Long before they became Canada’s band, long before they were staples on every mainstream radio station and beloved by every Joe and Jane Average from St John’s to Victoria, there was a time when it was cool for indie kids to love Canadian band the Tragically Hip. I know this because I was one. And as I prepare to go see The Tragically Hip perform their second-last show ever in British Columbia tonight, I find myself thinking about them.
Singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. The Man Machine Poem tour is happening right now. I bought nosebleed seats for tonight’s show because I simply felt it was important for me to be there to say goodbye. This will be the last time I see Gord Downie alive. Whispers of disease, an act of enormity. It’s going to be heavy, but celebratory as well. I have no doubt.
I remember buying the Tragically Hip’s debut EP on vinyl at the record store I worked at in the 1980s. I remember seeing the video “Last American Exit” on Much Music, around then, too. These long-hair scragglers from Kingston, putting this Ontario town on a map that nobody really cared about. I was about 15 years old.
I loved their album Up To Here, the proper one that came after the EP. I truly loved and supported Canadian music until I moved away to London, England in 2000, where developed a particular sense of UK music snobbery, and lost touch with my patriotism.
“Blow at High Dough” is still one of my favourite Canadian rock songs, though. And yesterday, when “50 Mission Cap” came on the radio while we were driving, I still knew almost every word. No band has ever captured so much Canadiana in their discography. And as a proud Canadian, I’m grateful for it. No dress rehearsal, this is our lives.
On March 1, 1991, just a week after their third album Road Apples was released, I was standing with my parents in Lester B. Pearson airport in Toronto at an ungodly hour of the morning. We were headed to San Francisco, via a flight to Vancouver.
Even at 6:30am, my rock radar went off and I looked to my right. Standing there was a scruffy bunch of tired musicians.
It was the Tragically Hip.
I ran off excitedly to talk to them. They were generous with smiles and humour for a 17-year-old kid.
On the plane, I went to the bathroom a lot. Because the band were sitting at the back, near the loos.
I ended up chatting with the guys, and begged them to do an interview with me when I got back, for the youth newspaper – Fresh Perspective – that I was writing for. They agreed. Their co-manager, Jake Gold, gave me his business card and a name: Allan Gregg, the Hip’s manager and a big deal in the industry, and a number to contact him on. The Tragically Hip also offered to put me and my parents on the guestlist for their show that night at Vancouver’s Town Pump, but we had a connecting flight to make and had to decline. I’m still very sad that I missed that show.
Over the next year, I tried to contact Allan Gregg to get my “promised” interview with the Tragically Hip. He was dodging me, of course, because the band’s fame was increasing. But I got scrappy. I faxed Gregg a letter explaining that the BAND HAD AGREED TO TALK TO ME! WHY WAS HE KEEPING THEM AWAY FROM THE VERY STUDENTS WHO MADE THEM FAMOUS? GODDAMNIT! I laugh at the moxie, now.
Then, after weeks of not responding, Allan Gregg received my fax and actually called me on the phone.
He politely explained how busy the band was, and I politely explained back that there were five of them in the group and surely one of them could spare 15 minutes on the phone? Like I said, moxie.
I never got my Tragically Hip interview.
But Allan Gregg put me on the guest list that night for a band he wanted me to see, The Watchmen. They were from Winnipeg, he said, you should interview them. I did. They were opening up for my other favourite band 54.40. And I forgot to press record on the interview. But oh well. I fell in love with the Watchmen for a time, too.
A year later, I sat next Gord Downie and his wife backstage at the 1992 Juno Awards. We smiled but didn’t talk. He was hiding out and I wanted to respect his space. That was the same Juno Awards where I cornered Leonard Cohen. And Leonard told me I was beautiful. Twice.
Over the next 8 years until I moved away, I caught the Hip at festivals here and there, but was so obsessed with grunge and lo-fi and American indie that the Hip’s dedication to Canadiana seemed quaint. But I never stopped singing along to the radio when they were played.
In 2006 I lived in London. It was July 7, 2006, just a week after Canada Day, and The Shepherd’s Bush Empire venue – a marvellous old beast – was filled with Canadian expats brandishing flags and singing “O Canada” from the rafters and I was beaming ear to ear, seeing the Hip, in England. I recall marvelling at Downie, all herky-jerking and fighting his own internal demons. After years of seeing them from the back of festival fields it was a gift to see him close up. I once again remembered how fucking cool Gord Downie really is.
Tonight I’m going to see The Tragically Hip for the last time. Like everyone else there I shall be beaming love at Downie, his compatriots on stage and to each one of the people in that arena who have a Hip story to tell. Much love to Downie and his family. And to the enormous Canadian one he inspired. \m/
UPDATE: The July 24 show in Vancouver was remarkable. Mellow, paced, not as raucous and truly beautiful. As I told the Toronto Star here, it was a privilege to be there to witness a truly shared, Canadian experience. And my favourite and most heart-breakingly beautiful moment of the show was below. If you want to see a pure moment of emotion – from the 18,000 citizens gathered to send love to the Tragically Hip, to the face of Gord Downie himself – this is the clip to watch. This is the moment from the July 24 Tragically Hip show I attended that I captured, and which sent me into floods of tears. It’s beautiful.
Photo of stage in header from The Tragically Hip’s July 24 show in Vancouver at Rogers Arena. Copyright Mikala Folb.