We Stayed Engaged: Ranting on 20 Years of The Hip’s Henhouse

Trouble at the Henhouse Jaded

Nicholas Friesen @Nicholastronaut May 7, 2016

At age 13, I didn’t know the difference between the bald guy in the Hip, the bald guy in REM and the bald guy in Live. All of them danced around manically and warbled in their vocal delivery. In 1996, each of these bands had hits on radio and Much Music, and I started paying more attention. “Ahead by a Century” and “Gift Shop” didn’t seem like anything else out there. The video for the former had a kid in an Ozzy Osborne shirt running from … something. Responsibility? His dad? The future? The video for the latter was a gorgeous black and white clip with moments of Canadiana that I didn’t appreciate at the time, but I enjoyed, even though I didn’t know why.

I don’t know if it was MusicWorld or HMV (or Sam the Record Man, a store I frequented more because it was less busy and had better prices) but I picked up a copy of the Tragically Hip’s Trouble at the Henhouse and almost immediately wore out the cardboard case from carting it around everywhere I went (I made a photocopy of the cover art and put the disc in a jewel case, I still have both to this day). I brought it to Dillon McKim’s house to work on a group project and we listened to it on my first Sony Discman, running through Dillon’s speakers in his basement bedroom. I can’t not hear this record without thinking about how my classmates indulged me, or the smell of the glue we used for whatever “unit” project we were assembling at the last minute (the Loyalists? Pioneers? Science?). By the time we got to “Put It Off,” I was wondering what “Love Tara by Eric’s Trip” was while my classmates were groaning about the repetitiveness of the chorus. I thought this was a “cool” record, why weren’t they into it?

I learned quickly from the guys I worked with at my weekend job washing cars that the Hip made “arty bullshit” in addition to “great songs” like “Blow at High Dough” and “Little Bones.”

It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans.

The production on the disc seemed, at times, massive (“Springtime in Vienna”) and way too thin (“Butts Wigglin’”). I didn’t know what production was, but I knew this record didn’t really sound like any other records. I wondered how Steven Drake from the Odds came to work on the record, but then assumed that every Canadian musician knew each other. Did he mix? Master? Produce? I didn’t know what any of those things meant but this was the record that made me curious. When I dove back and got 1994’s Day For Night (on sale at Futureshop), I noticed a consistency. It was dark. Moody. Wordy. That door opening stuff that makes you wonder what the fuck you were doing spending car wash money on Aerosmith’s Big Ones.

“Don’t Wake Daddy” jumped out at some of the girls in my class, mostly just the line about Kurt Cobain. It had been two years, but they were still in mourning (though many had moved onto Jared Leto). Did girls like the Hip? I couldn’t tell, not until high school, anyway. Then I knew they liked them, but they didn’t know why.

The radio played the shit out of this record, official singles or not. “Flamenco” poured through my parents’ Ford Explorer speakers on many a night home from Tae Kwon Do class. I made sure to say something over the “chickenshit” line so they wouldn’t notice (as well as the “prostitute” line). Thirteen-year-old me  wondered why “Butts Wigglin’” and “700 Foot Ceiling” didn’t have videos (didn’t every single get one?) and I dreamed of ones the band could make. Elaborate concepts. Things so embarrassing I won’t dare type them here.

I felt inferior because my Henhouse shirt was bought at Music City, not at a concert, and it did not have the tour dates, only the lightning bolt. I’d suffer similar embarrassment when sporting a Nirvana shirt that didn’t mock the “flower sniffin’ kitty pettin’ baby kissin’ corporate rock whores,” but I would live. I’d put a plaid shirt over top. No one would know. Unless they asked (which they did).

I’m not sure anything has ever really diminished my super capacity to love the Hip and Henhouse, my introduction to them, even though I’ve skipped the last few times they’ve come to town. That first time I saw them, though – Another Roadside Attraction, 1997 – my dad took me. We missed Change of Heart early in the afternoon (something I still regret to this day) but caught Wilco, Sheryl Crow and Ron Sexsmith. I don’t remember anything about the show – no “ah ha” moment here, other than when the band second encored with “Coconut Cream” my dad insisted we “beat the traffic.”

“They’re still playing!”

“They can play you to the car.”

And they did, and it was something else, hearing the band jam out, echoing through the summer night air.

I do remember seeing them at an arena, then a concert hall, then another arena. Probably a few times. I remember openers By Divine Right (with a pyjama-clad Feist) and Sam Roberts Band (he’s so short!) and I remember everyone being really drunk. Once they played an outdoor concert for free and all of Winnipeg was there. It was a little terrifying. Don’t do that, put a bunch of drunks out in the hot sun, making them wait to hear “Little Bones” while you dive into deep cuts from Music @ Work.

What does the Hip’s Henhouse mean to me? Did it shape me in any way? Did it make me wonder about co-habitation (“Apartment Song”) and masturbation (“Coconut Cream”)? It was definitely the first time I’d ever heard the words “circle” and “jerk” used together. Did it make me want to be a musician and learn all of Gord Downie’s improvised stage moves and banter? Did it help introduce me to bands outside the mainstream? Did it help ease me out of the classic rock and oldies radio I had grown up on, and, along with Odds’ Nest and 54-40’s Trusted by Millions, lead me out of 1996 into a 1997 in which I would fall for Age of Electric, I Mother Earth and Change of Heart?

I haven’t really tried to tell you what the record means to me here, or maybe I have, I don’t really know. I’m tired – my sister had a baby today and I’ve been up since 5am – so I thought I should listen to Trouble at the Henhouse on the eve of its 20th anniversary, on the day that you were born, Josslyn, and think about what a record like this reminds me of. Maybe now it will remind me of you. And junior high. And Canadiana. And how after 20 years, a record can mean something new, even after the millionth listen.