Something strange happened last Saturday night. An entire nation stopped to watch a rock concert. And I mean the entire nation. As far as Canada was concerned, even the Olympics were put on hold when the Tragically Hip took the stage in Kingston.
“The Tragically who,” you ask? And where the hell is Kingston?
Exactly. You’re now one step closer to understanding Canadians.
The reason most of you have never heard of the Tragically Hip is because they’ve never made it big “south of the border.” That’s a very Canadian phrase. “South of the border” is where Canadians need to go to be internationally successful. They have to pack up their bags and head south, following in the footsteps of Mary Pickford, Deanna Durbin, Mack Sennett, Marie Dressler, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Christopher Plummer, Lorne Greene, Raymond Burr, William Shatner, Donald Sutherland, Dan Ackroyd, Mike Meyers, Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey, Seth Rogen, Ryan Reynolds, Ryan Gosling, Rachel MacAdams – well, you get the idea. And that’s just a partial list in the entertainment industry. A huge slice of American culture was originally served from north of the 49th.
But not the Hip. They never made it in the States. I’m sure there are Tragically Hip fans down there, but you have to understand what the Hip meant to us. Going to a Hip concert was a rite of passage for almost every Canadian spanning 3 generations. Unlike all those Canadian stars who moved south and relegated their “Canadian-ness” to a footnote in their biographies, the Hip kept heading towards true North. I’m sure they would have loved to be discovered by the US, but Gordon Downie, Gord Sinclair, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Johnny Fay and Davis Manning – collectively, the Hip – never were obsessed with the spotlight “south of the border.” Their lyrics were embedded in the wheat fields of Saskatchewan, the wind-scoured rocks of Newfoundland and Ontario’s Algonquin Park. The Hip deftly plucked the heft and weave of Canadian culture; singing about hockey heroes, summer trips to cottage country and even a man wrongly convicted of murder. They remained a touring band that performed exhaustively from sea to sea to sea for over for 32 years. Over that time, they performed thousands of concerts in places like Moose Jaw, Yellowknife and Truro. Yes, they released 16 albums, but to appreciate the Hip, you had to see them live. And most of us did.
To watch the Tragically Hip perform is also to understand a little more about Canada. Lead singer Gord Downie could kindly be described as spastic on stage. The music is pure rock which as generally been well received critically. American music critic Chris Massey said, “Listening to The Tragically Hip’s first three albums is a lot like listening to the evolution of a good rock and roll band into an outstanding rock and roll band.” But for some reason, their music never hooked a US audience. You can hear echoes of the Hip in REM or The Counting Crows, but you’ve probably never heard the Hip themselves on US radio.
All this preamble is required to let you know why we as a nation were stunned into painful silence this year on May 24. That’s the day we all heard that Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. That’s also the day we learned they would do one last tour. Gord could still sing. Screw the cancer.
Last Saturday was the last stop of this final tour. It was in Kingston, the Hip’s hometown, but thanks to CBC, our national broadcaster, it was watched coast to coast to coast – just as it should have been. Our prime minister was there, wearing a Hip t-shirt. Canadian athletes watched the concert live from Canada House in Rio. The CBC Olympic broadcast team shut down coverage so they could watch. We pushed cancer right off the f*@king stage as we sang Wheat Kings, Ahead by a Century, Blow at High Dough and New Orleans is Sinking. We were reluctantly saying goodbye to Gord Downie, the Hip and a precious chunk of ourselves but we were also putting a stake in the ground, saying we are Canadian and this band is ours. Too bad the rest of you never figured it out.
There’s something else you have to understand about Canada. There are few places in the world where the citizens are as spread out geographically as they are here, but we agree on what it means to be Canadian. We’re quiet, we’re polite and we get each other. It’s why we cheer as loudly for bronze medals as for gold ones. It’s why we are still ridiculously loyal to a coffee and donut chain that is now owned by Burger King. It’s why we keep lacrosse as our national sport even though the rest of the world thinks its hockey. And it’s also why we’ll never, ever get Donald Trump and the circus of American politics. But most of all, it’s why, on Saturday night at 8:30 pm ET, we all stopped whatever we were doing to watch a rock concert.
Logical? No. Canadian? Absolutely.
Let me try to put this in context with an analogy for my American audience. Living next to you is like becoming friends with the kid who lives next door and who lives in a much bigger house. One weekend, you’re invited for a sleep over. You bring your toys and pack your sleeping bag. The good news is that for breakfast, you finally get to eat all the sugared cereal your Mom would never buy for you. The bad news is you have to give all your toys to your friend. Sure, you can still come over and play with them any time you want, but they’ll never be yours again.
That’s why we love the Hip. They’ll always be ours.
“A nation whispers, “We always knew that he’d go free”
They add, “You can’t be fond of living in the past
‘Cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re going to last”
Lyrics from Wheat Kings – The Tragically Hip