I have seen The Tragically Hip live a number of times over the years, in various stages of my life. I saw them shortly after I discovered them; I was young, impetuous, impatient. I crushed in hard against the front railing, I threw my hands up in desperation trying to get security to hose down our side of the crowd, I belted along at the top of my drunken lungs with my arms around my friends. We knew every word.
I saw them a few years later; I still made it down front, though time had dulled my need to be pressed against the sweating masses. But I still loved it, still sang every song, still hung on every word.
From then on, I saw them here and there over the years, mostly from a halfway decent seat. They had become a staple. They had become iconic. They had become as intrinsically Canadian as Tim Horton's or hockey. They had become an institution.
As with most fascinations born of youth, I lost interest in them. Whereas once I had rejoiced in each new release, I grew indifferent. I began to view them as a relic, a holdover from a bygone era, and I was more interested in the popular music of the day.
In the summer of 2015 I was driving up the west coast of Vancouver Island and my stereo fell silent. I stream my music, and I had lost reception. I was forced to go into my iTunes and discover what was actually downloaded to my phone.
The first such album I came across was "Fully Completely". Much to my total surprise, I adored it. I spent the next 47 minutes driving through some of the most beautiful scenery Canada has to offer. The top of my Jeep was off, and the summer air rushed in. I played that album at full volume; I sang along to every song. I couldn't have been more content. It made me embarrassingly happy.
I had been looking at The Tragically Hip all wrong. They didn't become the most beloved band in Canada by catering to the lowest common denominator. They became Canada's most beloved band because they are a reflection of Canada itself.
Musically speaking, they invoke the Canadian landscape in a way that had never been heard before, and has never been done since. When they are loud, you can hear Toronto, Vancouver, Ottawa. When they are quiet you can hear Jasper, Tofino, Brandon. Their songs reside in a time and a place, even without the benefit of the lyrics.
But those lyrics. It has to be said without reservation: Gord Downie is a poet. From the full throttle roar of "Locked in the Trunk of a Car" to the delicate intricacies of "The Last of the Unplucked Gems" he displays a fearless intelligence that flies in the face of conventional popular music. He is where The Tragically Hip's genius becomes apparent; this man is singing about a complicated national identity against the background of relatively simple pop-rock song structures.
May 24, 2016. The unthinkable is announced: Gord Downie has been diagnosed with glioblastoma, an incurable, terminal brain cancer. The immediate reaction is shock. Canadian social media erupts. How could this be true? How the hell could this be happening? This man and his band have become as common a part of the Canadian landscape as the Trans-Canada highway they travel.
It's not just about the loss of a band, or the loss of the comfort that comes from assuming that they'll always be here, it's about the loss of the man himself. It's about losing someone who contributed so much to the cultural tapestry of a country that losing him is like losing a physical piece of the country itself.
One day later The Tragically Hip announced their final tour. I couldn't believe it. To paraphrase a friend of mine, none of them needed to tour. Knowing that his presence had become pressingly finite, he chose to allocate time that could have been spent with loved ones to embark on a cross country trek. It was a gift, a truly selfless act.
August 20, 2016. Literally one third of Canada tunes in to watch The Tragically Hip perform their final show. 6,700 lucky fans at the Kingston arena sound like 67,000. The appreciation is reciprocal; the band delivers 30 songs over 2.5 hours that spans their 32 year career.
I and a few good friends are glued to the television. It's impossible to not feel the weight of some of these words.
Courage, it couldn't come at a worse time. I can make you scared.
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.
We read into every facial expression, looking for an insight into what this man must surely be grappling with at this moment. Ultimately, he is himself. His intentions remain elusive, except for his pausing to pay tribute to our indigenous peoples and our Prime Minister, who happens to be in attendance.
We hide our faces from each other in pivotal moments. One of us goes so far as to wear sunglasses. We are all moved. We are all touched. All of our eyes well up.
There is the signature freak out moment at the end of "Grace, Too" in which Gord Downie seemingly loses his mind with grief, fear, and doubt in a swirling mess of guitars and bitterness. I am prepared for it; I've seen him do it before. But this time it carries with it a frustration that I can't isolate as performance. It's visceral.
One question begins to permeate our conversation: What song will they end with? Several encores later, we have our answer.
At first, I find "Ahead by a Century" to be a curious choice. This isn't a song that muses about mortality or makes sweeping statements about what it means to be human. It's a reserved song. Beautiful, but certainly not what you'd call going out with a bang.
Halfway through the song, it hits me. The last line. I say nothing and wait for it. Gord Downie sings it and lowers his head."Disappointing you is getting me down." Fuck. What a way to say goodbye.
To Gord Downie, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, and Johnny Fay, thank you.
You were, are, and always will be, a national treasure.
The Tragically Hip - Ahead by a Century
The Tragically Hip - New Orleans is Sinking - August 2oth 2016