How can I keep a blog about writing I love without paying homage to The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie?
The Tragically Hip’s last tour, the news that Gord is dying of cancer, the last show—it’s all too much. My tears are real and close to the surface. And I’m not alone. Many of us have a special relationship with the band. It’s not often we know what we’ve got before it’s gone, and this is one of those times.
I went to Queen’s in Kingston (Arts ’85) when the band was getting started. I had the same hair as Gord. I’ve never met any of them, but I’ve been in the same room. I remember an article about them in the Queen’s student paper. In the interview, they were treated like the Beatles. There was speculation about whether one of them was dead. It was smart, funny. I was hooked. I saved it for years but finally lost it in one of my many moves. I was at a show where they played the song “Bedrock,” from the Flintstones. Seriously. They used to do B-sides of Elvis. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen them. I think I remember that Gord used to keep his back to the audience way back then. It was kind of great. I imagined him petrified, but doing it anyway, getting out there.
After I left Queen’s, I saw them in Toronto, an early show, at the Horseshoe maybe, or Lee’s Palace. I can’t remember. For a while, he lived in the apartment above a friend of mine. I’d visit and see “G. Downie” on the call button and wonder if I’d run into him on the stairs one day. I never did. I’ve seen them in stadiums in Calgary and Toronto. I took my daughter to see them in a hockey arena in Kelowna. No one stayed in their seats. Most of the audience jumped the boards and danced on the floor. When I hear the lines, “Watch the band through a bunch of dancers,” I am back there.
The last time I saw the Hip was in Boston. I’d been living there with my husband and the crowd at the House of Blues was full of Canadians. Every Canadian in a hundred mile radius was there, or at least that’s what it felt like. We wore our Canadian gear, our hockey shirts, our old Hip t-shirts. The House of Blues folks knew this was some kind of Mecca for us, although they didn’t quite get it. Their songs tethered me, tethered all of us, to home. They made me feel like myself again.
Some lyrics are more poignant now than ever. “You can’t be fond of living in the past,” or “Lower me slowly, sadly and properly, Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.” I love that song. Every time I drive across the country and I leave the Shield and come over that rise on the TransCanada to the Prairie (you know the one) I stop the car on the side of the road, sit on the hood and blast it. In the old days, I’d have a smoke too. Not anymore. Those things cause cancer.
Other lyrics, even the name of the band, have new meanings since the news broke and these new meanings hit hard last night. Context is everything, right? Lines like “Nothing’s dead down here. It’s just a little tired,” and “Tired as fuck.” Yeah. I bet you are. It showed, of course, but it doesn’t matter. “I’m total pro. That’s what I’m here for,” he sang. And he is. “Every day I’m dumping the body,” was a gut punch for me.
One song that didn’t change in meaning for me was “Scared.” I used to listen to “Scared” over and over again when I had cancer. The “I” in the lyric was sometimes me, sometimes cancer. It became a constantly shifting confrontation. I used to go into chemo humming, “I’m not prepared. But if I have to.” Hearing Gord sing it last night was, for me, the emotional centre of the concert.
Thanks for the last memory Gord, the last concert, the epic effort you put into it. Thanks, to you and the whole band, for the last thirty years. I’m not prepared, but I guess I have to. I’m pretty sure you feel the same way. So do we all.