In some ways music helps to define your life. It can define generations, and rarely, it can define a country. Tonight I bid farewell to an artist capable of all of the above, also one of the formative musical influences in my life. Not since seeing the Smashing Pumpkins (my first ever concert) back in ‘96 have I anticipated a concert with such adolescent excitement. It was an emotional goodbye because I and the rest of Hip nation are parting on a sour note. Gord Downie, iconic Canadian troubadour has terminal brain cancer.
This has had an effect on me in an odd way. I don’t know Gord, I never met him once, even in passing. But I have seen the mercilessness of cancer at work more times than I care to count. I saw it erase the giant my father was four years ago, and seeing what he went through, and how much he suffered just to function on a daily basis was shocking. The fact that Gord is embarking on a tour of this magnitude in a similar situation is nothing short of a miracle. I watched intently tonight, every grimace, every gesture, every note. Each carried with it a new weight. The whole night watching and knowing that this man was dying and that he knew it was haunting. He knows that we know too, and the sadness is compounded again. The Tragically Hip have had such a lengthy career and their music has defined so many moments it was hard to speculate what they would play and how it might suit the sombre occasion. My friends and I speculated as such, and discussed what we would love to hear one last time. For the most part we were not disappointed. However, songs take on new meaning when you know that the person singing them is dying right before your eyes.
If you were to acknowledge a life in music, and you were able to plan the soundtrack to your own funeral, how would it go? For the band I expect each song choice is placed carefully on the scale its impact weighed for the moment, lyrics carefully measured, and then measured again. For me, I felt there were certain Hip songs that would have to be played given the circumstances. After all, these songs defined my youth. How can you not play “Courage”? Never has it been more poignant: “couldn’t come at a worse time!” What about Scared? I remember distinctly watching as Gord uttered the line “it’s been a pleasure doing business with you”, and then looking out at the crowd and nodding to all sides in a sombre farewell. What could possibly be going through his mind at this moment as 20000 fans scream their approval, but with all 20001 knowing the implications of such a heavy moment? For Gord, each calculated silence tells a story and has as much meaning as the lyrics it succeeds - and the tragedy of the moment resonates once more. Never before has “Grace Too” sounded so ambient, the titular line so full of ironic significance as Gord delivers a three hour masterful performance. On this night too, “the appearance of conflict” solidly beating “the appearance of force.” These were obvious moments, but there were so many from unexpected places, like this verse from “Gift Shop”:
We're forced to bed
But We're free to dream
All us human extras
All us herded beings
And after a glimpse
Over the top
The rest of the world
Becomes a gift shop
At once embracing and bemoaning the insignificant beauty of life. Another knowing nod from Gord. A longer than usual pause, a smile, a scream and a wiping of the brow that could be sweat, but could just as easily be tears.
The Tragically Hip were the soundtrack to my high school parties, campfires where everyone knew at least one tune. We all celebrated the band because they were humble, and real and they unabashedly championed the Canadian experience the way no other mainstream band has, or can. I am sorry that I was not a more loyal fan these last ten years as their music changed. I am sorry there are no more Gord Downie moments to be shared live. I am sorry this is how it has to be. But to Gord and the boys, thanks for the moments, the stories and the music.
Happily married to my beautiful wife Stephanie, and proud father of three beautiful girls, Aurora, Brynn and Clara. Instructional designer, writing when I find time.