As I write this, The Tragically Hip will hit the stage for the final time tonight in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Like most of Canada, I will be watching the CBC broadcast of the concert at a viewing party in what will undoubtedly be a transcendent, yet devastating night. Like most Canadians, the music of Gord Downie and company has been the soundtrack to my life, becoming a huge part of the fabric of my existence. And their music has helped me get through many rough times when depression’s dark cloud has creeped up on me and taken the wind out of me.
Along with R.E.M. and Spirit of the West, The Hip were one of the first bands that got me on the right path to listening to real music. Having gone from listening to hair metal to MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice in Grade 9 my turning point came when I purchased R.E.M.’s Out of Time and Spirit of the West’s Go Figure. After immersing myself in these two albums and diving into these two bands’ back catalogues I next turned to The Tragically Hip. Up to Here and Road Apples were incredible albums from start to finish and still sound as spine-tingling today as they did in 1991. No matter how many times I hear “New Orleans is Sinking” or “Little Bones” I always turn the radio up. When I used to host karaoke I used to sing “New Orleans is Sinking” quite often, and every time I would introduce it as “Canada’s unofficial national anthem.” No one ever argued with me. Everyone always just sang along.
The Tragically Hip, along with the likes of Spirit of the West and Blue Rodeo, shattered any notions that Canadian music paled in comparison to artists from The U.S and the U.K. “Hoser” rock was no longer just Doug and the Slugs and Trooper. Canadian music actually mattered. In 1992, R.E.M. released their most acclaimed album, Automatic for the People, while The Hip released their finest album, Fully, Completely. These two albums and bands will forever be linked to me, partly because I still have the image of the front page of the Columbia House monthly pamphlet with both bands on the front. R.E.M. and The Hip are similar in the fact that the musicians in each band come across as pretty regular guys you’d see at the local pub, but they’re fronted by two singers, Michael Stipe and Gord Downie, who are charismatic, quirky, enigmatic, and eccentric. This dichotomy is likely part of the reason both bands were able to become so popular.
In the case of The Hip, their music has spoken to people of all walks of life. Politics, class, religion, and race divides so many people, but for 32 years The Hip have managed to build a tower of song that transcends labels and speaks to everyone. At any Hip show you’ll find construction workers, oil field technicians, university professors, artists, poets, musicians, jocks, nerds, right wingers, left wingers, Christians, atheists, you name it. A Hip concert is one of the few places where a CEO of an oil company can sit comfortable next to an environmentalist. This is because The Hip don’t just speak to us, they are us. Through their gift of music, Gord Downie and his bandmates have become our friends, family, and ourselves through musical osmosis. And because of Gord’s battle with terminal brain cancer, tonight will be the last time we get to see this band in action. Cancer may be taking Gord down but he’s going out s(w)inging.
In 2011 I was crushed when R.E.M. decided to amicably call it quits. Earlier this year it was rewarding, but ultimately heartbreaking to see Spirit of the West during their final tour and watch John Mann admirably raise the middle finger to dementia. And tonight, myself and the rest of Canada will go through the whole spectrum of emotions as we watch The Tragically Hip’s final encore.
Gord Downie, thank you for three decades of integrity, poetry, emotion, eccentricity, and grace, too.
– JJ Elliott