Courage

IMG_1410Where 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 unavoidable 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.

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8 thoughts on “Courage

  1. I am a little scared to leave a comment, because I don’t think I can summarize what this band means to me. So, if you read this and think “so what?” just know that it is my ability to explain that lacks, not the impact that this band and their music had on my life.

    This Hip’s music was the soundtrack to high school Saturday nights, sitting in the basement of friends’ houses, thinking how lucky I was to have such a great group of people that I cared so much about. This band was the discussion topic that allowed me to talk to, and ultimately fall in love with the first person I ever really gave myself completely to. This music kept me connected to Canada when I was living across the ocean, and this music took me to places I has never been (literally and figuratively). It allowed to look at my country with different eyes, and see friendships and relationships in a way I hadn’t considered before.

    I don’t think any one band has influenced me in so many ways as the Tragically Hip. I can’t begin to thank them enough for what they have done for me, and can’t describe the sense of loss this news has brought me.

    • I just did some counting…have we only seen two Hip shows together? Ottawa Bluesfest in 2004 and Yonge-Dundas Square? We’ll correct that a little bit this summer.

  2. To be honest, I’ve never listened to much of The Hip. Sure, I’ve heard their songs on the radio a billion times and watched their videos on MuchMusic back in the day, but I never really dove into their discography. I’ve rolled my eyes at the generic middle aged band doing a Hip cover in the pub for the 1000th time. I am not implying I dislike The Hip. In fact, I do enjoy their music, but it never captured me.

    The attraction of The Hip, as you point out, is the sense of Canada. I’ve lived away from Canada for almost seven years and The Hip are one of the few bands that I point to as being a purely Canadian band. I rarely ever hear their music anymore, but when I do, it brings me home. They take me to Canada.

    • I never travel without at least a couple Hip albums–one of which is almost always Fully Completely because, as you say, they take me to Canada and that’s often where I want to be when I’m on the road.

  3. Steeeve – I thoughf of you immediately, and the puppy love mixed CD (with Courage, including Sarah Polley’s haunting rendition as a counterpoint, and New Orleans Is Sinking). I thought of our time at Bluesfest together. I became Ontarian again to this music – would be great to see a show with you and Sam. 🙂

    Bridget

    • Oh, man: I totally forgot about that version of “Courage.” 🙂 I’m planning on doing four shows this summer; in Ontario I’ll be at both nights in Toronto and I’m hoping I pull something for Kingston. I’ll keep you posted!

  4. To date, I can’t say I’ve ever been to a concert where the singer walks on the seats through the crowd; except for the Hip of course. Gord, in all his glory, is something to behold. I’ve never seen a performance even close to that! And some how, also knew all the words.

    • Some one of my favourite live Hip memories are from that show, in particular Gord pretending to pluck grapes from a woman’s hair during “Poets” and walking over the seats during “The Last Recluse.”

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