We Canadians are proud of our homegrown talents. Whether they be actors, musicians, athletes, or any other form of occupation a human can endeavor for greatness in, we cheer on our sons and daughters with pride. But there’s something different about The Tragically Hip. They’re not Canadian in the sense that they were born here, they’re Canadian because that’s who they are; it’s part of the fabric of their being. Just as much, they have become a part of who Canada is.
We Canadians are stereotypically generous; we’re like that kid on the playground that always shared their toys with everyone. We cheer as our artists tour the world. But in the case of the Hip it’s different: they’re ours. I remember in ’95 when Dan Aykroyd, wearing a delightfully tacky Canada t-shirt and a huge smirk, introduced the US to The Hip on Saturday Night Live. As a nation we watched, excited for them to get this breakthrough opportunity, but also afraid that someone had found our secret toy. Americans took no notice, and we all looked at each other and said, “It’s better for us if they don’t understand.”
We kept our toy. A friend told me of a bar in Edinburgh where Canadian expats routinely gather every night and sing “Wheat Kings” at the top of their lungs as a way to feel closer to home. Once, sitting in a bar in LA after touring the Sunset Strip, I found myself settled down for one last pint when Gord’s voice came on the speakers. My buddy and I started singing until we remembered where we were. I asked the bartender who was playing the track, and he smiled and said he was from Montreal, and liked to throw it on at the end of the night. We ended up chatting ‘til closing time and realizing we knew a lot of the same people. That moment would’ve never happened if The Hip weren’t our band.
If you’re traveling and want to find out if there are any fellow Canadians in the place, just throw The Hip on the jukebox and scan the room for moving lips. It’s our calling card. And Gord Downie is theirs. He’s as enigmatic a frontman as you’ll ever find. You’re never sure what Gord will do on stage. He’s a character that will never be duplicated.
So, like many Canadians, I was shocked and saddened to hear the news of Gord’s illness as a late-breaking story on the CBC. It was like waking up to the news that Tim Horton’s was discontinuing the “double-double.” It was like finding out that the NHL is going to stop playing games on Saturday night.
The world has been taking away talented musicians at a prodigious rate lately, but we’re presented with a special opportunity here. Rather than celebrate his life after he’s gone, we get to celebrate it with him. We get to say goodbye. Why make such a private affair public? How many musicians share their struggles with their fans? Not many. But maybe it’s because, to Gord, Canadians aren’t just fans, we’re his family. You don’t keep that kind of news from family.
Now we begin holding hands and loosening our grip on good ol’ Gord. This “For Gord” tour they’re embarking on is going to be cathartic. We’ll be watching our national treasure move before us, knowing it’s the last time. He told us we can’t be fond of living in the past, but that’s going to be hard, isn’t it? To the take on this tour makes courage his word and our word. It’ll come.
I watched my family as my uncle was diagnosed with brain cancer. He was given six months to live, and from that day he held on for seven years. I asked him how he did it and how he kept a smile on his face. He told me it was family; it was seeing his children grow up and the love he was surrounded with.
Well Gord, your family is 35 million strong. We will sing your songs and we will cheer. This country will never let you die, no matter what the doctors say, no matter what your body says. When you do eventually pass, the final star might finally reveal itself in Bobcaygeon , but we’re in no rush. The sky is brighter with you amongst us.
“I hear your voice across a frozen lake, a voice from the end of a leaf saying, “You won’t die of a thousand fakes or be beaten by the sweetest of dekes.” Keep your stick on the ice, Gord.
Written by Richard Brunette
*edited by Kate Erickson