Bittersweet. That seems to be the word that's getting tossed around the most. And I think it may be the only word in the English language that even comes close to capturing the way Hip fans have felt during this Man Machine Poem tour; this roller coaster ride of emotions that our beloved and favourite Canadian band has taken us on this summer.
But that word bittersweet... it isn't really enough. It doesn't say it all, not by a long shot. It doesn't explain the complex tangle of magical and melancholy; it doesn't really give light to the highs and lows, the pain and the pleasure, the joy and the infinite sadness that have taken hold of a nation of music lovers.
This past week has been a celebration of a man's life. It has been a sad farewell. It has been all things in between. And yet, still, I can't figure out how to tell you about it properly.
I know I've already written about a lot of this, but for purposes of this post, I guess I'll start at the beginning...
This past May, I - along with many across our great nation and beyond - was stunned and deeply sorry to hear the news that Gord Downie, 52-year-old frontman for the iconic Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip, had been diagnosed with Glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer for which there is no cure. The band released a statement saying they were going to dig deep and go on tour, despite the diagnosis and tough road ahead for Gord. While they've never said outright that it would be their last, everyone knew. This would be it. One last hurrah. One last opportunity to see a national treasure live. One last chance for Gord - our country's unofficial poet laureate, showman to the max - to strut his stuff for the fans who adore and revere him.
Tickets went on sale, and then disappeared in mere seconds. All of the shows sold out in the blink of an eye. Fans were upset. I was one of them. The Hip were the first band I became "obsessed" with; the first band I really fell in love with. I bought all their CDs, they were my first concert, and it broke my heart that I wasn't going to get to see them one last time.
Then the CBC announced they would be broadcasting their last show from their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, live and uninterrupted. I took solace in that. At least I'd get to see them, even if it was just through a TV screen.
But fate had a special surprise in store for me. Two weeks before the Ottawa show, my brother-in-law caught wind that more seats had been released for that August 18th concert. He suggested I try, because what did I have to lose? Sure enough, I was able to get 2 tickets. They were rear view seats in the nosebleeds, but I didn't care. I had tickets to The Hip's last show in Ottawa. I thought my head was going to explode. Seriously.
I will always hold the concert last Thursday in my heart as one of the most special days of my life. I brought my friend Lindsay with me. I was with her at her first Hip concert in Toronto years ago, and we also went to see them at Bluesfest a few summers back, so it only seemed fitting that we attend this last show together. We left work early, had dinner at one of our favourite restaurants, and then made our way to the Canadian Tire Center. The day had seemed to drag on painfully, but finally, the time had come.
Gord and the band stepped out on the stage a little past 8:30 to the wild roars of the crowd, and then they put on a show. Man, what a show. They started out in a tight grouping at center stage, a show of unity and brotherhood. I stood the moment they took the stage and did not sit down once. I didn't take a bathroom break, a beer run... I didn't want to miss one second of that momentous occasion. I didn't want to take my eyes off of him.
When they started with "Boots or Hearts", the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. One of my faves, right off the bat. Followed up with "Blow at High Dough", "Opiated", and "New Orleans is Sinking"... I could have gone home happy right there. It was amazing. Then they swung into a set of tunes from their new album, Man Machine Poem, and I was so thrilled I had bought that new album and immersed myself in it. The music was familiar, and they played some of my favourite tracks, including "What Blue" and "Machine".
Then they had their first intermission, and I felt panicky. Intermission already? But we just got started. This is going too fast... Way too fast...
I was already dreading the end, but trying to keep myself in the moment. The night continued with blocks of songs from their biggest albums. "Summer's Killing Us" seemed only appropriate. "Gus: The Polar Bear from Central Park", which had Gordie lumbering around the stage imitating a bear. "It Can't Be Nashville Every Night." "Greasy Jungle." "Nautical Disaster."
Then the tortured screams of "Grace Too". I can't even begin to describe it. The pain and the agony and the emotion that that man left on the stage... it was an incredible moment. A jarring moment.
It was the moment I realized this was all real.
I marveled at him, in his shiny flamboyant suits (we got green, silver, and gold), and his ridiculous hats with feathers that got bigger with each change. He was dancing. He was sweating like crazy. He was working it for the crowd just like he always has. Cracking little grins, putting on silly little performances, singing from his gut. A true performer, right til the end. He carried us through "Gift Shop" and "Springtime in Vienna", and then one of the most poignant moments of the night for me, "Ahead by a Century".
And disappointing you is getting me down...
No disappointment here, man. Not one little bit.
Gord gave us a little good-bye speech then. A thank you to the city for being their home away from home, to the people for always welcoming them to Ottawa, for letting them play here so many times over the years. He joked about the small crowds in the early days, and how he had to work hard personally to get the ladies to come out. My wish then was that I'd taken more of those opportunities to see them. Suddenly, seeing them only 4 times didn't seem like enough.
They played two encores. The first included the anthem "Courage (for Hugh McLennan)", and then my all-time favourite Hip song, the one I hoped above all hopes that they would play: "Wheat Kings". The arena went almost dark, but for a few lights on the stage, and we held up our cell phones, turning it into a modern-era starry night sky. It was pure magic. It was my moment.
They closed out that encore with "At the Hundredth Meridian", and then we got another farewell speech... this one a little less jokey, a little more serious. I fought back tears as he thanked us again, and told us to take care of one another.
When they returned to the stage one final time, they hit us with their classic "Bobcaygeon", and closed it out on a high note with "Poets". We stood and cheered, even after the lights went up, and we hoped that Gord and the boys felt our love; our deep appreciation for giving us this one last time. It couldn't have been any better.
But the end of that show wasn't the end. We still had The Tragically Hip Day coming up on Saturday, with the live broadcast on CBC from the last show in Kingston. I was torn during the week as to how to handle this day. I knew it would be another emotional one. Should I rally the troops and surround myself with emotional support? Or sit in my dark living room and cry alone? I ended up recruiting a few good friends to join me, and I was glad I did. We sat on the deck late afternoon and enjoyed beverages, snacks, and of course, some classic Hip tunes to get us geared up.
Just before 8:30, we moved inside and huddled around the TV in my living room. I was so happy then to have a few people with me. They kept things light. We joked about Johnny's hair being grey, and about the scarf around Gord's neck actually being socks (and indeed they were socks, "to keep the voice warm", as he explained at one point), and my desperately trying to show the girls how...er... large Rob's "package" (said in a French accent) really is.
The band churned out hit after hit after hit, but while I had marveled at Gord's energy and vibrancy on Thursday night, on this night I was noticing other things. He kept looking down - later, I realized, to read the teleprompter. He was forgetting the words to his own iconic songs. He was noticeably missing lines, and grimacing at his forgetfulness. And physically, he was looking more frail and stooped. Nobody cared, but suddenly, the toll his illness has taken on him became startlingly clear to me.
This is a man who is dying. It's not a sick, sad joke. He was gutting it out, gritting his teeth and digging deep to give his fans, his band, and his entire country, one last moment.
I am ever so grateful to him for that.
On this night, he acknowledged the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, in attendance. He made a plea for our country to figure out the mess with the Indigenous people up North. He again gave his thank you's, and his jokes. He blew kisses and flashed the peace sign. He mugged for the camera and danced and acted just like goofy ol' Gord.
He acted with pure and unabashed courage.
The precious moments were there too. More so than ever. He kissed his band mates on the lips. He hugged them close and leaned on them. At one time, he left the stage gripping Johnny's arm as if his life depended on him. When they came out for that unprecedented third encore, I thought, Dear God, please never let this end. But it did. It had to eventually. In the end, he stood arm in arm with his boys. He saluted the crowd. And he smiled.
It was a Canadian night like none other I have ever experienced before. The coming together of a nation for a rock show, one that we shall hold deep in hearts forever. They even paused the coverage of the Summer Olympics in Rio for this concert. They let us watch it in its entirety, in viewing parties across the nation. Our country stood still, held in this moment together, in a tribute to one man like nothing we have seen before.
I managed to keep it together for most of the show, almost all 3 hours of it, but it was during "Scared" that my tears finally did fall.
Yes, Gord, you have made us scared. I know you weren't prepared, but you had to. And yes, you really had us going there for a minute or two. You made us scared. You did what you set out to do.
I've got to go, it's been a pleasure doing business with you...
The pleasure was ours, sir.
The pleasure was all ours.
To donate to the Gord Downie Fund at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto, please visit: https://donate.sunnybrook.ca/braincancerresearch?gclid=Cj0KEQjw6O-9BRDjhYXH2bOb8Z4BEiQAWRduk4JcHsVtbtRGJ09IMHekWcGZ0Mj6RCzJebTcZVlAg_waAjNu8P8HAQ