Why you should care
Because how often does an entire country rally around a band?
Wearing his electric green suit, with a feathered hat and the lyrics to one of my favorite songs laser-etched onto the soles of his boots, The Tragically Hip’s frontman commanded the stage for 26 straight songs. There was no opening act, no fancy pyrotechnics. Just Gord Downie, firing up yet another sold-out crowd of 20,000 in Toronto with his quirky, energetic dance moves while rocking his heart out.
Hard to believe this is a man with terminal brain cancer. But there were reminders at his recent show: the glow of a teleprompter on stage, to help with hazy lyrics, and Downie’s words as he segued from a set of mini-albums into five encores: “It’s a tough world, it’s a tough gig.”
Up here, in the Great White North, The Hip made it big — in a quintessentially Canadian way. They’re immortalized in our Music Hall of Fame and on our Walk of Fame, and influential enough on our culture that the mayor of Toronto recently declared one summer Wednesday “Tragically Hip Day,” in part for the band’s rich tunes “with all kinds of references to our country and to small towns and Canadian things.” Even our prime minister weighed in after the group shared news about Downie’s incurable disease in this letter to their fans: “After 30-some years together as The Tragically Hip, thousands of shows, and hundreds of tours … We’ve decided to do another one. This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us.”
Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years. #Courage— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) May 24, 2016
Needless to say, tickets sold out fast and topped $5,000 for The Hip’s recent finale in its hometown of Kingston. Fan furor against scalpers mostly calmed after the CBC said it would broadcast the show commercial-free on TV, radio and apps. If you wanted to celebrate (or grieve) with fellow fans, there were at least 200 official screening parties — in libraries, casinos, town squares and convention centers, plus pubs and theaters in England, Georgia, Minnesota and New York State for Canucks abroad. At least I assume they would have been card-carrying maple leafers. The band flirted with success south of our border when they appeared on Saturday Night Live in ’95 and Woodstock ’99. But while they racked up 14 Junos, they earned zero Grammys. And Rolling Stone magazine, in 2014, listed them as one of the “hugely popular musicians who haven’t gotten famous in America (yet).” Canadian comedian Rick Mercer has joked that’s because at shows like The Fillmore in San Francisco, where Mercer once saw them play, “no Americans could get in … because every Canadian filled up the space.” For his part, Downie once told Billboard he found questions about The Hip’s lack of success in the States “absurd.” So let’s move on, eh?
Like many who saw The Hip on this tour, I’m not among the band’s earliest or most die-hard fans; I was a toddler when they first formed. Yet, again and again, I kept hearing — and feeling — the same thing about Downie from strangers and friends alike: “I felt like I owed it to him to be at his show to personally thank him for the soundtrack of my youth,” says Stephanie Balko, a longtime friend from Edmonton. Years before Emily and Neil Lough got married, back when we all first met in university, we each used to drive for hours along Alberta’s Highway 2 to visit family as the band played on regular rotation in our respective cars. “The Hip and I have a lot of miles between the two of us,” Neil says. Emily: “Each song has a story to tell, or a deeper meaning, which was important in that phase of my life, when everyone seems to be searching for more meaning in everything.” And I have to agree with my buddy Ram Amarnath, a fellow prairie kid who’s also now living in Toronto: Downie remains “the ultimate showman — not in a rehearsed, flashy Bono way. He was genuine, totally into the music and a lot of improv.”
I have favorites from my awkward junior high days, sure. But The Hip really drew me in with their Phantom Power album in high school, and specifically their haunting anthem Bobcaygeon, named after a town of 3,533 and with a reference to this anti-semitic riot of 1933. In university, it was Downie’s cool (in a Kingston kind of way) attitude that helped get me through my worst summer job, at a call center, where I fantasized of having the bravado to mix things up like The Hip did in their music video for My Music at Work. On they played, throughout the years. And on they will play for me, and for so many others.