Thursday, August 18, 2016

"Courage, my word"

It seems almost un-Canadian to confess this, but I didn't know who The Tragically Hip were for a very long time. They formed in 1984, just as I was finishing school and getting ready to be married.  I was in my 30s by the time they began hitting their stride as a band in the early 1990s, which is generally a time when your grip on current musical trends starts to slip. I was in my 40s by the time they achieved official Canadian icon status.  I do remember seeing their 1995 appearance on Saturday Night Live, introduced by their very proud fellow Kingstonian, Dan Aykroyd. That was supposed to launch them into fame in the U.S. It didn't. Your loss, America. ;) 

Instead of knocking themselves out trying to appeal to a broader international audience that didn't appreciate them, the Hip embraced their Canadian-ness -- and Canadians, in return, embraced them, fiercely. Their songs are full of references to Canadian places, people and events:  1950s Toronto Maple Leafs hockey star Bill Barilko, whose mysterious disappearance halted the Leafs' string of Stanley Cup victories until his body was discovered more than a decade later... David Milgaard, who spent years in prison for a murder he didn't commit... the 100th Meridian, where the Great Plains begin... Hugh MacLennan, who coined the phrase "two solitudes" to describe English and French Canada. Not only did they write a song about Bobcaygeon (a small town in cottage country Ontario) they made it (sort of) rhyme. ;)  ("It was in Bobcaygeon/I saw the constellations/reveal themselves one star at a time.") 

Gradually, I started recognizing certain frequently-played songs on the radio as Hip songs. And then I realized I had gradually absorbed the words, and was singing along. It's gotten so that I can almost instantly recognize a Hip song even before quirky, charismatic lead singer Gord Downie opens his mouth to unleash his distinctive voice. Something about the guitar and that rumbling bass line...

They're a Canadian institution. So it was a shock when I turned on the TV on May 24th to the news that Downie has cancer. Brain cancer. Terminal brain cancer. At age 52. Not much younger than me. The country went into collective mourning. Coming on the heels of the deaths of a string of other musical icons, including David Bowie, Glenn Frey and (just weeks earlier) Prince, I can remember asking the TV set, "Geez, 2016, what have you got against music??!" 

Some people facing such a diagnosis would just pack up & go home to enjoy what's left of their life. Downie has four young children, and his wife is a (breast) cancer survivor herself. Instead, the band immediately announced they would be touring Canada this summer. For Gord. For the fans. For themselves. They didn't say it would be their last tour, but everyone knows. Tickets sold out in seconds flat, and fans have been flocking to arenas over the past few weeks to say goodbye, and thank you. Downie has not given any interviews since his diagnosis was revealed -- but he has been strutting his stuff onstage in brightly coloured metallic suits and wearing elaborate feathers in his trademark hats. And he hasn't shyed away from singing songs with lyrics like these (as noted in a great Slate article by a Canadian expat, explaining the band to non-Canadians): 

If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me
They bury me some place I don't want to be, you’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously,
Away from the swollen city breeze, garbage bag trees,
Whispers of disease, and the acts of enormity,
And lower me slowly and sadly and properly,
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.

The final concert is this Saturday, in their hometown of Kingston. There's a widely shared post going around Facebook right now, warning "Please note: Canada will be closed this Saturday night." The CBC has bowed to public demand and will be broadcasting the concert live on TV, radio and online. The prime minister (who tweeted his best wishes to Downie and the band after the cancer diagnosis was revealed) will be in attendance. Huge public viewing parties are being planned in cities and towns across the country.

There are far bigger Hip fans than me hereabouts. I almost feel like a bit of a fraud writing about them here. But like the wallpaper, they've always been there -- well, for the past 30 years, anyway (and that's a long time for most bands!). It's hard to be a Canadian of a certain age & not feel some patriotic pride at what they've accomplished, and what they've meant to our country and our people. And it's hard to be a human being and not feel sad for Downie & his family, for the band, and for the fans, both rabid and casual, who have loved them so much all these years. I surprised dh & even myself by bursting into tears while reading the concert review in the local paper over breakfast at my parents' house a few weeks ago.

"The Free Press has decided to forgo our usual star rating because, on this rare occasion, it’s irrelevant," the reviewer wisely wrote. "No number of stars is going to adequately or unbiasedly capture the emotion and intention behind this night — it’s impossible to attach a numerical value to a goodbye, so we won’t."

I will be watching on Saturday night.

*** *** ***

ALI note (you knew there had to be one, right?): 

Because most of the Tragically Hip songs I'm familiar with are the obvious ones I hear on the classic rock radio station we listen to, I was not familiar with "Fiddler's Green" -- at least, I didn't think so until I listened to a clip that was flagged on my Facebook feed by one of the pregnancy loss pages I follow -- and then I recognized the melody. It's said Gord Downie wrote the song in memory of his nephew, his sister's son, who died at a young age from heart issues. Apparently the band has been playing it a lot on this tour;  there are more recent clips available on YouTube but this is one of the most-viewed concert versions of the song there, from a few years back in Abbotsford, British Columbia:

1 comment:

  1. I knew of the Tragically Hip, and I am the right age to have been part of their moment.....but I wasn't. Never connected with their music or message (not saying I have anything against them, just never found anything aurally memorable). I guess I was too much into the Celtic revival stuff In the 90s? Appreciate Downie's act of courage though. I'm sure it meant a lot to him to have that moment to express himself. When my dad was very sick it was too exhausting for him to articulate his thoughts much of the time. He was silent a lot. So, a real gift to be able to sing and connect with so many people.