become. Where she’s lived and who she’s met along the way. I never saw her again, either.

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Jeff Bennet (@JeffBennet) goes with Drake any time someone asks him who his favorite band or artist is, because he has this personality flaw where he needs to be all things to all people.

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