Confronting death with music, determination, and grace, too.
It’s hard to think of a band that embodies Canada more than The Tragically Hip.
They write about our small towns, about our strange little histories, about love and politics and nature and culture and everything in between. There are even two guys named Gordon — anecdotally agreed to be the most Canadian name — in the band.
They’ve played together for 33 years, released 16 albums, won more than a dozen awards and sold out stadiums in Canada year after year after year.
Outside of their home country, most people don’t know they exist.
There’s a popular theory that at least part of the reason for this is that whenever The Hip played shows in America, expat Canadians would buy up all the tickets. Maybe that’s true. Canadians share a lot of stuff with our southern neighbors — some of it we’re intermittently sorry about — but The Hip is ours.
So when Gord Downie — The Tragically Hip’s lead singer and Canada’s unofficial poet laureate — was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Canadians were crushed.
But Downie knew exactly what he wanted to do with the time he had left.
For four weeks, he and his band toured across Canada. They played 15 shows, one every two days, traveling across the country from British Columbia to their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. It’s a place where, as Downie joked during the concert, they played their first three shows ever for audiences of 14, 28, and six people, respectively.
On Aug. 20, 2016, The Hip played their final show live for a stadium audience of 6,700 people — including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Thousands filled the Kingston Town Square and other public viewing places across the country. Around laptops and TVs, Canadians gathered together to watch our national band play one last show — decades before we expected they ever would.
To give you a sense of how important this band is to Canada: An estimated 11.7 million people watched the concert on TV or via web live-stream. That’s one-third of Canada’s population.
So if you only know three people from Canada, one of them was watching The Tragically Hip on Aug. 20 — and the other two probably spent the next few days fielding questions about why they weren’t.
The Tragically Hip’s final show was nearly three hours long. They did three encores, something Downie acknowledged as a first for the band. “We’re in uncharted waters,” he quipped, taking the stage for the fourth and final time. They played “Ahead by a Century,” one of their most famous songs, one last time. Downie thanked Canada, then left the stage. Maybe forever.
As much as this concert was about the music, it was also about saying goodbye and the grief that comes with it.
In a year where music fans have said goodbye to the once-in-a-generation talents of David Bowie and Prince, it’s hard to comprehend the loss of yet another important musician.
Like Gord Downie, David Bowie knew his end was coming. Bowie chose to die in private. His final album, “Blackstar,” is a thoughtful goodbye albeit one that arrived only days before he passed. By the time fans started to comprehend its meaning, he was already gone.
Downie is doing the opposite, dying in full view of the millions of fans who love him. We are grieving this loss in real time, together, with all the rawness that comes with it.
How you choose to end your life — should you get that chance — is deeply personal.
Canada cannot keep Gord Downie forever. No matter how hard crowds clap for one more encore, the band cannot always play on.
But we can gather and sing and celebrate music that’s become part of our national story, and we can thank the man who made it and honor the contribution he and his music have made to the soundtrack of our lives.
So on that Saturday night, that’s what we did. Thank you, Gord, for everything.