It was the late 80s when I first heard The Tragically Hip. There was a family I babysat for often and the dad had a massive record collection. Ken would often send me home with mixed tapes full of music, and on one of those tapes was the Tragically Hip’s self-titled debut album.
Now, you have to understand that the Hip was not at all my usual musical fare. It was the late 80s and I was a new wave kid through and through. I bought my clothes at vintage stores, dressed mostly in black and bleached my bangs so I could look like Nick Rhodes from Duran Duran. Bluesy twangy rock ‘n roll wasn’t really on my radar.
And yet, I was hooked. There was something wild and slightly unhinged about the way the band played. It felt like the wind in my face on long car rides during long, hot Ontario summers. It felt like the endless expanse of highway on the way out of Toronto and the gravel roads that made it clear we had left the big city behind. Gord Downie wrote songs about Canada the way that Margaret Laurence and Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood wrote stories about Canada. Evoking that vastness and loneliness and wild beauty with seeming effortlessness, but always with a twist at the end. A sharpness and a bite. Last American Exit was the first song that grabbed me and it has stayed with me ever since.
First time I saw The Hip live was when they played frosh week at Western. I was a frosh leader and so had to stay sober while trying to keep track of a bunch of kids drunk on freedom and cheap beer. Our frosh week theme that year was Ghostbusters and all the frosh were dressed in white ghost-themed outfits. Gord Downie looked out at the crowd, said “You all look like a bunch of sperm running around out there” and then launched into one of his stream-of-consciousness stories while the band jammed.
The next time, it was 1997 and I had tickets to Another Roadside Attraction. One of those tickets was for my boyfriend, until he dumped me. I ended going with a guy that I was good friends with, not having any clue at the time that I would end up marrying him. Many years passed until saw The Hip again, and then it was 2009 and they were doing a 6 -night stand at Massey Hall and there we were again, watching The Hip, this time longtime married.
And then last week, one of the final Toronto shows at the ACC. Hearing the mighty echo off the rafters as the entire crowd sang along to “Little Bones”. Watching Gord Downie in his hot pink metallic leather suit, thinking that he sure as hell doesn’t look like a man with a terminal illness. Marvelling at the big smile on his face, at how much fun he seemed to be having. And then crying at the end when he stood onstage by himself as the crowd cheered, none of us wanting the moment to end.
In a couple of hours, we’re going to head to a local pub and meet up with a good friend to watch The Tragically Hip’s final show of the tour from Kingston, their home town. Will this be their final show ever? No one knows. Gord has brain cancer, and he could have anything from a few months to a couple of years left. This is all too sudden and much too cruel, and like so many others, I’m not ready to say goodbye. 2016 has been a year of such loss. So many heroes gone.
There are Tragically Hip viewing parties across Canada tonight. People are gathering in pubs, parks, movie theatres and public squares, coming together to watch a band that was always unashamedly, eccentrically and poetically Canadian.
Thank you Gord. I could always count on you to tell me what the poets are doing.