It all came to an end shortly after 11 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, that’s OK. That is a little of what made them special; they were Canada’s band. The Tragically Hip formed in 1984 when I was only 6 years old, but only started getting noticed five years later when they released “Up To Here.” Four singles off that album are still a part of most Canadians’ playlists: “New Orleans is Sinking,” “Blow at High Dough,” “38 Years Old,” and “Boots or Hearts,” all of which I also sang at karaoke along with a bunch of others.
I couldn’t tell you what kind of music The Tragically Hip sings; you’ll find them on Canadian rock, country, folk, and even some pop stations. I can tell you that my love of The Hip was the only common thread I had with most people in high school, saving me from unending bullying because I was also the biggest nerd. The Hip was that band that everyone listened to. Everyone has a concert story because they toured every summer at small venues. Everyone had a different take on what every song meant because Gordie (the lead singer) never told anyone what the meanings were, letting us decide for ourselves and never telling the fans what they should be feeling from the music.
The band never really broke out of Canada, which always struck me as odd; I figured country or folk music fans in the United States would have grabbed onto them like they did to Anne Murray, but that’s OK, too; they got to stay ours. We shared Bieber, Nickelback, Celine Dion, Barenaked Ladies, Tegan and Sara, and Shania Twain. The Tragically Hip didn’t seem to mind, either; they continued to make music that was unique and also uniquely Canadian. Songs like “Wheat Kings” about the wrongful imprisonment of David Milgaard, “Bobcaygeon,” “Nautical Disaster,” and “50 Mission Cap” (about a missing hockey player named Bill Barilko and the Toronto Maple Leafs). They made 14 studio albums over 32 years as a band together; the creative mind of Gord Downie was vast and seemingly endless. That is, until May 24 when he held a press conference to announce to the country that he had terminal brain cancer and that this summer’s tour would be the end of The Tragically Hip.
I was shocked and didn’t really process the news. I was so incredibly sad the day of, played a whole lot of their discography, but the next day it was as if it didn’t happen. The local rock stations talked about it—how scarce the concert tickets would be, how scalpers would make a fortune off of the heartbroken fans—but somehow it just didn’t seem real to me anymore. Then it was August, and it was getting closer to the final show. More stories were on the radio, and now there was some realness to them. It was announced that the final performance (that was going to take place in Kingston, Ontario, where the band formed and had their first performances) would be broadcast live on CBC, Canada’s public broadcaster, and streamed from the website so that Canadians around the world would be able to watch. It was very real now.
I watched the whole performance beginning to end including three encores, 30 songs, and three hours of music. I cried from the third song until CBC rolled the credits to the song “Long Time Running.” My tears weren’t just for my own grief in losing yet another great artist to 2016, but also in joy at this shared Canadian moment. I also cried for the strength and courage of a man facing death and saying goodbye to all of us in a way that I don’t think many people could: in a shiny suit with a feather in his hat and songs on his lips.
Even when the set was over, he used the few moments he wasn’t singing to address the injustices thrust on Canada’s aboriginal people, in particular the northern tribes that have been ignored by the rest of the country, law enforcement, and government on a level that should bring shame to every Canadian. He wasn’t looking for cancer society donations or pity. He took the largest microphone in the country and asked us to be better. He called on our Prime Minister, who was in attendance, to do better. In his final public moment, he took the spotlight off of himself and put it on some of the most marginalized people in Canada. The band’s closing song was “Ahead By A Century” which includes the lyric “No dress rehearsal, this is our life.” I am fairly certain that Gord Downie did pretty well without one.
We don’t really get many moments like this in Canada. We don’t have many people that could bring the entire county together for an event—not even hockey or hosting the Olympics—and there isn’t another artist that could do this right now either. I don’t think there has ever been one. The Tragically Hip was ours, and just ours. They sang about Canadian things proudly. The band was very private, but when they performed they welcomed everyone who wanted to listen to their music. They were unique. I can only hope that when I have to face my end, I can do it like Gordie did; with strength, style, a smile, and a song or 30.