By Yasmine Shemesh
VANCOUVER — There is something that happens when we’re about to lose someone we love. It becomes a time of reflection, where we remember how truly wonderful they really were, and all of the momentous ways they’ve shaped our lives. We feel luckier to have known them — better for it. In May, The Tragically Hip announced that their frontman, Gord Downie, had been diagnosed with incurable brain cancer. Accompanying this is a farewell tour and new album, Man Machine Poem. The news of Downie’s condition struck a devastating blow to fans as they tried to process the heartbreaking reality that they’d soon be forced to bid farewell to their barstool bard. We’re still reeling. After all, we’ve never forgotten how magnificent The Hip is. Downie is our Dylan; his poetry references things that only we, as fellow Canadians, can truly resonate with. It’s because of this depth that we’ve walked together, us and the band, for more than 30 years. They are ours.
And they always will be. No matter what happens, Downie has imparted gifts that we may forever keep, from his untamed live performances to the poignancy of his words. As the curtains close, we begin to comprehend the bigger picture, perhaps in a more momentous way that we have done so before — to understand that between lines about lost hockey heroes, beneath the iconic throatiness, and amid a crushing diagnosis, there is profound wisdom that we can take from Gord Downie.
In the early days, the Hip cut their teeth playing at campus pubs and local dives in Kingston. Downie’s wild ramblings earned him the nickname “the barstool bard,” and his enchanting genius would make fans of each audience he’d wax off to. As the years stretched on, the band continued to tour, tirelessly, from coast to coast. Yet, 14 JUNO Award wins and a Canadian Music Hall of Fame Induction later, they’ve remained accessible. Downie’s stories are our stories, delivered to the soul, not from a place of superiority. Humility is a virtue that The Hip has possessed since the beginning — when Hurricane Katrina hit, the band requested radio stations stop playing “New Orleans Is Sinking.” War Amps credits them with helping to bring awareness to the organization with a charitable concert in Winnipeg. If further case needs to be made, it’s this — when tickets to The Hip’s farewell tour sold out in seconds, the band announced they would partner with CBC to live broadcast their August 20 Kingston concert so that everyone could have the chance to say goodbye.
Our land and its people have frequently been Downie’s muse and it’s that deeply-rooted patriotism woven through The Hip’s music that makes it feel so familiar. On “Fifty Mission Cap,” Downie recounts the disappearance of Bill Barilko — the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman who vanished days after scoring the winning goal in the 1951 Stanley Cup finals. “At the Hundredth Meridian” tells us where the Great Plains begin, referring to the longitude line that separates Western and Eastern Canada. “Wheat Kings” references the case of a Winnipeg man wrongly convicted of rape and murder, while “Courage” tributes Canadian author Hugh MacLennan. As listeners, it’s comforting to hear stories we can relate to. They might even prompt us to crack open the history books. More than anything, though, it encourages Canadians to be proud of where they come from.
It’s a good life if you don’t weaken. Seizing the day is a recurrent theme in Downie’s lyrics and, boy, does that song title ring true now more than ever. Despite his terminal diagnosis, Downie will be damned if he weakens. No — instead, he’s hitting the road on a cross-country tour, promising it will “blow people’s minds,” and releasing a new album. His life, however long or short it remains to be, will be a good one. Reports said Downie suffered a seizure late last year, underwent surgery to remove part of the tumour, and then was treated with chemotherapy. Less than two months later, doctors deemed him well enough to return to what he loves most — performing.
In his signature warble, he’ll tell us to “use it up, don’t save a thing for later” and to “wreak some havoc on the way out.”
And, amidst it all, he reminds us that we must, always, try to live fully and completely.
The Tragically Hip perform at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre in Victoria on July 22nd, Rogers Arena in Vancouver on July 24th and 26th, Rexall Place in Edmonton on July 28th and 30th, Scotiabank Saddledome on August 1st and 3rd and at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg on August 5th.AB, Alberta, BC, British Columbia, Gord Downie, Manitoba, MB, MTS Centre, Rexall Place, Rogers Arena, Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, Scotiabank Saddledome, The Tragically Hip