“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.
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.