Over Analyzing Tragically Hip Lyrics by Andrea Grassi

There is this Hip song released in 1991 with one lyric in particular I misheard as gibberish, and for that I have always ignorantly thought this song was just an angry nonsensical anti-establishment blunder about everything greedy and North American. That was until I heard it again on the radio the other day and decided to Google what the heck singer Gord Downie was actually saying. I am not proud and will admit I was at fault. It was not gibberish, but rather a really fabulous track with some great imagery. Let’s just call this incident, “the rule of the toe”.

But before I explain the rule, you must understand that this mishap isn’t incomprehensible, as Gord rose to fame in the 90s — a time when frontmen were regularly and stylistically slurring up a storm (Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Blind Melon, etc. I needn’t go on). That, and Gord was most likely drunk (though I cannot confirm this it is a reasonable assumption as the song references hi-balls and beers priced at mere dollars).

ANYWAYS, the correct lyric is the following:
They’d say, “Baby eat this chicken SLOW
It’s full of all them little bones.”
Now, Gord’s words in general are pretty darn impressive (anyone who hasn’t read his poetry collection “Coke machine glow” is sort of missing out. It isn’t a masterpiece, but very good solid stuff). This song has always irked me though because I thought it was just nonsense. Clearly, the above lyrics make a lot of sense now — a kind of warning against choking on your own gluttony. The line is a really great commentary on proceeding with caution and enjoying privilege, as the rest of the song tries (to me) to get the listener to understand the beauty of time and political consciousness in a world where numbness and blackouts are so readily available and needed by most come 5pm (“happy hour, happy hour, happy hour is here”).

I falsely understood the lyric to be the following:
They’d say, “Baby eat this chicken TOE
It’s full of all them little bones.”
This, folks, is how varied interpretations can kill a work of art. You can try to analyze away the toe as symbolic (I’m sure toes have very tiny bones) but I will call you an elitist douche and say this is nothing other than nonsense (I ain’t never seen no chicken with no toe). I didn’t try to look into the “toe”. I stopped at the “toe”, and chalked this lyric up to hot air and nonsense. How delighted I was to find that I was in fact deluded, and that Gord just masked this beautiful lyric with a heavily emphasised “s” that made it sound like a harder “t”.

What slurry singers have to understand is that your words are important, especially when you are trying to say something political (which is, lately, often and was more always in the 90s). (Obviously I am discounting a lot of pop music when I address the musician here.) Really, you should think of the song as your message, so make sure we can hear it clearly. This post wouldn’t go over too well if I took a blurry photo of my own horrible handwriting and posted it, now would it? Just think about that. Take a page from the rap game, rockers. I always know what them dudes be sayin’ because that is their point. Maybe it should be yours too. (And while I’m at it, maybe I should specify I meant rappers like Biggie and Tupac because those were the dudes really saying something).

AND I’m out. Here is a video for “Little Bones” (where Gord has hair!).


Andrea Grassi is a writer and blogger based in Toronto. For more musings, click: agrassi.com 

This post originally appeared on agrassi.com as part of a series called "Sound vs. Quill: An Exercise In Over Analyzing Song Lyrics"


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