On The Tragically Hip

Today, all of Canada, and most Canadians around the world, are suffering from a massive emotional hangover. Last night, CBC broadcast, live, the last ever concert by The Tragically Hip, as their lead singer. Gord Downie, has a terminal, inoperable brain tumor. You can read here a piece trying to explain to Americans what The Tragically Hip means to Canadians. There are so many of them floating around the Internet, starting from the moment he announced his prognosis to now, the final show of their final tour.

I wrote one, quickly and emotionally, as a note on facebook. I refined those thoughts, on growing up, on national and national pride, and being, as Gord described the band during the show last night, “scrapping and being really weird,” through the lens of another Canadian band that I loved, Barenaked Ladies. I loved BNL first, and then came around to The Hip.

This has been a rough year for losing our (long) generation’s musical heroes. We lost Bowie. We lost Prince. Both deaths were sudden and unexpected and left us reeling, with Bowie leaving us a good-bye letter disguised as an album. There wasn’t a chance to say goodbye, to be able to let us, the fans, let them know while they were still alive how much they meant to us. Gord gave us that chance this summer. I am grateful for that chance. This is no small favor to the fans. This is no small sacrifice for a dying man to make. A farewell tour.

I couldn’t make any of the concerts live this summer. I love concerts. I love the experience of a live, collective experience, screaming and singing and moving (and I would think in this case, crying) together. I haven’t seen The Hip nearly as many times as many of my friends did, but I remember those shows, those moments. A Hip concert was the thing that brought together the two disparate groups of friends that I had; first, my swimming and my school friends, then my Montreal (Anglo) friends and my Sherbrooke (Francophone) friends. I also couldn’t make any of the many viewing parties that sprung up, still being able to share the experience in a public, collective setting.

But in another way, I’m glad I was home watching it in my basement. It was intimate and it was personal and it was still beautiful. Being at the show meant that I wouldn’t have been able to see the raw emotion on Gord’s face, all the times he broke down into tears, especially during Fiddler’s Green. But I was far from alone; I was watching alongside my best friend, as we texted each other; I was watching with my friends from high school on facebook; and I was watching with my larger network of Canadian ex-pats on Twitter. We shared our memories in a way that we wouldn’t have been able to in a concert environment. We wrote through the memories and the grieving and the celebration.

The show itself did not disappoint. How could it? I was especially grateful for the reminder of how good the album Phantom Power was. I was glad to be able to hear the greatest hits and sing along and cheer as the opening cords started and I not-so-silently squeed and then bombarded my husband (and Twitter) with memories and meaningful lyrics. You can read the entire set list here, and while they didn’t play everything (Boot or Hearts, anyone?), it more than met the expectations that we all had for a final show.

I’m a greedy fan, however. I wanted more show, all the songs, but especially the songs that meant something to me. I was at once grateful for the experience, and simultaneously tweeting the songs they hadn’t played it. Namely, the song “Ahead by a Century” from Trouble at the Henhouse. As the two and a half hour set went on, and they played song after song that I thought would make a good farewell, I worried I wouldn’t get to hear the song I most wanted to.

There were so many good ways they could have ended. They did “Scared” from Day for Night, the album that changed my view of The Hip permanently for the better. I still have no idea what the song is about, but the last line is “It’s been a pleasure doing business with you” which would have been good. I would have sworn that the last song would have been “Nautical Disaster”, a song during which Gord is known for going off on long, incoherent and incomprehensible tangents. What a perfect way to end.

And the more I thought about it, the less I wanted the show to end with Ahead by a Century. They came out of an unprecedented third encore, and launched into an early hit, “Locked in the Trunk of a Car” could have also closed it up (“LET ME OOUOUOUOUOUOUT”), but “Gift Shop” (“The rest of the world/becomes a gift shop”) was followed by the opening cords of the song I no longer wanted to be the last.

It was too much. The song starts with the innocence and care-free nature of a hypothetical youth (first thing we’s climb a tree/and maybe then we’d talk/or sit silently/or listen to our thoughts/With illusions of some day/cast in a golden light) which is followed by a line that every single Hip fan knows and possible has tattooed somewhere on their bodies and their souls: No dress rehearsals/This is our life.

And that’s when the hornet stung me.

The next verse and the chorus is about the reality of life and getting older. But the last line, the last line of the concert, the line that Gord was going to leave us with was, “And disappointing you is getting me down.”

I’m crying just typing this out and remembering everything that The Hip has meant and will continue to mean to me and to my friends and to an entire generation of Canadians. I tweeted the following:

And you never, ever disappointed me #TheHip

— Lee Skallerup (@readywriting) August 21, 2016

They never once did. There was never a scandal, there was never any seedy rumors or bad behavior. There was music and stories of kindness and collective experiences and generosity and the music and the shows and the friendships and the lyrics and the music, always the music.

You never, ever, ever disappointed any of us, even in saying goodbye and being generous enough to share some of your final moments with all of us. If we are mourning, it is because you never once disappointed. Never. You were more than we deserved, you were exactly what we needed, you were everything we ever hoped for in a band.

What a rare and wonderful and beautiful gift.

You never disappointed us. Please don’t let it get you down.