The Tragically Hip have been an ever presence in my life and it was entirely unavoidable. Being born in tandem with the band’s first full-length release and raised along the northwestern shores of Lake Ontario, it was an inevitability. Having a set of rock and roll parents only enabled the cause; if only I had a dollar for every time my mother preached “Gord Downie is the coolest.” This usually followed a spontaneous mid-song monologue about the killer burger he had last evening, or having cheekily proclaimed “I’m a Boston Bruins fan” to a crowd of rabid Toronto Maple Leaf supporters on opening night of hockey season. The Hip rule, and Gord Downie has more guts than you. My mom says so.
I remember getting into music around the time 2002’s In Violet Light released. It was their eigth record, but with that exposure came deeper investigation of the seven that came before. Sure, we all know the words to Bobcaygeon, but what became apparent very quickly was that every song on every Hip record ever is a Bobcaygeon. Wheat Kings and Fiddler’s Green, both down tempo acoustic tracks that sit close to the end on their respective albums, are staples on Canadian radio and in the band’s live rotation. The Hip don’t have deep cuts, and sublimity gets real when your ears catch onto the familiarity of those chord progressions ringing out on a jaunt through the darkness of rural southern Ontario at night on any given weekend in the summer.
The Hip are a band from Kingston, Ontario, Canada. They are Gord Downie, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, and Johnny Fay. Since 1984 they have released 13 studio albums, 54 singles, 1 EP, 2 live albums and are far and away Canada’s most loved domestic success. From January to October of last year, the band celebrated the re-release of their seminal record from 1992 Fully Completely with a wildly successful tour of North America and recorded yet another album, Man Machine Poem. News was relatively quiet until the band’s announcement of singer Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer and a final tour weeks prior to the record’s release:
This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us. What we in The Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection; with each other; with music and it’s magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans.
The Man Machine Poem Tour kicked off in Victoria at the end of July, worked its way east, and will have its finale tonight, August 20th, in the band’s hometown.
I didn’t see the use in simply crying foul over the ticket fiasco that ensued; I was down for the hustle. Everybody and their mothers wanted to be at those shows including me and, I hoped, mine. Before realization set in that there was no luck to be had, she drew the wind out of my sails when she shared her unwillingness to attend as my date. I had my own mixed feelings about attending so I couldn’t blame her and had no reason to press further. The Reaper had already put in a terrible amount of overtime through the first quarter of the year, and now the news of Gord at a time when we were all still reeling from the losses of Bowie, Prince, and too many others. I thought I knew and understood why, and thus my scavenge for tickets surged on alone. However there were other factors at play and my focus on the hunt for tickets and all else came to a halt a month to the day from The Hip’s announcement, when my mother would share with us her own cancer diagnosis.
I’m unable to follow up those words with other words that could epitomize what they mean and how it feels; those words do not exist. But I can say that in these few short months I’ve become acutely aware of mortality. The wingspan of a terminal prognosis is mammoth, and once you know, there’s no going back. I now have the capacity to go on about how if cancer was a person I’d rip their lungs out through their back, and I’m one of millions who could, but that’s not a right or feasible way to fight this battle. In the last two months I’ve had more people touch my heart than I ever thought would be possible living under the news or even prior to it. Community, friendship, and understanding are three huge takeaways from my lifelong experience of being a music fan, and The Tragically Hip are a band with whom a familial sense of community runs deep. The utterly overwhelming show of support on this final tour has been a collective fuck you to the grips of powerlessness that anyone battling illness has endured. Of their new record, Fish Griwkowsky of the Edmonton Journal wrote, “Twilight pressure or no, Man Machine Poem is a deep-felt, summer highway album that briefly escapes the weight of the doom we all share — not alone, but together in the dark.” I’ve been doing so in my head for weeks now, but let this serve as my open letter of sincerest thank yous to The Tragically Hip for the soundtrack of my life, for exposing me to cool, for Man Machine Poem, for this final tour, and for keeping me in good company in my time of darkness.
So, I know there are a plethora of opportunities for fun on a Saturday night, but the Canadian Broadcasting Company will be broadcasting the Hip’s final show from Kingston’s K-Rock Centre on CBC Television, CBC Radio One, CBC Radio 2, CBC Music and YouTube, and I implore everybody to tune in. There was a time when I desperately wished to be in the audience for any one stop on the tour, but for what The Tragically Hip mean to Canada, this way works. The upcoming broadcast feels electric in a way similar to how families gathered around their radios to listen to FDR in the 1930s, only much louder. Viewing parties are being held across Canada, as well as in Rio, Los Angeles, Mexico and London. I’m going home to watch with mom, hold her hand, and listen to her tell me that Gord is the coolest like it was the very first time. And this time she’ll be more right than ever.
Courage, my word.