Tonight, The Tragically Hip perform in my hometown of London, Ontario for the last time. I don’t have tickets. They proved too hard to secure through Ticketmaster and then, when made available through secondary providers like Stub-Hub, they were far too expensive. That’s okay. I’ve seen them several times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) will be broadcasting their final show live on August 20. Fittingly, it will be performed in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Lead singer and lyricist Gord Downie was diagnosed with glioblastoma - a terminal form of brain cancer earlier this year. Consequently, this 2 month tour of Canada will be the band’s swan song.
I have always been a fan of “The Hip”. They were pure Canadiana and the riff-heavy “New Orleans is Sinking” was a staple on numerous mixed-tapes I made in the 80’s. However, over the past few weeks, I have been reminded how significant they were in the soundtrack of my 20's & 30's. I like a lot of music and my tastes are eclectic. Since escaping the tunnel-vision mindset of my youth, I have lived by the mantra that all music has value. (Well, all music that is made earnestly and passionately is of value.) Consequently, I listen to everything with an open mind and I don’t participate in Kanye, Nickleback or Bieber bashing. I simply gravitate toward the things I like most and The Hip has always had a place within that inner circle.
My first encounter with The Hip was entirely forgettable. It was the late 80’s and they were playing at a London bar called Call the Office. I was there, visiting with a friend who was about to board a train to Toronto. I paid no attention to them at all (a great regret). It was only their memorable name and later success that informs me that the event even took place. I vaguely remember wandering past the stage to use the bathroom. I am pretty sure they were playing a cover song - but, I cannot remember which one. I even left early - probably before the first set was completed.
It would be 1996 before I saw them again. I got tickets to the show at Cobo Hall in Detroit, Michigan. This would be the performance that was recorded for their live album “Live Between Us”. It was a fantastic show that was overshadowed by the theft of my wallet. I had placed my jacket under my seat, not realizing that there was access to it from the walkway behind me. It was frustrating but, not costly. I was out about $100. This was pre-9/11, so I breezed back into Canada without any identification. Simpler times. Now, when I listen to that live album I find myself preoccupied with the thought - “Was it during this song that the jerk took my wallet?”
In the last 20 years, I have only managed to see them a couple times more. I guess, like many, I assumed that I could always catch them on the next summer tour. Like warm weather, flip-flops, girls in sundresses and Dave Matthews - they are a mainstay of July and August in Canada.
I've always been a lyrics guy and Gord's poetry was, and is, a treasure for me to discover - again and again. It will always remain a gift that continues to give. I am still unwrapping rich, new substance in his words. From the haunting simplicity of “Wheat Kings” to the layered complexity of “Nautical Disaster” and even the clever humour of “Poets”, Gord created a tapestry of words that were both accessible and capacious. I loved that there was so much Canadiana in his writing. Gord found touchstones of my beautiful country in both familiar and obscure references that, for inexplicable reasons, resonate profoundly with me. Bobcaygeon, Bill Barilko, David Milgaard, Millhaven Maximum Security - Gord transported me to a place or time in Canada where I had never been and yet, felt like I knew.
I’ve been revisiting a lot of the band’s catalogue in the past few months. Gord’s lyrics take on a special power and significance when viewed through this current, tragic lens. I keep coming back to the song “Ahead by a Century” from the 1996 album “Welcome to the Hen House”. Twenty years ago, when I (foolishly in retrospect) felt like an old man, this song resonated in a powerful way. Today, the lyrics take on new significance in light of the situation in which I find myself - watching a gifted performer and writer say goodbye.
First thing we'd climb a tree and maybe then we'd talk,
Or sit silently and listen to our thoughts.
With illusions of someday casting a golden light,
No dress rehearsal, this is our life.
Thank you Gord.May the road ahead be kind to you.