The teenager stood with his friends, watching the singer and the band from the other side of the arena. “Thank you,” the singer said as they walked offstage. “We are never going away.”
Stability, the teenager thought. In a time when it felt like his world balanced on a pin, the stability was comforting. And so they, teenager and band, stayed together for years.
“Just one more show,” the teenager told himself and those around him, though no one believed him. He was attached. He would see them at every gig he could. He would turn new friends onto them, or try to as they feigned interest.
Some people said the band’s lyrics told the story of a still-young country trying to forge a creative identity – well, the teenager said that – and he swallowed every lyric whole. For every pivotal event in the teenager’s life, be it his first loss, first fuck, first joint, first heartbreak, this band had a song for it. If you were to create a road map through the teenager’s soul, these lyrics would be the language that would show you the way.
And he wasn’t alone. Good bands make songs you can sing along to. Great bands create their own language to be shared.
The band’s songs grew from something that at first you didn’t understand into vast, incredible works of art that warranted study. Even more importantly, their songs made the teenager want to understand everything about the places the singer sang about.
The teenager saw the band in concert almost 40 times. He shouted along to every lyric. He jumped up and down in a fit of unrestrained jubilation. He got blackout drunk, probably also because of the unrestrained jubilation. Eventually, as an adult, he would watch with trepidation when he took his wife to her first show, hoping she’d want to be a part of it.
And as he sang along, he loved every second of it all. Because every band, every artist has a time, a place and a mood. At all of those 40-odd shows, he remembers only one emotion: love. Love of the songs and love of the people he shared those songs with.
He’d grow older and realize that stability would never come to his life. But at the end of the day, at the end of any day, there was the band. When he needed to love, he sang the band’s songs to himself. He wrote a book about the band. All he really wanted was that book to be a tangible gift, a “thank you” to them for everything they’d done for him.
For the teenager inside him, and for the teenager inside every one of us, he believed the singer would never really go away.
Look, there have been times in my life as a Tragically Hip fanatic that I’ve had no idea what Gord Downie was doing. Maybe it was a lyric I couldn’t quite decipher, maybe it was some bit of improvisational dance I didn’t understand.
That’s the beauty of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. Every song he sings is open to interpretation. And in that regard, you have the ability as a fan to make that song your own. To attach it to an event in your life or to think of someone you know. That’s why songs as musically massive and overwhelming as Gift Shop, Family Band or The Darkest One have become intensely personal.
For the same reason, seeing the Tragically Hip in a crowd of 20,000 is still a remarkably personal experience. Downie, his presence as big as a nation, sings directly at each one of us. Every single night on tour. Their consistency – Downie’s, in particular – is perhaps their greatest achievement. Night in, night out. For music lovers.
The Canadian poet laureate? Sure. But let’s not limit Downie to Canada’s borders. One of my favourite Tragically Hip shows was in 2006 at the Paradiso in Amsterdam. There, Downie was less a cheerleader and more a magician. He took fans who didn’t give a shit about the Toronto Maple Leafs through a mysterious evening where the art came first and the flag-waving came second. His voice never sounded clearer nor his songs more potent.
Which is why, when I shot out of bed around 6 am this morning after getting a text about the news of his terminal brain cancer, I screamed “FUCK!” and paced around my room. I haven’t stopped pacing.
I think of Downie as a friend, in a weird way, as I’m sure many other fans do. I’ve met him a few times, most recently after the release of Escape Is At Hand: Tales Of A Boy And A Band, my book about the Tragically Hip. NOW contributor Vish Khanna put me in touch with him.
“This is a book about your band and your fans,” I said as he towered above me. “I’ve seen you close to 40 times,” I said.
“Oh really? I’m sorry to hear that,” he joked. We laughed in a comfortable way, like friends do. The handful of times I met him, I was struck by his casual grace. His height. How every single word he speaks has weight and meaning.
Downie is so relentless in his pursuit of great art, at every gig, that it made me believe he was a performer, writer and poet who would never stop playing. The Hip were supposed to be my Rolling Stones: the winds of time could never beat them down.
I thought Gord Downie was immortal. He is not, of course.
This year has already been fucking miserable for music fans. But at least the Tragically Hip, in their infinite wisdom and adoration for the road, have given us the gift of another tour.
People have been asking me a lot today about what these summer shows will be like. They won’t be a eulogy. They’ll be a chance for Tragically Hip fans of all ages to share their stories and connect with others. Each of us should forever be remembered by the people whose lives we affected the most. If we’re lucky, that’s usually a handful of people. For Downie, it will be thousands and thousands.
And my suggestion is this: sing with Downie with every ounce of energy you have. It’s what he does for us with every show. Sing loud, sing with your friends and sing to give Downie and his family strength during this terrible time. Thank him, if you need to.
Strength, and thankfully, one more tour.
email@example.com | @joshuakloke