Along with most Canadians between 30 and 60 years of age, I watched the final Tragically Hip concert last night. The CBC, blessedly sensing the import of the moment, preempted Olympic coverage and aired the whole concert commercial-free. We knew we’d want to watch it surrounded by other people; luckily our friends JP and Sue invited us over to their backyard viewing party.
I’d seen them live three times — light, by Canadian standards — and would have been strangely okay if the Fully Completely anniversary tour in 2015 was my last time. I’d kind of drifted away from the Hip in recent years, paying less and less attention to their albums and tours, but there’s no denying how important they were to me through the 90s. I didn’t really pay attention to the first albums that won them fans, but I knew who they were. Ultimately what won me over was their performance of Locked In The Trunk Of A Car live on the Junos (I think?) in 1992. I struggled to process what I was listening to: a song about a car that eats…conquistadors? It was stuck in my head all night and the next day; I remember standing at the end of our lane the next morning, waiting for the schoolbus, hearing Gord sing “Let me ooouuuuutttttt!!!!!!!” over and over. To this day it’s one of my three favourite Hip songs.
By the time I got to university they were everyone’s unofficial soundtrack — Fully Completely was on constant rotation until Day For Night came out; I was at home on the farm one weekend, driving to Amherst with brother #2, when a radio station played Grace, Too for the first time. I have a clear memory of driving across the Southampton bridge as those first bass notes started, and I’ve loved the song deeply since. It too remains one of my three favourites.
My other favourite was a slower build over several years, buried halfway down Fully Completely, and so utterly drenched in Leafs history that I should hate it, but the simplicity and sadness and power of Fifty Mission Cap are special to me. Clearly, though, their music holds meaning for me, and for millions of other people. And while I’ve long felt that the Rheostatics might be even truer representatives of Canadian culture (at least to nerds like me) there’s no denying the Hip’s cultural importance in this country. I could hear it coming from strangers around me last night, and from CBC interviews before and after the show, and from all over the internet in the days leading up to the show. There was palpable weight to the moment before they took the stage, and it mattered to me what they played, and when.
That they started with Fifty Mission Cap was almost troubling — shouldn’t this be a powerful set closer? How could they possibly keep the momentum up? But they did, with songs carrying a different kind of weight — the weight of Gord Downie’s diagnosis. When he sang “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)” we were all singing “COURAGE!” back at him. When he grumbled the bridge in “At The Hundredth Meridian” it tore at us.
If I die of vanity, promise me
Promise me they bury me some place I don’t want to be,
You’ll dig me up and transport me, unceremoniously,
Away from the swollen city-breeze, garbage bag trees,
Whispers of disease, acts of enormity
And lower me slowly, sadly and properly
Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy.
They played all their slow-song crowd favourites (Wheat Kings, The Last of the Unplucked Gems, Poets, Scared) which have never been my favourites, but they also played Fiddler’s Green, which no one seemed to expect. I didn’t, anyway. It was tough.
The first encore, predictably, was all Up To Here. There was no way they could leave without playing any of New Orleans Is Sinking, Boots or Hearts, or Blow at High Dough. The second encore is what got me though…but not Nautical Disaster or Scared. It was Grace, Too. It was how Downie broke down, completely, as he screamed the final words — “Now??! No!!!” — over and over. We were watching a dying man staring his own mortality in the face, in front of a whole country, and spitting rage back at it. I couldn’t deal with it. I felt tears on my cheeks. Judging by my social feeds, and the rest of that backyard, I wasn’t the only one.
That ended the encore, and the band walked off. I think they had always planned for another, but couldn’t count on Gord being able to continue. I glad he did; that might have been the most poignant end, but it wouldn’t have been the right one. They came back out and to my great joy played Locked in the Trunk of a Car. Finally, thankfully. I got to hear Gord screaming “Let me out!” one last time, and felt complete. Only the surprise appearance of Cordelia could have made it better, but of course that dark a song wouldn’t fit. They were back to say goodbye with a smile, or at least a smirk. They ended with Gift Shop — one last show of wit and power — and Ahead By A Century, so Gord had enough time and room to say proper goodbyes to the crowd. And they were gone.
Now that I’ve typed this far, my random ‘play all Tragically Hip songs’ playlist has served up Cordelia, so I almost got my wish after all. It must have been the one more thing I really needed. I don’t know what that will be for Gord, but I hope he gets it.
The set list, according to the CBC:
Courage (for Hugh MacLennan)
At the Hundredth Meridian
In a World Possessed by the Human Mind
Tired as F–k
My Music at Work
Twist My Arm
The Last of the Unplucked Gems
New Orleans Is Sinking
Boots or Hearts
Blow at High Dough
Locked in the Trunk of a Car
Ahead by a Century
Cover photo from thehip.com