Armed with Will and Determination…

“Don’t you want to see how it ends?” The Tragically Hip

On Saturday, August 20th, The Tragically Hip played the last concert of their Man, Machine Poem tour to a crowd of 6000 in Kingston, and to a throng of millions across Canada and around the world. 

Most of this story is well-known to friends of this blog, but for those dear readers from away, simply put: The Tragically Hip is to Canada what U2 is to Ireland, or Bruce Springsteen is to America. 

I’ve talked about them before, and the reason this concert in particular was so important was that it was very likely the last time they would perform together. Their lead singer, Gord Downie, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer a few months ago, and yet amazingly the band decided to head out on the road one last time.  Tickets to the shows sold out immediately, and I could write an entirely separate blog post about the frustrations of using Ticketmaster’s new captcha system. “Click on all the pictures that have sandwiches.” And one of the pictures is of a hamburger. Now you and I reasonably know a hamburger is PROBABLY not a sandwich, but does the algorithm that created this question know it? I pondered the question for far too long and my session timed out. I logged in a second time and the question was “Click on all the pictures with trees” and I kid you not: there was a picture of a hedge. A GOD DAMNED hedge! Is a hedge considered a tree for the purposes of proving I wasn’t a robot to get tickets? I gambled and said “no” but guess what? I was told I did it wrong and was presented with the sandwich question again but this time there were different pictures and one of them was a HOT DOG, and I knew it was settled law from fake internet justice that a hot dog was not a sandwich, BUT DID TICKETMASTER LISTEN TO JUDGE JOHN HODGMAN? Again, I was probably overthinking things, but the result was the same. A time out. And no tickets.

So you can imagine my excitement when the CBC announced they would be broadcasting the last concert live on ALL PLATFORMS. 

Between that announcement and the night of the concert, a number of public venues announced they would be showing the concert. A few of us decided that going to our city’s largest park would probably be the best experience. I’m really glad we did.

It was a perfect late summer evening, a bit of autumn coolness in the air. Campfire weather. We got down early and found a spot nice and close to spread our blankets. Before long, the screen came to life. Since it was on the CBC’s main channel, (Heck, it was on ALL of CBC’s channels), that meant the CBC was cutting away from their Olympics coverage. To give up 3 hours on the last night of the Olypmics (when many of the biggest events get resolved) just shows you what a big deal this was. 

Before we knew it, it was time. Two couples in our group had small children with them, and they will be able to tell them one day that they were, (in a way) at the last Tragically Hip concert. We decided to not bring our daughter. At 7, she’s at a funny in-between age where she’s too young to really get much out of the concert, but too old to sit quietly. She’d be bugging us to take her to the playground the whole time. And why not? That’s 7 year olds should be doing. As it was, she watched some of the concert at home with her babysitter. She asked me today, “Did you watch the concert with the man who was…..(she struggled for the right word)….sick?” I told her we did. “Was he wearing a top hat with feathers?” I burst out laughing at this, because that was a pretty good description of Gotd Downie’s attire.

Back to the park: the concert began with a blistering rendition of “50 Mission Cap” and we were off. I’m sure everyone who saw it has their own favourite moments. For me, I loved the one-two punch of “Wheat Kings” and “At the 100th Meridian” early on as a shout out to our part of the country. “Wheat Kings” is my wife’s favourite of theirs, so I’m glad she got to hear it one last time. As the night progressed, the sky darkened and something magical happened. The constellations began to reveal themselves one star at a time just about when the band played “Bobcaygeon” and the darker it got, the less it felt like we were watching a TV broadcast and more like we were actually at their concert. The crowd cheered, danced, and clapped as if we were all there (or that they were here) and it was hard to not imagine that Gord Downie could hear us, 1500 miles away in a different time zone. A couple of paper lanterns were launched from behind us somewhere, and they provided a beautiful yet poignant counterpoint to the activities below. 

By the end of the concert, most people were standing, and I was a little worried that our stuff was going to get trampled. People were already walking over our blankets and I was concerned that I’d be blocking the view of the people behind me, so I did my best to “hold the fort” but in the end I couldn’t see the screen anymore and I noticed there no longer was anyone immediately behind us, so I managed to stand and still keep a eye on our stuff. 

Late into the concert, another favourite moment happened. The band played “Scared”. If I designed their set list, I would have ended with this one, since its last line is “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you”. But it was an earlier that got to me that night. It was the:

“Tests have shown that suspicious are hostile. Their lives need not be shortened. Truth be told, they can live a long, long while”. For some reason, I forgot those were the actual words. I thought they were altered by the band on the night, and was so surprised that they fit so appropriately, considering the circumstances.

As the concert winded down, the spell was suddenly broken when the feed suddenly dropped during the final encore. The screen went dark and everyone screamed and laughed in disbelief. Luckily the concert returned within seconds and we heard the end of “Ahead by a Century”. It brought us all back to reality and helped cushion the inevitable  blow when the band took their final bows. 


My Mom went to a neighbourhood pizza place with her neighbours to watch the concert. I was skeptical that she knew even a single song of theirs, but I couldn’t wait to get her take on it. I called her the next morning. She tends to yell into the phone these days, and we’ve all gotten used to holding the phone away from our ears when we talk to her. Our daughter has even figured out how to put grandma on speaker phone.

“Wasn’t that just great?!” she exclaimed. 

“What a concert! I mean I don’t pretend to know all their songs, but I knew about half of them.”

Half of them? Wow! That’s way more then I would have estimated for her. Her favourite?

“The one about Tom Thomson! Three Pistols! I love that line about the aboriginal girl visiting the grave.” What was she TALKING about? After our conversation I had to look up the lyrics. Was she referring to the “his bride of the northern woods” line? I couldn’t believe I was having a song discussion with my Mom.

“He’s kind of like a poet, isn’t he?” she said apologetically. “He’s eccentric, but in a good way. His stage movements were like interpretative dance. I just wish I knew more of the words of the songs”.

And then my Mom hit me with, “I wish he played that song about that 30 year old who never kissed anyone. I like that one”. Holy shit! How did my Mom know about “38 Years Old” a deep cut from the “Up to Here” album? Had she been playing that cassette in our car all those years ago too? I was impressed she knew that one and told her so. She said, “well this old girl knows a few things, you know”. She does. Sometimes I really think she’s ahead by a century, a century at least. No time is ever enough.


1 Comment

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One response to “Armed with Will and Determination…

  1. It was so wonderful. I’m glad your mom got so much of it too. I was thinking that even if you never actively listened to their music it still makes a place. Playing so much on every radio or someone sticking on an album. It sinks in, marking that time.

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