Song #18 // The Tragically Hip, “In A World Possessed By the Human Mind” [Man Machine Poem]

I had a friend in high school who meant the world to me, who meant the world to us. Looking back, it’s clear that I needed him in so many ways at that time that it’s not even fair to call what we had a friendship; friendships aren’t so one-sidedly dependent. But there it was.

He was Mormon (many of my friends were) and he went on mission after graduating, first to Australia and then Utah. He left early one morning and I got up before dawn to see him off. I left my parents a note at the breakfast table telling them I had left. I was teary (I later balled in the high school parking lot beside my beard of a girlfriend) and though I don’t recall the contents of the note, I do recall that it was the first time as a semi-adult that I wrote in words that I loved them.

How stupid is that?

What can I say? I’ve always been immature, and high school was a high water mark. I must have gone years without expressing any emotion to anyone, let alone those closest to me. It must have been some time after that then that John Denver died. I was just down the road to college but it may as well have been worlds away. Some years later I watched a documentary on PBS about him and they interviewed his son, who, among other stories, relayed a very plaintive tale about his dad always saying that he loved him.

It was a throw-away line. Something obvious. But to me it was a revelation. In college. Still immature. From that day on I made a point of always telling my parents that I loved them. Up to then I can’t recall saying the words. How stupid. And then John Denver’s kid in a Vaseline-creamed shot in a late night doc mentions one little detail and my whole life changed.

So it was this spring that I heard of Gord Downie’s terminal diagnosis. It didn’t seem real, let alone fair. It was national news in Canada, everyone on radio and TV talking about it. Hours of playtime devoted to the Hip’s greatest hits. Their final concert of their brief summer farewell tour simulcast on the CBC. It didn’t make any of it any more real, or more fair.

At the time of writing this he’s still alive and producing work: music, poetry, graphic novels. In addition to how much he and his music means to me–so many summer nights, so many hours in cars–he should mean even more to the world of art.

To this day I’ve yet to read better poetry in simple aabb rhyme:

Sundown in the Paris of the prairies
The wheat kings have all of their treasures buried
And all you hear are the rusty breezes
Pushing around a weather vane Jesus

This from their classic “Wheat Kings,” which, on top of being an amazing song both lyrically and musically, tells a real story to boot. The man is a genius.

Think about the many ways that you may or may not talk about your terminal diagnosis in song. Would it be first-person? Would it be maudlin? Would it be hopeful or dire? Somehow Gord sidestepped all of these questions by being direct, but still being poetic in lines from “In A World Possessed By the Human Mind” (a song title/concept that in and of itself is poetry):

Just give me the news
It can all be lies
Exciting over fair or the right thing at the right time
Everything is clear
Just how you described
The way it appears, a world possessed by the human mind
Then I think I smiled
Then I think you said, “it’s fine”
And quietly I dressed, in a world completely possessed by the human mind

Regardless of my inflated sense of introspection and artistic self, I could never dream of coming up with such vivid language during such tumult, much less delivering it with such harmony and conviction.

But of everything surrounding the news and aftermath of Gord’s disease, the thing I’ll remember most is a recent interview I read between he and his longtime friend. He’s slowly losing his memory, and so he found it hard to even remember to whom he was speaking, much less their long history. Just the same, he spoke with fluidity and grace.

In particular, he revealed how unapologetically emotive he is with his family. Specifically he told the interviewer about how he still hugs everyone he can, and kisses the people closest to him full on the mouth each time he sees them, including his son, including his dad. Love. Hugs. Kisses. From a dying man. So full of life.

It’s still all too soon. I’m still not sure how I’ll react when the time comes. I’d like to think I’ll make positive changes before then. That I’ll be equally giving and forgiving. That I’ll be expressive and expansive enough to throw my arms around, if not the world, then at least my family. One last time at least.

This world, indeed, is possessed by the human mind. Maybe that’s all there is. Our hands let go long before our memories do.