Tag Archives: cancer

Up To Here

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


I’ve had it up to here with terrible news involving musicians this year. We started off with the stinging news of David Bowie’s seemingly sudden death in January, then learning that he had been secretly battling cancer for quite some time. Then in April, we received the frankly shocking news of Prince dying from God knows what, fittingly at home in his palace/recording studio Paisley Park.

This week’s news somehow hits the hardest. I’m not sure why. We, as a nation, found out that Gord Downie, the front man for The Tragically Hip, has incurable brain cancer. I say, “as a nation”, because I can’t think of any other band that seems to encapsulate our weird “Canadianness” than The Tragically Hip, and by extension, their leader Gord Downie. It’s fitting that as a nation we received this news together, and are all processing it in our own way this week. I’m not saying that every Canadian was a fan of the Tragically Hip. (Jesus, I’m already using the past tense here. FUCK IT. I’m not saying every Canadian IS a fan of The Tragically Hip, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who grew up here in the ’90s and ’00s who hadn’t at least heard of them, right?)

They have been consistently putting out albums and touring so regularly over the last 25+ years that you almost start to take them for granted. In fact, this past Monday, we had plans to meet friends for an outing in the country. (Something seemingly simple that was way more complicated, but that’s a story for another time). The sun was shining and the sky was blue. It was the May Long Weekend, that most Canadian of long weekends, and I was wanting to really get into summer mode. The seersucker was one, the birks were ready. I picked out two albums and played them over and over before heading out. One was Coldplay’s X&Y (no comments, please. I actually LIKE Coldplay, and that album, more than any of their others, makes me think of summer for some reason), and the other one was “Live Between Us’ by, (you guessed it, friends), The Tragically Hip. I love that album, because it’s sort of like a “best of” without being a “best of”, and you get a taste of some of Gord Downie’s weirdo stage presence, like how he suddenly snippets a Jane Siberry song at one point. (And it’s not even a WELL KNOWN Jane Siberry song, actually. I love that moment.) Also, speaking of “best ofs”, the Tragically Hip’s “Best of” album is a two disc thing cheekily called “Yer Favourites”.

It’s hard to describe The Tragically Hip’s broad appeal, but for me they seem to be doing two things at once. (At LEAST two things, but let’s stick with two).

For one, they are a straight ahead rock band, the kind that you’ll hear dude-bros play at their campsites all summer long and wouldn’t be out of place on a demolition site or a Winnipeg social. You know how early Radiohead, like The Bends album, sounds like a pretty great straight ahead rock band? (and then they went all funny and artsy with OK Computer, Kid A and forward and now we have to PRETEND we are into them to be cool?), well The Tragically Hip’s sound really hasn’t  changed a whole lot since their debut in the late ’80s. I’ve been listening to Now for Plan A a lot this week in the car. It’s their most recent album (not the one that is about to be released, the one before that), and I was stuck at how layered and nuanced the sound was, and yet you can still really rock out to it. The Tragically Hip never lost that. So, that’s the first thing.

But the second thing they are doing as describing and commenting on Canadian history, geography and culture while actually becoming a part of Canadian history, geography and culture while they are doing it. They write and sing about weirdo intellectual stuff, and that endears them to me quite a bit. They sing a song about Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, (Three Pistols) for God’s sake. They dedicate a song (Courage) to Canadian writer and professor Hugh MacClennan. They write a beautifully mournful tribute to David Milgaard (Wheat Kings), who was wrongfully convicted and imprisoned for 23 years. This happens to be my wife’s favourite Tragically Hip song. They even wrote a song about an imaginary line that runs north/south just west of Brandon, MB (The 100th Meridian), and I remember the night we pulled over on the side of the highway, excitedly thinking we found the 100th meridian, but later finding out it was just the 97th meridian. Stupid meridian.

I’m just scratching the surface here, but infusing their songs with so called “Canadian Content” never really feels forced, it just seems like a natural by-product of a creatively fertile mind that belongs (present tense, fuckers!) to a poet who genuinely loves and cares about this country of ours and its identity.

A few years ago, Joseph Boyden invited The Tragically Hip to visit Attawapiskat, that doomed indigenous community on the shores of James Bay, and they performed a concert in nearby Fort Albany. At that time, a housing crisis there was making the news, but in more recent months a much sadder story has surfaced over a rash of teen suicides in that community. Let me just say something about Joseph Boyden. He’s my favourite living indigenous Canadian author. Why do I feel like I need to add “indigenous” to that description? It’s like Royal Tenenbaum introducing Margot as his “adopted daughter”. Screw that, Joesph Boyden is my favourite living Canadian author, and his invitation to The Tragically Hip resulted in a very meaningful visit and the last song on their last album, Goodnight Attawapiskat, was inspired by it. Joseph Boyden wrote a haunting article about Attawapiskat in Macleans recently, and I’d like to link to it here. I forced my wife to read it (I’m the WORST), and on the strength of that she is now reading Boyden’s first novel, Three Day Road, so: mission accomplished? (I’m resisting a rant that has been simmering for a few weeks about the attention and support the fires of Fort McMurray have received and the support (or lack thereof) and attention (or lack thereof) that the community of Attawapiskat has received in comparison, but I’ll leave that for another day. Today is for Gord Downie).

Many people will cite 1992’s Fully Completely as the album that first got them into The Tragically Hip. It had those great songs like Courage, 50 Mission Cap, 100th Meridian, and Wheat Kings. Me being me, I was a little slow to the party. The first album I ever bought was 1994’s Day for Night. That album starts with the great Grace, too which they defiantly played on Saturday Night Live, even though they were told it was too long for network tv. They changed the first line from “We’re fabulously rich.” to “We’re the Tragically Hip”, and it was a great moment. Dan Ackroyd introduced them. To this day they often open their shows with this song (or if not open, then play it in the number two spot). That SNL moment was probably the deepest they ever penetrated into the American market, and somehow that makes them ever more dear to us as Canadians. We’ve all heard stories about friends who have gone down to the States and seen The Tragically Hip play small bars and nightclubs with only a few hundred people, all the while filling arenas back home. When Gord Downie’s health news broke Tuesday, many Americans expressed confusion as to why so many people were responding so passionately about someone seemed like an unknown to them. He wasn’t an unknown to us. It felt like a family member got the diagnosis.

Even though I didn’t buy an album til ’94, my one concession to hipsterdom was that we had an old cassette copy of their first album, Up to Here, in our car. No one knows how that cassette got in there. Neither my brother nor I ever remembering buying it, but we played the hell out of it in high school and beyond. It had all those great early songs: New Orleans is Sinking, Blow it High Dough, and of course, 38 Years Old. Years later, my brother was living in Belleville, and we were driving around the countryside near Kingston, and we passed Millhaven Prison, and I turned to him and said, “From The Tragically Hip song!” and we started singing, “Two men broke loose, in ’73. From Millhaven maximum security…” he remembered the cassette too. Part of the fun is when you travel through across Canada and you see some of the things referenced, like Prince Edward County near Kingston, where many of my wife’s ancestors lived and are buried. Also, I can’t tell you how excited I was when I discovered Bobcaygeon was a real place.

Through the ’90s and ’00s, they reliably produced an album every few years and seemed to be constantly touring. I wouldn’t have identified myself as a Tragically Hip fan then, although I always sort of kept tabs on them. In fact, it took me over 20 years until I actually saw them live, because I always put it off for a future date. That opportunity happened first in 2010 at the Winnipeg Folk Fest, where Gord Downie appeared by himself in support of his solo album, The Grand Bounce. They played a lot of this album on the CBC, which had recently abandoned their classical programming for modern Canadian content, and it was this album more than anything else that got me back into the Tragically Hip. It was the only time I’ve been to the Folk Fest where the weather was perfect, and I will always remember this lovely workshop in the afternoon that featured Gord Downie and fellow Kingstonite, Sarah Harmer. The following year, my wife and I had our first full Tragically Hip experience, when they played outside in a baseball stadium. Although their most recent album was We Are The Same, I don’t remember them playing a single song off that album. My wife was a little disappointed, as she loved (loves!) the heck out of that album. Most of the songs are quieter, more introspective, so I can sort of see how they wouldn’t really transfer to a stadium concert setting. (think of the dudebros!). At least they did play Wheat Kings, as an encore at the end. The band themselves, though, were really solid and together and I got to see a bit of Gord Downie, the showman, firsthand. Someone this week described him as a cross between Leonard Cohen and Bono, and who am I to disagree? The following year, we saw them again, at a music festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake. The REAL reason we were going was to see The New Pornographers and Death Cab for Cutie, but the Tragically Hip were the headliners. We were all pretty “rocked out” by the time they took the stage, but I remember hanging back by the food carts, eating a late supper, with the sound of Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip as our soundtrack. Ben Gibbard, the lead singer of DCFC, and Gord Downie, seemed to have a particularly close connection during the festival, and a few months later a FRIEND OF MBM was in Toronto to see Ben Gibbard perform a solo show. She saw Gord Downie at the show, and Ben played My Music @ Work as a tribute. I even wrote about this way back in 2012.

So, where does all this leave us?

A terminal cancer diagnosis.

A farewell summer tour.

It doesn’t seem fair that Cher gets like 12 farewell tours, and The Tragically Hip are granted just one, especially when less than a week ago, as I listened to Live Between Us, I was thinking that they would just go on and on and on.

I’m still processing the news, as I am sure a lot of you are too.

They are coming through town one more time in August. Apparently Gord Downie is well enough to do this, and maybe this is the best thing for him, for the band, and for the fans.

Or not.

I’m conflicted. I don’t know if I deserve to go to this concert. I don’t know if I qualify. I’m not sure I am even what you’d call a fan. Maybe more of an admirer? Will I regret not going? Will I regret going? It will be sad, surely. But will it also be a outpouring of love and a celebration of almost three decades of music? A double middle-fingered FUCK YOU to cancer? A mix of everything? Tickets don’t go on sale for another week, so I have some time to mull it. I’ve gone from, “I HAVE to be there.” to “I’m okay if I don’t go.” to “I’d rather not go, if it’s all the same to you.” right back to “I HAVE to be there.”

Let’s just see what tomorrow brings.





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Jack and John

Last Monday we got word of two deaths. Both men died of cancer. We first got to know both men in 2003. One was a person I never met but felt like I knew, the other one was someone I talked to on a daily basis but never really felt like I knew at all. The first was Federal NDP leader Jack Layton, and the second was our next door neighbour, John.

There’s not much I can say about Jack Layton that hasn’t already been said better by others elsewhere. Jack Layton was a fighter, and he fought for the very people who had the least power: the homeless, battered women, HIV/AIDS patients, the aboriginal community, the elderly, the poor. The list goes on. I’ll never forget his spirit of optimism.  Back in April, I wrote a post about the Vote Compass software and I called Jack Layton “trustworthy but delusional“.  It just goes to show that it’s a good thing that I don’t make my living as a political pundit. I was the delusional one. Not only did I not foresee the Conservative majority (or maybe I was just wishfully hoping it wouldn’t happen), the Orange Crush of the NDP and the destruction of the Bloc and Liberal Party weren’t even in my realm of contemplation. I’ll never forget watching Jack Layton’s victory speech, and the sense of optimism and hope I felt that night. To learn in late July that Jack needed to take a leave to fight another form of cancer, I wasn’t immediately worried. He’d been down this road before, and I knew he’d get the best care possible and that he wouldn’t, couldn’t leave us now, not at the very pinnacle of his career, at the cusp of making a real difference as the Leader of the Opposition. So it was all that much more hard news to receive when we heard on the 8 a.m. CBC news that Jack had passed away. The outpouring of grief across the country, the chalk memorials, the tributes,  matched my own personal grief and sense of loss. Through my tears, I said to Marla, “Isn’t this silly? I didn’t even know him.” “Sure you did”, she said. “We all felt like we did”.

"So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic, and we'll change the world." Jack Layton

Contrast this with our neighbour John. Our neighbour across the back called me over that night to tell me that our next door neighbour John had died while we were away on our vacation. Like Jack, John had battled prostate cancer the year before, and like Jack, it was generally thought the cancer had been beat. I knew something wasn’t right when John and his wife Marie had returned a month early from their winter holiday in Texas, but John wasn’t one to talk about his health directly to me, and I didn’t feel like I should pry. Our last conversation was in May when Marla’s Dad was parked outside of our house. His van and trailer were laden with things from my Mom’s old neighbour, and John was concerned that Marla and I were getting divorced or something. “I saw all that stuff, the mattress and everything, and I got worried you were moving out”. We had a little chuckle over it, and that was it. After that, his health took a turn and we never saw him out for walks or puttering in his yard. Soon, we only saw Marie out walking the dog, and then we didn’t even see her that much.

John and Marla rarely saw eye to eye. John would constantly spray his yard with harsh pesticides and herbicides, and Marla would rush inside and close all our windows. When Marla hung a bird-feeder in our yard, John hung over the fence and told her she’d never get any birds. The next day when I pulled into our parking pad, I thought I was coming onto the set of a Hitchcock movie, there was so much avian action. He was a gas lawnmower man, and I was electric. That pretty much sums up our relationship. There was a lot of “fence hanging” with John. He wasn’t a tall man, so he had a little step-stool he’d use when he wanted to talk. He was like a sitcom neighbour, really. When John asked me if he could store his trailer in our yard, I didn’t immediately give him an answer, so it took Marla to be the “heavy” and tell him no. When Marla had me dig a little garden the first summer we were in our house, John told her nothing would grow. I think Marla took some pleasure in bringing over some fresh cucumbers to him that fall.

Still, I feel like I’m not painting a balanced picture. When we first moved into our house, we didn’t have a lawn-mower, so he offered to lend us his spare one until we got sorted out. A year later, he wanted to replace the fence between our yards. I understand that it is neighbourly etiquette to pay 50/50 for a fence. John said, “No worries, I remember what it was like to be young and not have a lot of extra money. I’m the one that wants the fence, I’ll pay for it.” He even respected Marla’s wish that a tree that straddled our property be saved and built the fence around it. I saw a different side to him when his beloved dog, Sasha, passed away. It’s always unsettling to see grown men cry, and I was surprised a few weeks later when barking resumed next door. “Meet Sasha!” John shouted over the fence. “But, but, didn’t Sasha die?” I asked myself. From that day forward, Marla and I have referred to that dog as “Sasha 2”. It could bloody well be “Sasha 13” for all we know. Over the years, he would come over and warn Marla when he’d be spraying, so that she’d have time to close the windows or leave altogether. In the last year of his life, he built his own garage in the back, and offered to build us one too, if we paid for the materials. I was really thinking of taking him up on that when the cancer returned. Aside from our conversations over the fence, I never really knew him at all. In the eight years we’ve been neighbours, I’ve never been over to his house, and he never was in ours. When we first moved in, I had him pegged as the type of neighbour with whom I would have a beer on our deck. I guess I missed my chance. I’ll miss our chats as we both tried to have the nicer lawn, and struggle I had in finding common ground with him. There was no obituary in the paper and there was no service. I still imagine him puttering when I’m out BBQing.

Two deaths. One disease. Two very different men.

"Good fences make good neighbors". Robert Frost

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