So last Tuesday night (technically Wednesday morning) I woke up with a song firmly lodged in my head. Now this is not terribly unusual because I usually wake up with a song in my head (today it was The Sweet, “Fox on the Run”- not terribly pleased about that one, but I have had worse); what made this unusual was that I rolled over in my bed and made the effort to dig the song up and play it, “Bobcaygeon” by The Tragically Hip. I listened, rolled over and went back to sleep.
Working from home on Wednesday I went about my day as normal. Sometime in the early afternoon as I was plodding around the Internet, I read that Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, had passed away the previous night.
I was gobsmacked.
This wasn’t some sort of rock star overdose or anything unusual, he had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer so sure, I suppose it was expected, but still…
Now if you are wondering who the fuck The Tragically Hip are, well, they are probably the biggest and most loved rock band in Canada (and yes, that includes Rush and Nickelback). A tremendous and powerful influence on Canadian music and culture, so much so that Downie was considered Canada’s unofficial poet laureate and The Tragically Hip its statesmen.
If you don’t know The Hip, they’re probably best described as a straight-ahead, no frills rock band with powerful and, in later years, more thought-provoking (if very Canada centric) lyrics. While simply huge in Canada, they just never were able to break here in the United States. Sure, they had a major label deal (MCA), did the tours (I first saw them at CBGB and last saw them at the Beacon Theater), played Saturday Night Live and even participated in the cultural and musical abortion that was the 1999 Woodstock concert (where they were famously booed for singing the Canadian national anthem).
But despite the bands best efforts, down here in the United States, they just didn’t connect. It didn’t help that the label ignored them (pulling marketing and US distribution of their supposed “break-through” third album Fully Completely after only two weeks) and radio remained deliberately and woefully ignorant. So their music only resonated with only a fraction of the people it could have….and probably should have.
After learning of Gord’s death (you see, even though I had never met him, I have no problem calling him Gord…he seemed like everyone’s friend) I immediately went on a Hip listening and viewing binge that has been steadfast for the past week.
I’m still sorting through why this has had such an impact on me. I mean, the music was certainly visceral and well within my wheelhouse of what I like; and lyrically, their songs were often more cerebral and story centric, which I also appreciate (even if the songs contained many references I had to ask Canadian friends about or, in later years, look up on the Internet). I think what struck me most, aside from their music, is knowing that they had formed when most were literally right out of high school and that throughout their entire career, nothing sounded forced or tired and like any good artist, they evolved.
Through thick and thin, and the complicated world of the music business, they braved the storm to remain a viable creative entity while remaining friends and a band for over 30 years. That’s nothing short of incredible. They really did seem like a band of brothers. There was a personal aspect to the band that just seemed to transcend the music. And that is the kind of thing you just can’t create…or fake.
The ties within the band were so tight within The Hip that even after the brain tumor diagnosis and surgery, they put together a heroic tour of Canada during the summer of 2016. Not as a send-off, or final trek, but a tour like they normally would supporting a new release (2016’s Man Machine Poem). While they may have been dodgy about the inherent implications of the tour, they played songs from their entire catalog to packed Canadian arena’s and adoring fans who reluctantly accepted the words that the band seemed to shy away from. Good-bye (again, this was terminal brain cancer).
On the last night of the tour, August 20, 2016, in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, the CBC (Canadian Broadcast Company) simulcast the show. There were viewing parties all over the country, in parks, town centers and neighborhoods. On that night, even the Toronto police tweeted “Dear World, please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30pm ET”.
It is said that about a third of the Canadian population watched the concert.
There is a film of that final show in Kingston, appropriately named A National Celebration. Throughout the film, the camera cuts to audience members who are ear to ear grins and just as many cuts to audience members with swollen and tear soaked eyes. Watching it, given the historical context, even the most casual fan finds a lump creeping into their throat. The concert was such an event that even Hip fan and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there (who spoke of Downie’s death last Wednesday by saying “Canada won’t be the same without Gord”, while choking back tears).
I was trying to explain to a colleague how Gord Downie dying was a tremendous artistic loss for music (and not just Canadian music). And I don’t think you can truly begin to understand the scope unless you have listened to and heard The Tragically Hip. Frankly, trying to explain it to him was a lot like showing a dog a card trick. He just sorta stared at me…nonplussed. From where I sit, there is no real modern musical parallel. Not that The Hip were the be all to end all, they were, after all, a rock band (albeit a damn good one). In the states, someone wrote that it would be like losing Michael Stipe from R.E.M…. if Stipe were adored by the entire country (and I’m fairly certain he is not). Perhaps imagine if Bob Dylan had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and the Rolling Thunder Revue Tour of 1975 was his final tour and then he died…maybe it’d be kinda like that.
Last Friday the CBC aired a documentary called Long Time Running, about the Hip’s last tour. If you are a fan here in the states, you’ll have to wait until November to see it on Netflix. However, if you are resourceful, and patient, you can watch it on YouTube or find a more nefarious way to get it. I watched it on YouTube. It’s not sappy and it doesn’t whack you around emotionally (although I choked up more than once). There are a few mentions of cancer and the band explains some of the struggles they went through; there are interviews with other famous Canadians, interviews with people within their circle, but it’s never overtly sad. Even in the interviews with Downie himself.
Long Time Running is a sad celebration, if such a thing can exist.
Like much of Canada, and many Canadian’s, Long Time Running is just plain honest and rings true; much like The Tragically Hip.
I’m still not sure what to make of the fact that I woke up in the middle of the night and played “Bobcaygeon”. I dunno. It was weird. I never felt that connected to The Tragically Hip, but maybe I was more than I realize. I’ll just chalk it up to a strange coincidence.
Our musical loss (there seems to have been so many lately) sucks and it’s worse for Gord Downie’s family and his friends but as any fan of music will tell you…the body dies, the soul rises and the music, well, the music lives forever.
And that matters.