Crime Song Wednesday: 38 Years Old by The Tragically Hip

By John McFetridge

The song “38 Years Old” by Canadian band The Tragically Hip tells the story of a prison break in 1973.

The first seven lines of the song are true, in 1973 twelve men did break out of Millhaven Maximum Security Prison in Kingston, the hometown of the Tragically Hip. Millhaven is a federal prison, so most of the men who escaped probably did come from, “towns with long French names,” in Quebec or northern Ontario.

But Gord Downie, who wrote the song, says the rest is made up.

It sure feels real. There’s great detail in things like, “Same pattern on the table, same clock on the wall,” and the most important thing the narrator thinks about his brother being in jail that long is that he’s, “never kissed a girl.” Twenty to thirty-eight is a lot of life, it’s usually when we do all those big things like get married and have kids, all the things that define our whole lives, but it usually starts with a kiss.

And by starting with the prison break, rather than recounting the events that got Mike into jail in the first place, the song tells many stories. The original crime, “My sister got raped so a man got killed,” took place in 1955, a time when a life sentence for the murder was likely. There’s also a lot unsaid in the line, “Local boy went to prison, man’s buried on the hill.” Kingston is a small town with a few prisons and a couple of big universities, Queens and the Royal Military College. In the fifties there were a few factories as well, and the city was divided between the locals; working-class and small town, and the elite; out of town students there for a few years, professors, military officers and factory owners.

The “Local boy,” who went to prison feels like he could have been the son of a factory worker (have you ever seen the movie Breaking Away?) and the, “Man buried on the hill,” sounds like he may have been a more “important” guy in town.

Or that may just be me projecting. But that’s what I like about this song, I think it touches just enough emotion to get you thinking about it a lot more.

What do you think?

Twelve men broke loose in ’73
From Milhaven maximum security
Twelve pictures lined up across the front page
seems the mounties had a summertime war to wage
The chief told the people they had nothing to fear
The last thing they’d wanna do is hang around here
They mostly came from towns with long French names
But one of the dozen was a hometown shame

Same pattern on the table, same clock on the wall
Been one seat empty 18 years in all
Freezing slow time away from the world
He’s 38 years old, never kissed a girl
He’s 38 years old, never kissed a girl

We were sitting round table, heard the telephone ring
Father said he’d tell me if he saw anything
Heard the tap on the window in the middle of the night
Held back the curtains for my older brother Mike

See my sister got raped, so a man got killed
Local boy went to prison, man’s buried on the hill
Folks went back to normal when they closed the case
They still stare at their shoes when they pass our place

My mother cried “The horror has finally ceased”
He whispered “yeah, for the time being, at least”
Over his shoulder, on the squad car megaphone
Said “Let’s go Michael, son, we’re taking you home”

Same pattern on the table, same clock on the wall
Been one seat empty 18 years in all
Freezing slow time away from the world
He’s 38 years old, never kissed a girl
He’s 38 years old, never kissed a girl

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