In December 1991, Canadian rock legends RUSH started their Presto tour in Hamilton, Ontario with Jeff Healey as the opening act. It was thought that a couple nights later in Toronto, that Healey would open as well. Ticket sales were slow, or so the story goes. A friend of mine scored us a pair of tickets in the sixth row, just off center, and on the day of the concert my high school walls were buzzing. At least, the dozen RUSH fans in the two thousand student body were buzzing. A rumor was circulating that Jeff Healey wasn’t going to open, instead, it was going to be The Tragically Hip.
I was a counselor in training back in the summer of 1990 when The Hip’s first full album, Up To Here, was making waves on the shores of Sparrow Lake – and Lake Ontario, and pretty much any other lake, small town, city, or metropolis in The Great White North. At the time it was one of my favourite albums. The album that outdid it, though, was their next one. The 1991 gem, Road Apples. So, by the time December of that year rolled around The Tragically Hip had become Canada’s band, and I was going to get a front row seat (okay, it was the sixth row, but who’s counting) to see them open for the band that previously held the title.
That concert was everything it promised to be, and then some. I watched Gord Downie belt out hit after hit of hard hitting, good old fashioned rock-n-roll married with lyrics that were pure genius. When he lay down with half his body hanging over the stage and screamed the lyrics to New Orleans Is Sinking while pretending to do the front crawl I knew I was witnessing something truly unique. Part man, part machine, part poem, Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip were rewriting the national anthem.
Twenty-five years later an entire country was collectively winded from the gut-punch news that Gord was suffering from an inoperable brain tumor. Doing what I can imagine only a few people in the world could do, Gord and the band decided they would go out the way they came in. That is, with a bang, and they set out do play a series of gigs – exclusively in Canada – with their magnum opus to come in a six-thousand-seat venue in their band’s birth city of Kingston, Ontario.
The Hip could have sold a hundred thousand tickets to that show. Hell, they could have filled Downsview Park in Toronto and close to a million people would have shown up. Interest was so high in tickets for these concerts that, after the debacle with getting seats (tickets going up on Stub Hub for thousands of dollars within seconds of going on sale), the national broadcaster, CBC, committed to airing the concert free of editing and commercials as well as streaming it live on their website, YouTube, and Facebook. Over four million people watched the entire broadcast and almost twelve million tuned into it at some point.
Let that sink in.
A rock band from Kingston, Ontario, population roughly 120,000, had one-third of the entire population of Canada tune in to watch a portion of their final concert.
Several politicians from several levels of government and all party affiliations were in attendance but the one that stood out the most was none other than Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who in addition to clapping and cheering in a concert t-shirt, showed his love and appreciation for Gord and the band in a series of tweets:
On behalf of Canadians, I thank Gord Downie and the Hip for their decades of service to Canadian music. Forever in our hearts and playlists.
Thank you, Gord. #courage pic.twitter.com/kpLKVzfY63
“The whole country is here in Kingston tonight! To say thanks, to say goodbye, to celebrate Canada’s band.” pic.twitter.com/agKgKkby5C
Tonight, Canadians join together in celebration of the Tragically Hip & Gord Downie. Watch their final show, live: https://t.co/zgb9mxzL6z— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) August 20, 2016
Praise, well wishes, prayers, and thoughts came from all over the world but I think former Saturday Night Live cast member and king of late night television, Jimmy Fallon, said it best:
#ThankYouTragicallyHip respect.— jimmy fallon (@jimmyfallon) August 21, 2016
And Pearl Jam took a moment out of their concert at Wrigley Field to say a few words.
Personal stories were in abundance. So what is mine? Aside from the above introduction, I don’t really have one except to say that The Hip went from being the best-kept secret in Ontario to having throngs of loyal fans. I described it to a coworker today as having this feeling that in 1990 they were this obscure band that had a few good songs I liked and in 1991 it was as if they had always been playing on the soundtrack of my life.
After that night in Toronto, I only managed to see them a few more times but their music was everywhere to be found. My good friend and former physics lab partner is a big fan and when we shared an apartment not many hours would pass without a Hip song being played, or strummed on the guitar, or sang poorly over Kraft Dinner being eaten straight out of the pot. I remember listening to their album Phantom Power on the radio in the car on the way up to the cottage with my then-girlfriend now wife. There’s a lyric in the song Fireworks that goes, “She said she didn’t give a fuck about hockey and I never saw someone say that before,” and that pretty much summed up our relationship right there. She always sings that part loud and proud when we’re together and we hear that song.
The stories, they go on and on and on and on. Throw a rock at a group of Canadians and you’ll hit someone with a story about the Tragically Hip. So what is it about them that brings together millions of people to say goodbye?
For starters, the lyrics are masterfully woven from the threads of Canadiana, set to guitar, drums, and bass that make you want to sing along and move, and delivered with the rawest of emotions. For a good number of Canadians, the band speaks directly to them using tools and talent a rarified few possess.
The online Canadian encyclopedia gives us a glimpse into the poetic genius of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip with an exhibit outlining the stories behind of a handful of the band’s most popular songs. For people who have never heard of the Tragically Hip to people that have committed every lyric to memory, this is a must-see. They lifted the name of the exhibit from a song off the album Fully Completely.
What sums it up most aptly for me is lifted from two lyrics from one of my favourite Hip songs off the album Day For Night (which, in a sick and twisted bit of coincidence features the song titled Inevitability of Death):
“Armed with will and determination, and grace, too.”
“Armed with skill and its frustration, and grace, too.”
Gord Downie did it all. He did it with will and determination and even with all his skill, he showed us his frustration. And he did it with grace, too.
Great blog Andrew. I wish I could remember the details of my high school concerts the way you have. Cheers