By Daniel Ford
Like any nascent music fan, I discovered some of my favorite bands by pirating their albums from my unsuspecting older brother. I sneaked into his room when he wasn't home, grabbed a handful of CDs, played them front to back, and recorded them onto a cassette tape. The bands included Midnight Oil, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Guster, and, the one that left the deepest impression, The Tragically Hip.
To be honest, I didn’t really understand the Hip at first. The lyrics were otherworldly, the music was unlike anything my James Taylor/George Straight-bred ears had heard, and Gordon Downie’s manic and howling vocals were as foreign as poutine. I listened to albums like “Road Apples,” “Day for Night,” and “Fully Completely” more to emulate my older brother (trying to finally convince him that I was “cool”) than for musical enjoyment.
As I got older, and my musical tastes expanded past the starter pack provided by my mother and father, my affection and appreciation for The Tragically Hip grew exponentially. Gordon Downie’s lyrics weren’t like poetry, they were poetry, “yawning or snarling” along with the music that complemented the words so well. I finished half marathons listening to “My Music at Work” and “Nautical Disaster” at full volume, and “Long Time Running” became a staple on my brooding writing playlist. I felt comfortable calling myself a fan, but certainly not a diehard Hipster like my older brother and the band’s legions of fans throughout Canada.
This is a long way of saying I never expected to be standing in the Air Canada Centre last Sunday night for The Tragically Hip’s final Toronto show, watching a city and a nation say goodbye to the band’s ailing lead singer.
The band announced in May that Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in December 2015, and the upcoming “Man Machine Poem” tour would be his (and likely the band’s) last. They wrote:
“This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us.
What we in The Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection; with each other; with music and its magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans.
So, we’re going to dig deep, and try to make this our best tour yet.”
Like the avid concertgoer he is, my older brother kept his eyes out for shows in the United States, but the Hip was confining themselves to their Canadian home base. Of course, this did nothing to deter him from joining the farewell tour.
It started with a head nod at a family party. Knowing him as well as I do, I knew it wasn’t a “hello” or “get me another beer” nod. It was an “I need to talk to you outside where no one can hear me” nod.
“So I’ve been following prices for Hip shows in Toronto…” he started.
Here we go, I thought. He’s going to try to convince me to go to Toronto with him.
And he did, despite the fact that he wanted to drive across New York State to save on airfare, rental cars, etc. Once a couple of his Hip-loving friends backed out, I was in before I even knew I was in. That’s just how we operate (much to the chagrin of his wife and my fiancée).
We drove/collapsed into Toronto on Saturday night, and happily accepted Writer’s Bone contributing editor Alex Brown’s invitation to grab steaks at The Keg. He also provided us with a tour of the city, which included several tasty Canadian beers, and gifted us pretty sweet seats to the following day’s Toronto Blue Jays’ game.
After a morning run (okay, more of a walk on my part), a Jays game that saw multiple tape-measure home runs, and more walkabouts around the city, my brother and I finally headed out for the Air Canada Centre, ready to not only rock out, but also give back some of the emotion the band provided us over the years.
The first sign that this wasn’t going to be a normal concert experience was that the lines for merchandise were 30-45 minutes long (I’m completely guessing on the timeframe, but the lines were long. Really long). The second sign was that a large portion of the crowd was waiting in their seats long before the concert started, already coiled with rock ‘n’ roll angst.
The only way my older brother was able to land tickets was by purchasing two separate seats on opposite sides of the rear of the stage. It couldn’t have mattered less. The crowd took us in immediately, already deafening as the PA announcer counted down the final minutes before the show started. When the lights finally went out, pandemonium struck.
It was apparent from the first chord that the lead singer's bond with the crowd was unbreakable. Downie, clad in one exuberant, neon, and sparkling suit after another, was tightly surrounded by the rest of the band—Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, and Johnny Fay—in what Amanda and Joseph Boyden described as “the most beautiful wolf pack of protection.” Downie’s signature gesticulations and facial expressions may have slowed a bit owing to his illness, but his overwhelming stage presence bent to no diagnosis. When he raised his hands to the crowd, we raised our hands. When he growled into the microphone, we growled right back. We fueled him, and he fueled us. From new favorites like “What Blue” and "In a World Possessed by the Human Mind" to old standbys such as “Blow at High Dough,” “Ahead by a Century,” “Little Bones,” and, my personal favorite, “Grace, Too,” the band created an atmosphere unmatched in my concert-going experience. It got more than a little dusty in the arena each time Downie departed after an encore. He wordlessly said a long, patient, lingering goodbye to each section wearing what can only be described as a wry smile joined with tears brought on by the crowd’s bottomless, and at this point raspy, swell. When a Canadian flag began crowd surfing across the upper deck, I knew I wasn’t just at a show, I was in a moment, one that ensured whatever story I told about this night going forward would start with, “I was there when…”
I won’t claim to suddenly be an expert in the psychology and idiosyncrasies of Hip fans after one concert—no matter how revelatory said show might have been. Graham Rockingham of the Hamilton Spectator summed it up perfectly when he wrote:
“More ink has been spilled, set lists examined and tears sobbed during this tour than probably another in Canadian rock history. Deservedly so. Over the past 30 years, the music of The Tragically Hip has come to personify Canadian rock 'n' roll.
The fact that The Hip has little or no recognition outside of our borders, makes us love them all the more. They are Canada's dirty little secret.”
After the show, my brother and I stopped at an outdoor pub and enjoyed pints from Toronto’s Steam Whistle Brewing and Creemore Springs. Unable to take my journalist hat off, I asked my him why he started following the band in the first place and why they remained so important to him. He said something that stayed in my head long after the buzz brought on by those beers dissipated.
"They just seem to be closely associated with important moments of my life. Weddings, things like that," he said, his voice trailing off.
I can’t help smirking, thinking about me as an awkward pre-teen ripping off his albums so I could be more like him. The trip was another brick in the wall of our bond, cemented in large part by baseball, beer, books, and music. Turns out, The Tragically Hip were a part of some of the most important moments in my life as well.
So I'll add my sentimental goodbye into the prairie wind. Thank you, Gordon Downie, and the rest of the Hip, for allowing me to partake in your musical genius, and for bringing me ever closer to a man I admire and continue to emulate. Like Gord said at the end of Sunday night, “maybe we’ll see each other a little farther down the road.”
The Tragically Hip played their final concert (which was live-streamed on the CBC and watched by millions) in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario on Saturday, August 20.