For those who might not know anything about The Tragically Hip, let alone why your nation would come to a standstill to celebrate a band’s final concert, my hope is to place a plank wide enough to roll a motorized scooter over the generation gap.
I think that to understand what makes The Tragically Hip so special to a couple generations of Canadians has everything to do with how we define ourselves, or struggle to.
A vast land of diverse peoples, Canada has always been a nation whose people have grasped for some semblance of group identity. Like most people who might live thousands of kilometres apart, we fear in our core that we have little in common with each other but the weather.
Our history lacks the same kind of grandiose legends and mythmaking of our neighbours to the south. What cultural uniformity we do have seems curated and doled out by our national broadcaster in National Film Board shorts like the Log Drivers’ Waltz, or in clever marketing campaigns for beer that play off our longing to hold ourselves somehow separate from the often overwhelming cultural influence of America.
Enter The Tragically Hip in the late 1980s and early 90s — in an era of shallow, vapid American glamour rock — came a band who, in the beginning, had stripped their rock music down to something closer to the blues and paired it with a poet the likes of which had not been seen since Leonard Cohen.
But Cohen was never able to do what Gordon Downie could — a singer and lyricist who through some alchemical fusion of words and nuance could unite both Saskatchewan farm boys and Mississauga mall rats in common voice.
The songs themselves really had no place among their contemporaries.
Listening to them was something akin to rifling through old newspapers in your Grandma’s attic — Downie’s lyrics populated by characters from Canada’s past or using historical events as set pieces in explorations of characters like the wrongfully convicted David Milgaard (Wheat Kings), Group of Seven painter Tom Thomson and in Flanders Field author John McCrae (Three Pistols). There was the legendary disappearance of Toronto Maple Leaf Bill Barilko (Fifty Mission Cap), or the 1972 Summit Series and all its Cold War paranoia (Fireworks).
My all-time favourite among these (Nautical Disaster) is a song about the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck set into the bitter end of a relationship.
While he might have been singing about the people on our money, it never seems Downie’s intention to edify his fans on history. He is simply being the man he is, the lens through which we’ve chosen to see ourselves and make sense of our place in the world. In the manner of a true poet, Downie’s words humanize history and make us feel something deeply about our shared past.
There’s always a price to pay for going after the highest common denominator.
In 1993, I was one of 24,000 in the crowd at Winnipeg Stadium for the first Another Roadside Attraction — a festival headlined by The Hip in the era of their ‘Fully Completely’ album. When the band would cross over into the U.S., they could find themselves playing small clubs to a few dozen people and whatever Canadian ex-pats got wind of the show.
Being not just a Canadian band, but ‘Canada’s Band’ has placed them in a very unique position — universal adoration within our borders and relative obscurity beyond them.
Now, that man is living on borrowed time, recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer that doctors say will eventually claim his life.
To bear witness to the manner in which this exemplary Canadian has chosen to spend the time he has left is truly inspiring — an event worthy of being written into a musical history of its own someday.
Someday perhaps my daughter will sort through confusing memories of a concert on the television with both her parents sitting on the couch sobbing and unable to explain why.
“Honey, it’s like saying goodbye to an old friend.”
— Chris Marchand