How do you measure the impact that someone you’ve never met has had on your life? Sometimes it takes their passing to ask ourselves this question. We found out Gord Downie had cancer in the spring of 2016, and with his death this week, I found myself trying to rationalize the passing of another musician, and categorizing it in a manner similar to other recent deaths like Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Tom Petty: legendary musicians whose music is part of my life soundtrack.
But with Downie’s death, it’s much more personal and I’ve been trying to reconcile these emotions. It feels like it more closely resembles the death of a close friend or family member, rather than a rock star. Gord felt like one of us: Canadian. And he showed us how to be Canadian and to be proud to be a Canadian.
I could list dozens of Tragically Hip and Gord Downie songs with Canadian references, but you can look that up. Instead, I’ll recount my Hip history, in part as a record of my musical tastest, but also because by doing so, I hope to be able to get others to appreciate the impact of Gord and the Hip’s music on our lives.
I first heard of the Hip in 1989 when I was in fourth year at the University of Waterloo. My roommate had “Up to Here” on vinyl and was raving about them. I listened, but the music didn’t stick with me at the time. The 80s were ending, and I was never really into 80s music in high school or university; I was still into classics like the Beatles, Stones, CCR, Neil Young. Their name came up again in 1990 when I was in Ottawa for Canada Day. The Hip played a set at Landsdowne Park. Still relatively unknown, they shared the bill with Colin James and Kim Mitchell (who was the headlining act).
In 1991, when I was in grad school, they released their second album, Road Apples. They probably played the college scene a lot, but I didn’t see them. I did see other Canadian artists that were emerging around this time: Blue Rodeo, the Grapes of Wrath, Sarah McLachlan. I was aware of the Hip but still didn’t have their albums, nor had I seen them live. In 1992, “Fully Completely” came out and I remember the first time I heard “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”. I was in my car (driving, not locked in the trunk) and I was consumed by the darkness of the song. The pounding beat of the song felt like the beat of a pounding heart.
It wasn’t until 1995 (after their 1994 album “Day for Night”) when I finally saw them live. They headlined the festival: Another Roadside Attraction and I saw them at the Cayuga Speedway near Hagersville (I did appreciate the significance of seeing them “out at the speedway”). I found the setlist from that concert here. I saw them again in 1996 at Maple Leaf Gardens after the release of their 1996 album “Trouble at the Henhouse”. In hindsight (and with 20+ years of perspective), I can look back at this show as the most Canadian music experience I’ve had. The opening band, Rheostatics, became a favourite soon thereafter. The Hip of course, represented Canada in the best possible way. They were unique and unashamed to be Canadian and sing about Canada. They made it cool to be Canadian.
They didn’t gain the kind of popularity in the US as they probably deserved, but that was part of their appeal. They belonged to us, and we didn’t want to share them.
I saw Mr. Downie perform some of his solo material in 2011 at the Harvest Greenbelt Festival near Hamilton, and then I was lucky enough to see the Hip in 2016 at Copps Coliseum on their huge cross-country tour (I know the name of this venue has changed, but it will always be Copps to me).
This week on CBC’s Q, Great Big Sea’s Alan Doyle mentioned this lyric as possibly the most Canadian lyric. It’s from the Hip’s song “Fireworks”
If there’s a goal that everyone remembers,
It was back in ol’ 72
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember is sitting beside youYou said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr
It was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations
Reveal themselves, one star at time