Sunday, 21 August 2016

A Tragically Hip Good Bye

“There are three things we cry for in life: things that are lost, things that are found, and things that are magnificent.” ~ Douglas Coupland (Girlfriend in a Coma)

It’s the “last” Hip concert ……… I don’t mean that to be facetious, and I actually hope I’m wrong … I HOPE that I have 40 more years of watching Gord and the band play out my Canadian rock poet fantasies, I hope he kicks this cancer shit to the curb and leaves it there …………… but the odds aren’t in his, or my or anyone’s, favour ….. he is leaving us line by line, word by precious word.

When I started watching tonight’s concert I thought I could handle it ………. As a fan from the first album, a spectator to many a tour, and a lucky soul who saw the first concert of THIS tour in Victoria, BC. Tuning in tonight felt like a patriotic book ending of a National experience, a fan’s simple act of reverence. But it was so much more. I wasn’t prepared for what happened tonight. The tearing open of deep wounds. The hemorrhaging of emotions, this might really BE what this really seems like, and they made it look easy enough to not seem like what it is. The behind the scene of their embraces and kisses was so piercingly intimate and genuine that it caught in your chest and let you know the night was going to get pretty honest and pretty raw. They took to the stage with all that grace and intimacy; as family.

“Any given moment – no matter how casual, how ordinary, is poised full of gaping life” ~ Anne Michaels (Fugitive Pieces)

There is a little friction among the found fans and the old fans, the lost fans and the non fans ….. but enough, this is not our path, for our Canadian path – the path that has always defined us – is far more twisted and complicated than that. Our path is one of misstep and overcoming, of individuality and unique weirdness ………. And what could be more Tragically Hip than that? The truth is everyone, old and new fans, true and fickle fans, have tried to pay tribute …….. tried beautifully, and aren’t we better for the trying? Can’t that, at least, we all agree on? The truth is that NOT all Canadians love the Hip, many don’t even like them, and that’s ok …. Honest. The best way to describe why the Hip is still so relevant to all Canadians is their mastery of the Canadian voice, their bent to the crooked, their unique brand of weird …. And as Canadians we seem to adore that. We can’t say why, but we do. You may not like the Hip, but chances are as a Canadian you like love an artist or art form quite like them. We seem to like our artists to show us the beautifully terrible and the terribly beautiful about ourselves and then try to make those ragged pieces fit ….. to me that sums up Canada.

“Yeah. We’re sweet but savage, and I think a lot of Canadians are that way” ~ Bruce McCulloch, KITH

My family travelled to Victoria, BC to see them open this tour. I was so grateful to have been able to take our kids with us and also that they had seen the Hip tour before as well. The Hip was well known for it’s quirky performances: Gord dancing and writhing on stage, songs often taking sharps turns into dark places: tangents and tall tales, and the amazing ability of the musicians to seamlessly keep up with the ever changing landscape of their songs. God those guys can play. So, this tour it really stood out how contained Gord was, how tightly the band played around him (both in proximity and timing), and the strength it was taking to be there (as a band and as a fan). I felt prepared for this CBC televised final concert, because I had already seen one, but I wasn’t. I was a mess the moment they started to play. Sobbing and overwhelmed. By the time they hit Little Bones they had hit their stride but the awful truth of his illness kept shattering the moments of perfect lucidity with waves from a broken brain, like ripples on a still pond and all around helpless to stop it. My brother texted me as he watched and made the insightful comment “I can’t help but wonder what he is thinking … of us. Is he worried? That he will forget the words? He is using the teleprompter because I think the cancer is eating the words away from him.” (He’s a PhD in science but sometimes he can really turn a phrase) I answered back “the brain finds a way, the rest of the show you watch his brain fire up and his body turn to ash. He’s running on will. It’s phenomenal. I wish you could have seen them live before, it was bizarre and wonderful, he danced and played with the audience, he was a poet …. A poet with an amazing group of musicians who joked he was a dancer. Every show was so weird and thought provoking and fun”. But this tour? I’m not sure what we’re watching, we’re bearing witness to something very personal, and it will be different for everybody.

“The first sentence of any novel should be: trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.” ~ Michael Ondaatje (In the Skin of a Lion)

The moments Gord watched the crowd were so undefinable and very raw. This feat that the band has pulled off, this experience they have generously shared with their fans only worked because of the sincerity, authenticity, and incredible vulnerability of the band members and their fans ..... something small and precious and emotional; like a sun warmed piece of ocean glass in your pocket. A mutual gift of gratitude. The band: Paul, Rob, Gord, and Johnny somehow finding the power to will it all into being. I cannot fathom where they found the courage and strength to honour their friend in this way.

“Conversation in it’s true meaning isn’t all wagging the tongue; sometimes it is deeply shared silence.” ~ Robertson Davies (The Rebel Angels)

When Gord did speak it was either to express gratitude or to issue a challenge. He is, at his core, the kind of artist who likes to shine light into dark places, to never let a self satisfied happiness go undisturbed. He expressed deep concern over the state of the Northern peoples and specifically our Metis and First Nations peoples. A parting shot reminding us we still had many wrongs to right. He glowed over Prime Minister Trudeau and implored us to follow him where we need to go on this. For what it’s worth I think Gord is right on both counts: that Trudeau is worthy of the responsibility and that the responsibility is deeply worthy of undertaking. Imperative in fact. I am so glad he did not shy away from this part of himself. That this disease, this tour, this experience has not eroded his character or sense of self. I love people who have a moral compass that points straight and true, a good soul, a conflicted beautiful messy unrelenting messenger. Cancer may be stealing his words, but not his message. And the message he has always delivered has been one of the importance of tearing open old wounds so we may try to heal them properly. To bear witness. To tell stories. To never allow the pleasant to get in the way of the real.

“I didn’t know how to say ‘I’m sorry’ but the big tear that went out of my eye said it for me.” ~ Robert Munsch (From Far Away)

“The two most important phrases in the human language are ‘if only’ and ‘maybe someday’. Our past mistakes and our unrequited longings. The things we regret and the things we yearn for. That’s what makes us who we are.” ~ Will Ferguson (Happiness)

When Gord hit the stage in that amazing silver sparkling suit and they broke into “Something On” the entire band seemed to exhale. The tight breath they all had been holding, and everyone watching had been holding, suddenly exhaled. It was tangible. Joy entered the room. The sorrow and the joy mingled as it had in Victoria a month earlier, a feast of the bitter and the sweet. The joy fuelled the rest of the night and honoured the pleasure they have clearly shared together over the years. There was a quiet strength and dignity to it, a slow powerful beautiful burn. I can’t imagine another band anywhere pulling it off. “Those guys fucking love each other. I hope my kids can have friends they love that much” my brother texted to me. “Yup” ……. Because how often does someone really let you in like that to see? Brave isn’t a big enough word.

The void which would be left by the loss of Gord Downie’s voice if we lose him will be immense. But we can all endeavour to seek out the wealth of other Canadian artists … the keepers of our voice, our Philosophers. Canada is full of people who express the answers in search of our questions, who challenge us, who remind us of who we are and who we could be. In fact, the only thing that saved me from utterly falling apart during the entire CBC broadcast was putting pen to paper, scrawling out words that passed through me, and soothed me. I searched for words of other Canadian artists that resonated for me. I scribbled down thoughts as they unfolded and the lens I watched through changed from one of grief and loss to one of celebration and expression. I hope that people will seek to express and actively find other Canadian artists who make them feel like the Hip. I have shared many quotes throughout this blog from such Canadian writers to inspire you. Please find the words that speak to you about this amazing, complicated country. I think it could be essential.

“You wish you could tell yourself
that this is all too sentimental.
You want to agree with the person
who said, “There’s no salvation
in geography.”
But you can’t
and you’re beginning to suspect
that deep within you,
like a latent gene, is this belief
that we belong somewhere.”
~ Bronwen Wallace, a Poet from Kingston who died of cancer at age 44 (excerpt from ‘Lonely for the Country’)

I’d still like to believe that it won’t be true, that Gord Downie will live through this and continue to front the Tragically Hip for decades. Maybe we can keep him. But this felt like good bye; a knowing, bone deep felt good bye. And it felt so incredibly special that they gave us the time and energy to do it. I wrote a blog about my feelings after the band broke the news of Gord Downie’s illness because I wanted to acknowledge how important they have been to me, even just for myself (the link is below in case you're curious). I knew I would have to write again when the tour was over, just as so many people have done, and express just how grateful I feel to have experienced this. I have loved the Hip from their beginning. I was there and we have grown together; they feature heavily in my soundtrack as it were, and so many Canadians feel the same way. They have an ability to create a song that feels written or performed just for you …. even when in a room, a hall, a stadium, a Nation full of people who feel the same way. Hip fans are all the authors of their own interpretations of Hip songs …… Thank you Gord, Paul, Rob, Gord, and Johnny for being the powerful subtext.

Let's get friendship right
Get life day to day
In the forget yer skates dream
Full of countervailing woes
In diverse as ever scenes
Proceeding on a need to know
In a face so full of meaning
As to almost make it glow
For a good life
We just might have to weaken
And find somewhere to go
Go somewhere we're needed
Find somewhere to grow
Go somewhere we're needed
~ The Tragically Hip (excerpt from ‘It’s a good life if you don’t weaken’)

In the end it was just Gord on stage as he simply stated “Goodbye everybody. Have a nice life.” And no one doubted the sincerity of that. It was just so fucking Canadian.

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