The Tragically Hip:
Ahead by a Century
Good poetry is explosive. It makes us re-examine what we thought we knew, and in some instances it urges us to start again with a different, usually broader, viewpoint. Good songs – as Bob Dylan’s recent Nobel Laureateship reminds us – have a similar impact. Three and a half months ago, as I stood watching The Tragically Hip play in Kingston on the final stop of their summer tour, I wanted them to play several songs, but none more so than “Ahead by a Century”. It is, I think, their greatest hit, and it was wonderful to hear them perform it as the final song of the show. Why is it such a fitting way to finish? What about it is explosive? What does it mean to be “ahead by a century”? The song is so rich that there are a variety of good interpretations, but here is one way of thinking about it.
At its most basic level, “Ahead by a Century” is a song with a very broad sweep, as it weaves together past, present, and future. It is about time, memory, loss, disappointment, and hope. The opening verse clearly looks back to childhood. It begins with the words “First thing”, which immediately captures the excitement children feel when they recount their day. The singer and his friend have played together many times: “First thing we’d climb a tree / And maybe then we’d talk; / Or sit silently / And listen to our thoughts”. Among other things, the two discuss what they will do when they get older, or what they think their future will be like. They have “illusions of someday” that as children cast “a golden light”. But as the rest of the song reveals, their ideas of the future are “illusions”. It will not be as they planned or hoped. Having been back to childhood, and then forward to “someday”, the verse closes with the present, and an insistence on living as fully and genuinely as possible: “No dress rehearsal, / This is our life”.
In the bridge, the “illusions” of childhood are inevitably and almost accidentally punctured. The voice of the child is again captured when he explains – perhaps to a parent – “that’s where the hornet stung me”. This unexpected and unpleasant experience marks the end of childhood’s “golden light”, and brings on the “feverish dream” of adulthood, where we are all addled by emotions such as “revenge and doubt”. The final line of the bridge – like the final line of the verse – returns us to the present: “Tonight we smoke them out”. Literally, of course, the “them” in this line refers to the hornets, but it also refers to “revenge and doubt”. The singer plans to use smoke to drive the hornets from their nest, in the same way that he hopes to drive revenge and doubt from himself, in an attempt to return to an earlier time when he lived free of these emotions.
The chorus is six words – “You are ahead by a century” – repeated three times. The singer is addressing his partner, who is perhaps the same person he climbed trees with as a child, and who seems now to be his lover. The two are far apart. He is thinking of the past and struggling in the present. She is living one hundred years into the future. She has broken free of at least some of what thwarts and binds us now. She is already thinking and behaving in ways that will eventually gain broad political and cultural acceptance, but that are currently deemed unacceptable.
For example, in Britain in the 1810s tens of thousands of women and men gathered in open-air protests to demand the right to vote, but it was 1918 before there was universal male suffrage and 1928 before there was universal female suffrage. Those early nineteenth-century demonstrators were ahead by a century (and more). They recognized a blatant social injustice and started campaigning against it, but it took one hundred years for the rest of society to catch up. In 1963, Martin Luther King spoke powerfully of his “dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”. Fifty-three years have passed since then, and we are nowhere near living up to these words. Will we make it by 2063, or will we discover – how sadly and shamefully – that King was ahead by much more than a century?
In the second verse, the singer continues to draw together the despair of adulthood (“Stare in the morning shroud”) with the exuberance of childhood (“I tilted your cloud”), before anchoring himself in the present (“Rain falls in real time”), and insisting again on the importance of using our time meaningfully: “No dress rehearsal, / This is our life”. The second bridge runs revealing variations on the first, and deepens the themes already in place: this time it is not “where” but “when the hornet stung me”, and the dream is not “feverish” but “serious”. Then, as the band and the singer build toward the close, the chorus is repeated twice, emphasizing with more and more urgency the distance between the singer and his partner.
The song might have ended with the repetition of the chorus, but the singer has one final thing to say: “And disappointing you is getting me down”. It is his acknowledgement that he wishes he was as far ahead as she is, and perhaps too it hints at her disappointment that he is unable to close the ground between them. But thinking and feeling as he does, regarding the past as he does, misspending his time as he does, seeing a “morning shroud” instead of a morning sun as he does, he seems trapped while she moves into a far more expansive future. More broadly, The Hip themselves in many ways invoke the dynamics that are at work within this song. They write about Canadian history, language, peoples, landscapes, and towns, and their sense of who we are, where we’ve been, what we’ve done, and where we need to go is at the crux of their music. Their vision of Canada is beset by tragedy and injustice, but also lifted by beauty, humour, and courage. Most of all, at their finest, they urge us to rethink the present, and to imagine a more generous and accepting future that should not be ahead of us by a century.