The first time I was presented with the idea that healthy people might die due to circumstances beyond their control was when I was about ten years old. It was a Friday night sometime in the 1960s, when the last thing that TV stations would show were five year old (or thereabouts) movies. It was a summer night, and my dad and I sat down to watch Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees: The Lou Gehrig Story, a movie that my dad warned would be “a real tear-jerker.” Not knowing quite what he meant, we watched the movie and because I was a sports nut at the time, I loved it, that is, of course, until Lou is struck down with the mysterious ailment that still incapacitates and kills thousands of people each year. I’m absolutely gutted by the time Lou delivers his famous “luckiest man alive” speech, and for the first time in my life, I found out that life wasn’t fair. You never quite get used to it.
As Canadians found out in May of this past year, the Tragically Hip’s lead singer Gordon Downie had been diagnosed with brain cancer. Within days, it was also announced that The Hip would go on tour one last time, nominally in support of a new album entitled Man Machine Poem.
Dozens of bands have done farewell tours. Only one—that I can think of—has ever done a final tour because its lead singer/muse is going to be dead in less than a year. At the very least, it was all going to be, as Downie sings in the fabulous Scared, “a little beyond anything I’m used to.”
The Hip, as we call them in Canada, hadn’t really scored a major hit in a decade or so (in the days of file sharing, iTunes, and Spotify, who really has, and when was the last time you listened to an album for fully and completely?).
Still, the news shocked our northern nation. There are several reasons for this. First, at 52, Gordon Downey is still a young man, even though you might call the band, which has been together since 1988, “semi-aging rock and rollers.” Secondly, The Hip are a band borne of a Generation X demographic (Canadian writer Douglas Coupland coined the Gen X term) that broke decisively with the baby boomers and their Guess Who and Gordon Lightfoot albums. The Hip emerged along with The Pursuit of Happiness, Crash Vegas, The Skydiggers, 54-40, and, a bit later, the New Pornographers and the Joel Plaskett Emergency.
Not all of this new Canadiana made it onto your local FM stations, but The Hip certainly did. However, they were never a singles band-every song on Day for Night, Phantom Power, and Trouble at the Hen House was a keeper.
More than anything else, The Hip made CDs for long Canadian road trips; “looking for a place to happen, making stops along the way.” I’ll leave the laundry list of Canadian towns to the vast array of Hip completists to fill in the blanks. If anything, some of us would consult our Reader’s Digest road atlas to see exactly where the 100th meridian might fall, or ask a more literary friend if there really was a city called the Paris of the Prairies. All I know is that you could buy a Hip CD, toss it into your car or truck stereo, and the goddam thing would be stuck in there for weeks on end, until you’d wake up in the morning and have the lyrics of Wheat Kings in your head while you brushed your teeth.
The lyrics were written courtesy of the immensely talented lead singer Gordon Downie, and we really don’t know much about his personal life. (Just yesterday, I found out that he has four kids; who has that many, these days?) The band have been notoriously publicity shy for the past three decades, and, unlike in the United States where rock journalist’s careers are built on seedy exposes and well-planted puff pieces planned by unscrupulous PR hacks, most Canadians are happy to let him live his own life (maybe we’re all still horribly embarrassed by that farmer who stalked Anne Murray, all those years ago). The media personality with the closest connection is likely George Strombolopolous, and even then his interviews are respectful if not deferential, and mostly about the music. Maybe, unlike Americans, Canadian artists crave a bit of privacy.
On a scale of the crazy-ass Hip devotees out there, I’ve gotta say I’m probably about a 3 out of 10,especially when it comes to seeing them in concert. Strangely, it was their success that caused me to lose interest in their live shows. I first heard about the band when a former roommate played them in my apartment. He had just turned 25, freshly graduated from UBC, and I was 35 and, similar to now, kind of stuck as to what to do with my life. I instantly took to songs like Blow at High Dough, New Orleans is Sinking, Boots or Hearts or (gulp) Thirty Eight Years Old. My enjoyment, though, was tempered by my roommate’s admonition: To get The Hip, you must see a live show.
And so, I did. I can’t recall the year, or the tour, but I sure as hell recall the venue because it was the historic Commodore Ballroom, where I had seen incendiary live acts like The Pogues, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Graham Parker and R.E.M. The story goes something like this. They played two nights, and they were both sold out. I went with a friend of mine, the scalpers wanted too much money, and he split. I stuck around and can’t recall how much I paid, but I got in. And The Hip were ‘as advertised’, throwing sweat in every direction off the stage and Gordie, wound up like a dervish while the pretty much all male crowd rocked furiously away. It wasn’t punk, it wasn’t blues, but it borrowed from both idioms in a uniquely Canadian way. Like the Aussie band Midnight Oil, who were also big at the time, the Hip were anthemic without devolving into self parody, like post Born in the USA Bruce Springsteen. The Hip were sort of like E-Street Shuffle Bruce, best seen in a small club where you felt that special bond between artist and audience; a bond that I’ve come to realize goes one-way for most musicians, I bet most artists find so called “superfans” to be a total pain in the ass.
When dates were announced for the Hip’s final tour, I knew that it would be a memorable event, but was pretty sure I didn’t want to spend even the hundred bucks or whatever for nosebleed seats in 16,000 seat Rogers Arena. And besides, within minutes, due to the wonders of bot technology and the Death Star that is TicketBastard, all of the seats were sold. People were furious, and for good reason. Even politicians got into the act, promising some kind of “legislation” that would prevent such a travesty from occurring in the future. (Note to politicians—we’re still waiting).
Out of the internet, though, grew a tiny request—one of those Avaaz or whatever petitions was circled, asking the CBC to live-stream The Hips’s final concert in Kingston, Ontario—where they had formed and played their first concerts (like early Beatles and Stones shows, there are tens of thousands who claim to have ‘been there’, but of course they weren’t… only a dozen or so people were, legend has it.) And, without a Royal Commission being called or a senate subcommittee, the mandarins who run Canada’s national broadcaster agreed to go along with it.
As the tour gathered steam, a superb body of rock journalism was assembled. Dave Kaufmann in the National Post. A story on Downie’s oncologist in the Globe. Chris Koentges’s fabulous story comparing Downie to Terry Fox in Slate. (What? Slate?) And even, shockingly, a fabulous concert review of the Air Canada shows in Toronto that appeared in the New Yorker. Critical mass was building as the tour commenced and the summer rolled on.
Almost immediately, the resort municipality of Whistler announced that they would host a live-stream viewing at the excellent Olympic Plaza facility. Though in the following weeks other venues would become available much closer to home, I knew that Whistler, with its die-hard collection of hosers and tourists, would support The Hip… and I was right.
Arriving ten minutes or so before the show, most of the grassy area was covered in blankets, seats, beach chairs, and umbrellas. Fittingly, the finale of the Women’s 800 metres was being shown in rich HD on the jumbotron (or whatever they call those things now) and I groaned when I saw Ron Maclean do a bit of a schtick with the Olympic athletes in Rio in welcoming CBC viewers to The Hip’s simulcast, but then I thought, “what the hell. Poor Ron has been so screwed over by Rogers. It’s great to see him doing what he does best, digging into our small town roots.” And, on a night that many would later put up there with Paul Henderson’s winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series against Russia, I recalled that Henderson’s birth certificate was the same as mine—the quintessential small Ontario town of Kincardine; one that could easily have been immortalized in any Hip song. Hockey and small town Canada; joined at the Hip, indeed.
I started feeling a bit mushy during the intro, when they showed some clips of old videos—long since forgotten by me—and it struck me, “damn, this really is it for Gordie, tonight. I choked up just as the cameras cut away to the band coming on stage in Kingston—the town where they got their start— and they went straight into high gear with a rousing 50 Mission Cap.
Then, my phone buzzed… it was a friend from Calgary, I guy I was once close to who reminded me of the time that I asked him if his Toronto Maple Leafs cap was his “fifty mission cap” — and he caught the reference right away. He was just texting to say hi and remembered the great memory of that song, which elicited tremendous applause both off stage in Kingston and, perhaps somewhat tepidly, in Whistler (after all, who cheers at a TV screen? That is just, like, weird…)
It took a bit of time, but the concrete pad at the front of the “stage” started filling up with people; initially, parents with one eye on the screen and another on their restive children. A third of the way through the show and there were likely a couple thousand people gathered, and by now dozens of true fans were near the front, unabashedly mouthing lyrics and having a blast.
I watched an texted with my friend Torben, who had seen the show in Vancouver on July 26 (coincidentally, my 60th birthday) and each text got more and more excitable as both the hits and more obscure songs were played to an ever-frenzied audience. At one point, I thought Gord’s energy was flagging somewhat but then the first encore featured incendiary versions of New Orleans is Sinking, Boots and Hearts, and probably the song that launched their careers from a commercial perspective, the propulsive Blow at High Dough.
If the first encore had been nostalgia, the second set was “one for the fans” that people will be talking about for ages. Nautical Disaster, (more on that, later) a song I wasn’t much familiar with. The gorgeous ballad Scared, followed by Grace, Too and that mournful yowl near the end where Downie is overcome with emotion. A day later, a brief clip of Downie lost in tears would emerge on social media.
For the final encore, I hung out with my friend Frank, who had lost his brother to glioblastoma in 2015. Frank’s seen the inside of a lot of hospitals as a health care professional, and was the first to admit that Downie looked pretty damned energetic up there. “He’s certainly channeling something pretty deep… I don’t know what it is.” It was likely Downie’s famous muse, the one first identified by his Grade Nine drama teacher.
After the show, I was supposed to go over to Frank’s place and stay the night. But I felt weird. I had to process what I’d just seen. So I drove back to the city on, in a turn of phrase from Bruce Cockburn, “the warmest night of the year.” The sunroof open, the windows down, and fragrant mountain air blowing through the cab. My copies of Phantom Power, Trouble in the Hen House, and Man, Machine Poem went into rotation.
I cracked open a beer and my Facebook page, and found the community I was looking for; people who just wouldn’t let go and wanted to share their thoughts about the show, like an online version of Cross Country Checkup.
I searched out Nautical Disaster on YouTube, since it was a song I was unfamiliar with and it made a big impression on me. The tears were flowing by the time I got to “those left in the water were kicked off our pant leg/and we headed for home.” A callous witness to history, Downie is. More than anything, Downie is so young and so handsome in this evocative black and white video. In his concert, he wondered when, exactly, women started showing up to his shows, well, I’m guessing this was as good a place to start as any. But at 2:30 am Pacific time, six hours after the show, I had to shut it down for the night.
There was even more to ponder, the next day.
Two memorable events stood out for me; one during the concert, and the other in the plaza. Gordon Downie called out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau not once, but twice during the show. The first time, I thought it was pretty much a free time political telecast that Trudeau would lead us into an historic reconciliation with our aboriginal First Nations. The second time, though, I wasn’t so sure it was a metaphoric high five as much as an admonition not to let people down on this extremely important issue. As he mouthed, “thank you” to Gord and the band, I wouldn’t blame the PM for feeling a little bit intimidated by such a big ask; after all, if you’re going to win votes by wearing the t-shirt, you’ve got to hold up your end of the bargain.
The second observation was of a mid-20s couple in front of me who were locked arm in arm for the longest time. I didn’t think much of it other than they literally appeared to be “joined at the hip,” and then, on closer inspection, saw that they were two guys. I’ll bet Downie himself would be pretty damned impressed that a gay couple could come to one of his shows and just be another pair of faces in the crowd; it wasn’t likely how things were in the raucous college town of Kingston back when the Hip got their start in 1984.
Yes, the Kingston, hell, the CANADIAN, finale had tears. But it also held hope. Far as I could tell, the band and its fans were going out in style, but also remembering, as none other than Peter Mansbridge tweeted, that this special night was “about the music.”
Is Gordon Downie making us scared by confronting our own mortality and forcing us to “push through” whatever challenges we have while we’re still alive? Yes, quite possibly he is. A great artist can of course do that, but in Downie’s case he’s showing, not telling. Doing, not talking.
When the tour was announced back in June, The Hip said that they “wanted to blow people’s minds.” Well, to quote that great line in Scared, “You did what you said you’d do.”
Thanks from the bottom of our hearts, Gord. That was one hell of a Night in Canada.