Tonight, I sit with a heavy heart. Tonight I said goodbye to an old friend. Tonight the curtain came down one final time. Tonight I said goodbye to The Tragically Hip.
I’ve always been a music lover. One of my earliest memories is sitting on my little stool, old twirling baton wedged between couch cushions, singing along to Meatloaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” aka….to 4 year old me…”let me sleep on it”. I was raised in a house full of music, true neither of my parents played an instrument, but I was constantly listening to, not just kids music like Raffi, and Sharon, Lois and Bram, but to such musical talents as Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings, The Eagles, Billy Joel, Doug and the Slugs, John Denver, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Kenny Rogers and all at a fairly Early age. It wasn’t long before I developed my own loves and I can still remember trying to learn to moonwalk while wearing one shiny glove.
Thing is, I lived in a very small town…in the 80s. I didn’t venture far except for the odd road trip to Toronto to visit family or a half day car ride to other towns like Ottawa or Kitchener for summer vacation fun. Because of that, coupled with being enrolled in a very small Catholic school and also having a pretty big case of shyness, I was a pretty sheltered kid. I lived in my bubble and didn’t venture too far out of it. The most rebellious music we heard back then was when Bon Jovi first surfaced and with the dawn of Guns N Roses..oh…look out…we were a bunch of certified 12 year old Bad asses. I’d call my music horizons limited at that time..to say the least.
Then the glorious day came, circa 1990, when I graduated from Grade 8 at a school of about 70 kids (Grades JK-8 inclusive) to the local highschool which, at that time, boasted over 900 kids. Little did I know that, musically, my life was about to change dramatically. During my highschool days I started hearing these odd words I’d never heard before. Words like “Nirvana” and “Pearl Jam” and “Stone Temple Pilots” and “Radiohead” and “Soundgarden” and “Smashing Pumpkins” and, late to the show, “U2” and “Nine Inch Nails” and “The Red Hot Chili Peppers”. My mind was spinning. All this great music where have you been all my life.
During this time I was also, of course, introduced the music of The Tragically Hip. I don’t remember who, I don’t remember when exactly, but I do remember how I felt the first time I listened to them. I remember feeling like this was a group of guys who know me and grew up seeing the same things I saw. Swam in lakes, fished in canals and rivers, rode bikes and got skinned knees and built forts and caught fireflies. It’s a bit cliche, I know, but that’s how I grew up. I also remember listening and being immediately thrust back to my childhood and remembering all that stuff that made it fun. Immediately I was hooked, both on the music and on the feeling it gave me.
It was 1990..grade 9…a time where I was so nervous every time I had to board the bus for school that I’d have, let’s just say an upset stomach so as not to get too graphic. I was a shy, overweight kid who was teased quite a bit those days so you could say that my self confidence wasn’t exactly soaring. It was also the time I first heard the Hip’s album “Up to Here”. The first track Blow at High Dough smacked me in the face with it’s mellow guitar intro…followed by a harsh high note and the first words “They shot a movie once…In my home town” and I immediately remembered the time where they used a historical sight in my little home town to shoot some crappy werewolf B-movie. Nobody saw it, it never really saw the light of day as far as I know. But it was huge news at home, and anyone and everyone was talking about it so that song immediately spoke to me. New Orleans is Sinking, 38 Years Old, Boots or Hearts, all songs I remember well and still play almost weekly if not daily. I was an instant fan, and even though I’d never call myself a superfan (lord knows every once in a while I’ll hear a song and think “I don’t remember that at all”) all I knew back then was that I wanted another album sooner than later. in my travels I did go back and find their previoius EP …the only song that I really liked off of it was Highway Girl. But that sufficed…for now
Then in 1991, last half of 9th grade came “Road Apples” and more tracks that immediately cemented my love for the band. Little Bones, Twist My Arm, Three Pistols, Fiddlers Green. All classics. While in high school there would be two more Hip albums released…My favourite “Fully Completely” in 1992 and “Day for Night” in 1994. Each album a little different than the last, but all with one thing in common. The ability to take me back in time to simpler days living in Cottage country. Then off to college in the big city I went, more albums followed and, like all the others, each one succeeded in making me feel like I was home. By this time the shyness had abated and although I was still the overweight kid I had found a little more of myself, by that time these albums had written themselves into my DNA. They were now part of me.
Fast forward eight albums and 20 years into the future. Anticipation of a new album and, shortly after the news that the band’s frontman, Gord Downie, had been diagnosed and treated for incurable Brain cancer. The tour that would accompany this album would likely be his last. The country reeled and I was deeply saddened which prompted me to pull out some of my Hip music again. Not that it had really gone away but I felt more compelled to listen to it with a more attentive ear than I had given it since adulthood, marriage, kids, life etc. Life can move pretty fast and it’s easy to forget some of life’s small joys. Either way, I was looking forward to that trip back to my childhood, so I strapped in to listen. But when I did the strangest thing happened…while I was taken back there to a degree, I found myself transported, more so, back to high school and the music rekindled many memories there. I had since moved away and made a life in Guelph, Ontario, got a job, married, had kids all those things that many do as an adult. As always the music took me back. Back to a time of tests, anxiety and discovery that was high school. It made me nostalgic, I mean it always did make me long for summer days on the lake, summer nights by a bonfire, but this time it was a little different. Even though it was hard at times, those years were some of my happiest.
Along with the usual feelings I got from the music, the other thing I felt was a sense of urgency. I’d only ever seen the Hip live one time previously in 2013 so I knew I had to go one more time. Luckily my lovely wife shares the love of the band and was right on things when tickets went on sale. Despite the rush and fever and scalpers and online ticket buying bots and every other thing she was able to get floor seats for us, and we were lucky enough to see them in Hamilton on August 16, 2016 at the FirstOntario Centre. What an amazing night. One I’ll always remember with both a smile and a tear.
Then there was last night’s final good bye. The Swan Song. The (presumably) last live tragically hip show ever. Live streamed and broadcast across the country from the band’s home town of Kingston Ontario, you could feel the excitement in the air. I have not felt something like this outside of a major world championship or Hockey final. It felt as though the whole country was sitting down and watching as Gord finished the final song “Ahead by a Century” and took his final bows. I shed a tear, as I’m sure many Canadians did. But now that I’ve had time to reflect it wasn’t so much goodbye for me, it was more of a farewell. It will never be goodbye for me I don’t think, I will always play and share their music with whoever will listen. But to Gord and the band I say “farewell”. Fare well in everything you do with your time on this planet, fare well with your family, fare well with your friends, fare well with your health. And when the inevitable happens I hope we all Fare well dealing with the void you will leave us with. For me you will always be Canada’s band, our best kept secret, our poet, our storytellers.
I truly hope that this isn’t it. That there will still be more music, more stories, more chapters in this band’s history. But if it isn’t, I hope we can all show Courage as the lights fade on one of the greatest things my country has given me.
“I come from downtown, born ready for you
Armed with will and determination, and grace, too”