Farewell to The Hip

I had what I was going to write about this week all planned out and mostly written in my head. Then I watched the Tragically Hip’s farewell concert last night and even though I already wrote about Gord Downie a while ago, I’m gonna do it again this time too. I wrote some of these thoughts on Twitter, but as my long-suffering editors will know, my natural tendency is to write a *lot*, so getting things down to 140 characters is basically agonizing for me. This is my chance to do things more my way. (Sorry?)

It was, first of all, an amazing national moment. Obviously there are lots of people in Canada who aren’t fans of the Tragically Hip, but a big chunk of the country (I am now informed it was around a third of the nation’s TV sets) was gathered around watching one last show from a band they love Saturday night, which is a pretty amazing thing to think about. It was also very cool that most of the country (you needed a TV or an internet connection) could be a part of it, more or less free (see above) and without commercials. As lots of people pointed out, that’s why it’s good to have a public broadcaster. Thanks to the CBC.

It was the last time we’ll see the Tragically Hip perform. I wrote in my other Downie-inspired column that the Hip have been the soundtrack for big important chunks of my life, which has been wonderful and is a wonder to look back on. The band has been a great gift to me at times; perhaps most of all when I spent a year studying in England and Music@Work was my little piece of Canada that I could turn on whenever I needed to. And now they’re done. I’m too old to think about my youth ending (that happened, quietly, some time ago) but something has ended now that the Hip have finished their last tour. I got to see them live three times, I wish it had been more, and I’m grateful to have had the luxury.

Any band, and any artist, performing live is always a treat because you get to see an ongoing act of creation. I think artists never look more alive that when they are creating their art, and a concert is a chance to sit (and/or stand) and watch that go on. Downie is a special joy to watch because he loves to perform as much as he sings. He dances and fights with the mic stand and generally makes the stage his own. I have a tremendous respect and (as someone who constantly second-guesses whether I should say a thing or do a thing, until the moment has passed forever) envy for his confidence and his joy in performance that let him do whatever the hell he feels in a particular moment. It’s tremendous fun to watch.

I also loved that the Hip took a couple moments to share a message that is obviously important to them. Some people complained about ‘getting political’, (and it is jarring if you discover someone you doesn’t share your views on something) but I figure when you’ve reached the point where the attention is on you nation-wide, and this is your last moment in the spotlight, you’ve earned the right to say what you want to say. Downie chose to say something pretty powerful, too, calling out the Prime Minister and the nation as a whole to make things better for the First Nations communities that have been marginalized and ignored and kept in horrible conditions for far too long. As causes to give a signal boost too, that’s a pretty awesome one, and I thought it was great that the Hip used their moment to do that. (After I wrote this, a First Nations writer and artist I admire a lot, Jay Odjick, pointed out that Downie’s statement is really only a beginning and the next step is to listen to First Nations people about why things are bad for them and the solutions they need. I think it’s a great point and maybe having someone like Downie draw attention to things will put more people in a position where they’re willing to listen. I hope so. You can check out Jay’s comments starting here.)

I also thought it was great what an essentially optimistic conclusion Downie left about it. “You’re gonna figure it out.” Their songs have always showed a great love for their country, and I think Downie showed it again there, believing that this is a problem that will be solved. Now it’s up to us to prove him right, for all kinds of reasons. Among them now is that these artists who we chose to make into our voice expect it of us. I thought it was a very Canadian way of talking about this problem they care about. There was another nice moment later when Downie talked about the band’s beginnings and said, “Our idea was just that everyone’s invited.” If we ever want to change the motto on the Canadian coat of arms, we could do a lot worse than ‘Everyone’s Invited’. Now let’s make it true, every day.

Not long ago someone asked me which one of the characters from King in Darkness was ‘me’; that actually comes up reasonably often. (For some reason a lot of people assume I’m the grumpy professor) As always my answer is ‘none of them, and all of them’ because none of the characters are self-inserts, but every character I write has a piece of me in there somewhere. (Yes, even the bad ones) I doubt I’m unique in that, and watching Downie on the stage I can’t help but feel the same is true for him and his songs, the emotion and life that’s in the performance can’t mean anything else. He had a teleprompter on stage last night, apparently because one of the effects of his cancer is that his memory fails him sometimes. The idea of Gord Downie forgetting the wonderful words to his own songs is intensely sad. Fortunately he rarely seemed to glance at it last night. I’m very glad he got to do all the shows of this farewell tour more or less on his terms.

While there were a few moments where a little frailty peeked through – and honestly, the sight of his bandmates supporting him as he went down the steps off the stage was more touching than anything else – on the whole he gave a vibrant, powerful performance that went far beyond what I think anyone would have expected from someone dying of brain cancer. He stood up there and lived the idea of ‘rage, rage against the dying of the light’, and I admire the heck out of it. I imagine it helps him to do what he loves, but it was also a huge, courageous gift to his fans that I will always appreciate.

Downie always looks so very full of life when he performs, and full of the love of doing what he does. It seems impossible that he won’t be that way forever. He will be in our dreams, and I think all the Hip’s fans are profoundly grateful that he gave us one last glorious goodbye at a time when no-one would have blamed him, or them, for wanting to just worry about himself. I like to think it was good for Gord as well and I hope maybe they can draw some strength from all the emotion their farewell tour generated across the nation.

To reiterate a thought I tried to cram into 140 characters on Twitter: Downie’s talent for making words do cool, unexpected and memorable things is spectacular. In another age he would have been a poet who wrote for kings. His words would have been the ones furiously and meticulously copied with quill pens for audiences desperate to read and hear them. I’m so glad we got him in ours. Thanks for the words, Gord. I’ll treasure them.

All right that’s it – I got a little of what I was originally going to write about in there and hopefully there was some of it you enjoyed. If you want to kick some support towards the Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer research, it’s a great cause and you can do so here.

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