I joined with millions of Canadians on Saturday night, August 20, at 8:30 pm to watch the broadcast of what many are calling the final performance of the great Canadian band The Tragically Hip. Their lead singer, Gord Downie, was diagnosed earlier this year with terminal brain cancer and Saturday’s performance, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, was the final stop on this summer’s cross-Canada Man, Machine, Poem tour.
While I’ve been aware of the band for years, the only line I knew from any of their songs was “ahead by a century”. But, a little sheepishly, knowing that Saturday’s concert would be heavy and significant – and with a great deal of empathy for Downie – I immersed myself in everything Hip for several days prior to the event. It was a supreme joy to discover this incredible catalogue of witty, poetic, catchy songs that celebrated so much of the Canadian experience that I have lived (Downie and I are basically the same age): hockey memories, political and cultural landmark references, as well as universal commentaries. I was amused, stimulated, pumped up and moved by these beautiful songs. I watched a few of Downie’s interviews – with Strombo and Ghomeshi, and a particularly poignant one with Wendy Mesley in 2012, where he discusses his wife’s breast cancer and the effect that had on his life and work. He’s articulate, cheeky and painfully honest. If you get a chance to see the 2012 Ghomeshi interview, it’s quite brilliant, seeing Downie fawn over the former CBC host with a twinkle in his eye: integrity meets phony.
So, I felt prepared for Saturday’s concert viewing, but I was unprepared for the emotional depth of the experience. From the first images of downtown Kingston – where it appeared that the whole town had come out to pay tribute to their brother – to the pre-show backstage sight of Downie kissing each of his bandmates on the lips and embracing them so warmly and intimately, it was clear that this was to be a concert like none other.
I don’t have to describe the rest. It’s been discussed and reviewed at length over the past few days. I will say – from a purely musical and performance standpoint – that it was a brilliant show. I was so impressed with the tight playing of guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay and absolutely floored by the communicative powers of Downie. His performance was part beat poetry, part crooner, part Shakespearean fool. He was cynical and yet totally heartfelt, fun and yet sad, full of energy and yet so fragile. And his “costumes” were so whimsical and ironic. It was a very painful to thing to watch, and yet so deeply beautiful at the same time.
I don’t know Gord Downie, and clearly I’m a very new convert to The Tragically Hip, but I am so grateful to him – and his bandmates – for teaching me (and probably others) about grace and courage and for further revealing the beautiful constellation of life on Saturday, one star at a time.
- Larry Beckwith