“Congratulations. You’re a Canadian now.”
That was what my wife said to me after the Tragically Hip concert in Vancouver Sunday night. Somehow, I had made it into my late 40s without ever seeing the Canuck rockers live. My wife had seen them at 16 at Ontario Place, which made her far more Canadian and far cooler than me.
I’ve been to a few concerts in my lifetime, but none of them have left me as emotionally moved as the Hip show, with the possible exception of Nick Cave. Because Nick Cave. And I wasn’t alone in this — the entire crowd was having a moment for the entire show. People were waving Canadian flags, men and women with grey hair were dancing in the aisles while the younger audience members were waving their smartphones in the air like lighters. Everyone was singing along to the lyrics and screaming enthusiastically whenever the big screens showed Hip singer Gord Downie’s face.
What is it about the Hip that causes such multi-generational love? If you’re Canadian, you just kind of get it even if you’re not really into their music. If you’re not a Canuck, it’s hard to explain. Sure, there’s the fact they’re a group of small-town boys from Kingston, Ontario, who did good. They seem to down to earth, as far as rock stars go. They started the Vancouver concert on time, after all! And I’ve never heard any stories of hotel room trashing or the usual rock and roll fables.
Maybe it’s our shared stories they sing about. Every Canadian knows what Downie is talking about when he sings “Twenty years for nothing, well, that’s nothing new / besides, no one is interested in something you didn’t do.” Or when they name a song Bobcaygeon: “It was in Bobcaygeon / I saw the constellations / reveal themselves one star at a time.” Or songs like The Hundredth Meridian, which marks various borders physical and otherwise in Canada, or Fifty Mission Cap about the Maple Leafs and hockey or I could go on and on but I don’t need to. If you’re Canadian, you just get the Hip.
Not that they sing strictly about Canadiana. They’ve got plenty of songs that don’t reference Canada at all. The crowd went nuts for Grace, Too at the show I saw — the line “I come from downtown, born ready for you” being the equivalent of a national anthem for some.
And what other band could make a hit song about poets: “Don’t tell me what the poets are doing / those Himalayas of the mind.” Poets, man. Poets.
If you’re Canadian, the Hip have been the soundtrack to your life — whether or not you’ve actually ever owned any of their albums. They’re just always playing somewhere wherever you go. I was having a flashback of my life during their show — listening to New Orleans is Sinking while working the night shift at a grocery store, dancing to Locked In the Trunk of a Car while in university, making a mess of a romance to Ahead by a Century. And so on. We all have our own stories.
The Hip played songs about those moments, places and people that became something more than what they were, that became part of the Canadian experience, part of our shared memory and identity. In doing so, they became the exact sort of thing they sang about – they went from being a bunch of guys in a Kingston band to being the Hip. Something that was indescribably Canadian.
So when news came that Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, it was like the entire country had been sucker punched in the gut. It was like finding out a family member was dying.
The Hip announced they were going to do another tour. Partially to support their new album, sure. But let’s face it, the tour was also about connecting with their fans one last time.
“What we in The Hip receive, each time we play together, is a connection,” the Hip said in a letter on their website, “with each other; with music and its magic; and during the shows, a special connection with all of you, our incredible fans.”
And that was what I felt in that concert in Vancouver: a connection to the band, to all the people around me, to the great country of Canada and its stories. I said on someone’s Facebook thread that it felt like a communion, and that seems as good a description as any.
“Enjoy those one-night moments,” Downie said in an interview with Strombo some time ago. “We’ll only be here tonight, this bunch of us in this room, doing this. That’s live performance. Let’s try and find some point of transcendence and leap together.”
I definitely felt that transcendence during the show, and I’m still feeling its lingering after-effects. And I’m having trouble imagining a Canada without the Tragically Hip. The band is like another province to us, the state of mind we all want to live in.
I suspect the Hip’s final show, which the CBC is going to broadcast live Aug. 20 from Kingston, the band’s hometown, will be a moment this country has never seen before.
Well, let’s just see what the morning brings.