Quitting time

In the late-90s/early-2000s, when my trade of ticket-selling had not yet moved to the web, my co-workers and I had identified a number of archetypes among our customers.

One of these was the Tragically Hip fan. Working-class, generally with thick Vermont accents, mostly from the then-still-industrial towns along the Canadian border where they heard more Canadian than U.S. radio, they would flood into Burlington and sell out the 2600-capacity Memorial Auditorium. Most of them would refer to the band as “T. Hip,” and, in keeping with the economical approach to everything characteristic of New Englanders, some would say nothing more than “T. Hip tickets” when we answered the phone.

Memorial Auditorium is an old brick auditorium in downtown Burlington, built 90 years ago. It was … not a modern performing-arts venue. Most of the rock shows there were sold on a general-admission basis, with the onsite ticketing (in those days, cash-only) taking place in a basement entryway. We would sit on stools inside these movable wooden kiosks as drunken latecomers threw wads of twenties at us (if there were tickets available) or tried to wheedle their way into the show with stories about having once loaned their truck to one of the roadies or something. The first Memorial show I worked was in mid-February, and we were working in about an inch of standing cold water, from all the snow being tracked into the hallway and then melting.

My most memorable Memorial show shift, however, was a T. Hip show. Sold out, of course, but they still needed us to work “will call,” checking IDs and handing tickets over to people who, for whatever reason, didn’t or couldn’t get their tickets mailed to them.

That morning, our new washing machine had been delivered. Two Sears delivery guys harnessed this massive and heavy piece of machinery to their bodies with thick leather straps and carried it down the steps of our bulkhead into the basement.

One of those guys showed up at the T. Hip show. Something about him definitely exuded that sense of “I’ve been working hard all day and now goddammit I’m gonna get rip-roaring drunk,” for which I didn’t blame him at all. I kept thinking about the leather straps he hooked to his body that morning, about what a full day of being a human draft horse must be like.

Apparently it was, at least for this guy, too much to keep it under control. He was escorted out, probably less than halfway through the show, drunk and screaming obscenities at the security guards. Then he must have found some way to sneak back in, because it happened again, this time accompanied by threats from the security guys to call the cops.

Ever since, that guy comes to mind when I have a shitty day at work and just can’t wait to get to the bar. Of course, I don’t haul stuff around — for me, it’s been just frustrations with customers and, during my stint as a contractor, clients. But he became a symbol for me of that mixture of frustration and anger and needing to physically take your day out on something, even if it’s just your liver.

But I never really listened to the T. Hip much until last week, when Gord Downie died – and I’ve been somewhat obsessively listening to them on Spotify ever since. For a long time the only piece of their music that I knew was the first 20-30 seconds of “Blow at High Dough.” Tellingly, I knew that song because was used as the intro music for a snarky CBC TV show called “Made in Canada,” a vehicle for the comedian Rick Mercer in which he frequently broke the fourth wall and was just generally smarter than everyone else.

What has struck me most about their music — and, admittedly, I’ve been listening to them mostly at work, so this is certainly not based on a close reading of their lyrics — is how it manages to be muscular without being masculinist, the way most hard/classic rock is.

It’s music that, for me, evokes not just St. Albans and Swanton, but also Pittsburgh and Chicago and Kansas City, Waterloo Iowa and Greeley Colorado, places where workers (at least used to) move things around, and take pride in that. Perhaps because they are not singing explicitly about blue-collar work, it avoids the sentimentalism (and obsession with what it means to be “a man”) of a Bruce Springsteen. It may not be in the lyrics, but the guitar riffs and drum beats evoke for me the repetitive muscle motion of running a plastics machine or flipping burgers during a lunch rush, and when Downie’s voice soars into a hook on the chorus, it reminds me of the joy of the last push before quitting time, and of defiantly taking pride in work that is looked down on.

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