Gord Downie is dead. This is a sad day. For better or worse, the Tragically Hip have been the soundtrack of my life. They have been the soundtrack for almost all Canadians’ lives.
In 1989, I worked as a line cook at an IHOP in suburban Vancouver. There was this dishwasher there, Greg. He was around my age, maybe a bit older. But he got me onto the Hip. I had seen the video for ‘New Orleans is Sinking‘, of course, it was on heavy rotation on MuchMusic. But Greg got me into the band, and that brilliant début album, Up To Here.
Downie’s lyrics were what kept me hooked on the Hip. Sure, the music was great, but Downie’s lyrics. He wrote songs that seethed and snarled with energy. He and his band also wrote some pretty ballads, one of which is the title of this post.
Live, Gord Downie was something else entirely. He was a madman. All this energy, whirling about the stage, singing and screaming and moaning his lyrics out. In between songs, he told us, the audience, weird things. He told us stories. At Another Roadside Attraction, on Seabird Island in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, he stopped in between songs. He stopped still on the stage, crouched, looking out at the audience, his hand shielding his eyes from the light. It was hot in the crowd, I was right down front with my man, Mike. And Downie looked at us and said, ‘You’re a fine looking crowd. But I wouldn’t get up in the air on any airplanes with any politicians if I were you. Because if that plane goes down, YOU’RE the first ones they’re gonna eat.’ I have no idea what he meant. But that was the point.
Gord Downie was the front man of a pretty straight-ahead rock’n’roll band. And yet, he was a mystic, a poet, a shaman in front of us. He sang Canada back to us. He told us of cheap beer and highballs in a bar. He told us of lake fevers. He told us about the Legend of Bill Barilko. We learned stories of the North from him.
I’ve never been able to explain what it was about the Hip that made them so important to Canada. I’ve never been able to put my finger on what it was that made them our rock band. It wasn’t the time they told fellow Canadian Lorne Michaels that they wouldn’t shorten their song ‘Nautical Disaster’ for Saturday Night Live. It wasn’t the fact that they could fill hockey arenas and football stadia in Canada, but played bars and concert halls in the US. It was none of that.
I have been thinking about this since the night of the Hip’s last concert in Kingston, ON, last summer. The CBC broadcast and streamed it around the world. And so we were able to watch it in our living room in the mountains of Tennessee, where we lived at the time. Today, with Downie’s death, I realized what it was that made the Hip so quintessentially Canadian in a way other Canadian artists aren’t: They made us proud to be Canadian. We are not a proud nation, we are rather humble (and occasionally annoyingly smug). We don’t really do patriotism, and when we do, it’s kind of sad and forced. We don’t have the great stories of nation formation other countries have. No ‘Chanson de Roland.’ No King Arthur. No Paul Revere. We just kind of evolved into place. But, in telling us our stories back to us in a way no one ever had, Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip made us proud to be Canadian.
At that Hip-curated travelling festival, Another Roadside Attraction, in 1993, they picked some pretty incendiary live bands to play with them. Pere Ubu were absolutely nuts on stage. And then Midnight Oil were the penultimate band. The Oils might be the greatest live band in the history of rock’n’roll. Frontman Peter Garrett is something like 6’7″, rail thin, and a wild man on the stage. And his band are louder, more aggressive, more prone to shrieking feedback and punk speeds live than on record. I remember the end of their gig, the audience was exhausted. We were spent. Surely no band in the world could ever top that.
And then, the Tragically Hip wandered on stage. And let ‘er rip. I could see Peter Garrett in the wings stage right. At first he looked shocked and then he had a big grin on his face. The Oils had been blown off the stage by the Hip.
The early 90s were my hardcore punk days. And yet, the Hip was something even us punks could agree on. Our allegiance to the Tragically Hip was manifest at that festival. Me and my main man Mike went. But in the crowd, we came across all kinds of our people from Vancouver.
Losing Gord Downie hurts in a way that losing Leonard Cohen last year hurt. Like Cohen, Downie and his band were the stars of my firmament. They were the nighttime sky and the lights, distant in the darkness.
Unlike Cohen, whom I met, I never met Downie. I did see him once on a streetcar in Toronto, though. And this is what I always loved about Canada. And still do. I met Leonard Cohen in a laundromat in Calgary. I saw Downie on a streetcar. I talked to Dave Bidini of the Rheostatics once on a downtown street in Ottawa. When he was the Leader of the Official Opposition, I saw Stéphane Dion walking down the rue Saint-Denis with his wife, shopping, one Sunday morning. Our stars are our own, they live and work amongst us.
The sky is going to be a bit dimmer tonight.