Where to begin?
(Seriously: I haven’t the foggiest. It’s taken me hours to write these first two lines.)
By now, you’ve no doubt heard about Gord Downie’s terminal cancer diagnosis. I learned about it the same way a lot of you did: by checking my email. When I saw a message from the Hip I assumed it was a tour announcement. And then I read the first few lines – and then I had trouble breathing the next three hours.
The Tragically Hip is my band to a far geater extent than either Pearl Jam or the Who (both of whom take turns being my “favourite” band) ever could be. For three years I lived, quite literally, around the corner from Rob Baker; I’d run into him periodically at Bedore’s corner store buying milk. Bri Monster used to nanny for Gord Sinclair; she once ate dinner at Wooden Heads with him and Paul Langlois, with whom I once spent ten minutes conversing after a Big Wreck show at Alfie’s. I heard “Lonely End of the Rink” in the building where I learned how to skate; I’ve heard a song that begins with a line about shooting a movie in my hometown in all four places I’ve called home. But just as they’re my band, they’re equally Canada’s band, their music an indelible soundtrack to life in this country. The Hip’s well-documented inability to infiltrate the United States seemed to make us embrace them even more.
“New Orleans is Sinking.” “Courage.” “Wheat Kings.” “Bobcaygeon.” You know these songs, know them whether you want to or not. They’re yours; they’re mine.
Live, the band killed. Kills, rather: they’re still together, and today’s email actually did include a tour announcement (dates coming tomorrow!). I’ve seen them live more than any band not named Pearl Jam. I’ve seen them in arenas and in stadiums. I’ve seen them in theatres and in clubs. I’ve seen them at two historic Canadian forts and at a zoo in suburban Minneapolis. I’ve seen them with best friends and sworn enemies. I’ve experienced transcendence at their shows; I’ve been so bored at a Hip concert I almost walked out. I’ve bitched about their stale setlists for over a decade. I appear in their live concert DVD (alongside La Gusenza, rocking a Minnesota North Stars t; find us after “Three Pistols”!). This upcoming tour – which I refuse to call the band’s “last” tour because, hey, none of us knows what’ll happen next – might be difficult, and there’s a chance it’ll be a bit maudlin. I hope they shelve the sadder songs. I hope they walk on stage each night, turn their amps up to eleven, and melt our faces. I gave thought to sitting it out, letting last year’s Fully Completely Kingston concert be my live goodbye. But I’ll be there, singing my heart out. And let’s be honest: crying my eyes out, too.
After hearing the news this morning I wasn’t sure I’d be able to listen to the Hip’s music again for a while. “A while” turned out to be half-an-hour, and just after seven I pushed play on Day for Night (which is, by some distance, my favourite Hip record). I was expecting to feel sadness, and I did, kind of. But after a few minutes I was turning the volume up and nodding along and air-drumming and, eventually, dancing around the living room in the manner of Gord Downie. Yeah, “Scared” was difficult. But “Thugs” sounded as good to me today as it did when I first heard it and declared it was my favourite Hip song. “Nautical Disaster” is a masterpiece. “Titanic Terrarium” sounded just as great on a warm Toronto spring morning as on a frigid Calgary winter night. This is music that demands to be enjoyed, and today’s news, as terrible as it is, can’t change that, won’t change that.
This next tour will be a chance for all of us to get together in the same place, celebrate the band’s music, and thank all five of its members – Gord Downie especially – for everything they’ve given us. And will continue to give: their new album, Man Machine Poem, comes out in June, six months following Downie’s diagnosis. No matter what happens after this tour ends, this is music that’ll be part of our lives forever. These songs are mine. These songs are yours. These songs are ours.