Putting Off The Hip: On the Kingston Band’s Farewell and How We Got There

gord downie illustration may 2016

Ray Guilleminot August 25, 2016

Illustration by N. Friesen

It’s been about 24 hours since I sat and stared at a man who, in front of thousands of cheering fans, pointed off to a distant place and simply nodded. His other hand held a microphone, with its cable tangled softly at the wrist, waiting to either be raised or released.

Clenching his teeth, he lowered his head and growled into the mic, and as he slowly looked up at the many faces before him, he bellowed into the dark above them.

I’d heard this howl before more than 20 years ago, but the mood back then was of jubilation and exhaustion. A lot had changed since then, so it felt strange to see it and hear it now.

It’d be better for us if you don’t understand.

When I was first introduced to The Tragically Hip, I didn’t like them. Or more to the point, I didn’t get them. Were they trying to be a glorified bar band or was I the one failing to see that they were exactly that? And because we always fear what we don’t understand, I was fine to dismiss them altogether. I wished Mr. Downie and his crew the best of luck and foolishly moved on, denying myself the gift that was our country’s greatest musical ambassadors when music itself was becoming such a heavy influence during my early teens.

One of my best friends tried to steer me back by giving me a copy of Road Apples for my 16th birthday. I remained unconvinced.

I put it off. I put it on. I put it off again.

It wasn’t until the fall of 1994 that I’d finally get it, better late than never, when the album Day For Night reversed my opinion. It carried with it that little bit of weird I would come to love about this band. A few months later, I’d see them live for the first time.

They became part of the soundtrack of my life for years to come, from campfires and house parties to road trips and break-ups. No matter where I was, physically or emotionally, Gord lent his voice to galvanize those memories with.

Late-breaking story on the CBC…

Decades later, and courtesy of the CBC and a decent television, I was staring back into the eyes of a man who seemed to be screaming out in defiance of his fate. Whether or not God was listening, he/she most certainly heard him.

Earlier in the evening, while the band was wrapping up “Little Bones”, I started to struggle with what was unfolding. I’d even turned to wife and said, “I don’t think I can watch this anymore.”

I knew why it was important for the band to embark on a final tour. I knew why it was important for the national network to broadcast their last show. I knew why millions of people were tuning in. I just suddenly felt like I shouldn’t be one of them.

Gordon was fumbling his lines, even with several teleprompters at the ready. It was painfully obvious how much he was depending on them from the start. And he was clearly trying his best to hit all the right notes, but even that often got away from him. He was also basically shouting the words at times like he couldn’t recall the familiar melodies he’d created long ago.

And I was ashamed of myself to be even noticing any of these things because the man has FUCKING BRAIN CANCER.

I consider Gordon to be a hero of mine, which is what was making it so hard for me to see him in this state.

Over the years, he’s shared stories with me. He’s made me laugh. He’s been steady at times when I couldn’t keep it together. He taught me it’s ok to be a little weird. It’s just a part of who we are. And now we’re losing him.

The very least I could do was to be steady for him until the end.

Yeah the sky was dull and hypothetical and falling one cloud at a time…

It was an interesting experience to be sure, to be able to watch an iconic band play their last show in front of the entire country. There were no commercial interruptions. No colour commentary – just Gord, the boys and the fans. It would have been nice to see fewer smartphones being held up during the concert, but that’s just another glaring difference between now and 20 years ago.

By the time they opened their second encore with “Nautical Disaster”, I was in shambles. At that point, there had been several gut-wrenching moments and I was able to handle them because Gord was able to handle them. The man had given us everything, and asked for nothing in return.

It immediately took me back to seeing them play on SNL back in 1995. At the time, they were the biggest band in Canada, but playing to an audience who’d likely never heard of them. They crushed their performance and it could have been the breakthrough they need in the U.S., but you could tell by looking at Gord that it wouldn’t have mattered either way. They were just doing their thing.

And while it’s broadly known that The Hip’s success was limited to their home country for the most part, perhaps that is a part of what makes them so special to us as Canadians.

And that’s why I’m especially glad I kept watching no matter what.

Ray Guilleminot is a Winnipeg writer, music nerd and movie buff. He long ago came to terms with the fact that most non-Canadian bands think touring Canada means only playing Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.