A few weeks back, upon learning of Gord Downie’s illness and The Tragically Hip‘s Man Machine Poem Tour most likely being their last, I wrote a piece about what the band means to Canada, suggesting that these final shows would be a sort of catharsis for Canada. I knew it would be a profound event, but I honestly had no clue how huge it would be.
The event was viewed by an estimated 12 million Canadians; that’s second only to the game that gave us Sidney Crosby’s golden goal. It even beat out the most recent gold medal game where we sent Sweden packing to the “silver”-ware section at Ikea.
People gathered in squares, parks, bars- wherever it was possible to gather people, in order to watch it together. People flocked to Kingston just to watch outside the arena. The event was streamed in bars across the world that filled with Canadian expats. One bar in New York City had a lineup around the block, confusing locals.
People watched in amazement as the band delivered an almost three-hour ultimate performance. I’m not going to comment on the show itself, other than to say “Fiddler’s Green” haunted me to the core. If you’re reading this, you probably watched it and have discussed it over and over. What I want to discuss is the phenomenon that the event was.
I went to the store Sunday morning with the Hip blasting on my car stereo and people on the sidewalk cheered. One guy crossing the street at a red light started belting out “Wheat Kings” as he walked by. It was still in the air, lingering.
Think of it. Three hours, with one third of the population watching, and not one bit of commercial airtime was sold by the CBC or the band. That represents millions upon millions in revenue tossed aside. No “Tragically Hip brought to you by Canadian Tire.” Not a single commercialization of the event. It wouldn’t seem Canadian to do so.
The Prime Minister was there wearing a Hip t-shirt. What other band can say the leader of their country was there cheering them on in their t-shirt?
Gord Downie said “fuck” live on the CBC… multiple times. Wayne Gretzky doesn’t get to say it. Don Cherry doesn’t, even though you know he really wants to sometimes. Jean Chretien was a beloved leader for a decade, and he didn’t get to say it. A lot of people said it at the TV when Stephen Harper was on, but that’s different.
In the end, we all wept. A nation simultaneously watched in awe with tears rolling down, partly due to sadness that the iconic band was leaving us, and partly due to joy for the memories they gave us. We all have Hip stories. We all have a Hip song that reminds us of that moment and that place. And together, we relived it all simultaneously. Every campfire singalong. Every road trip. That time you heard the Hip in a bar in L.A. and found out your bartender was from Montreal. That night in Toronto. That bar in Scotland where you gathered with other expats to sing “Wheat Kings” every Sunday. The night you stayed up with your buddy til sunrise listening to Trouble at the Henhouse the day it was released, listening to the intricacies of every track and dissecting the lyrics. You need to call that guy. All these memories came flooding back to us all night.
Catharsis complete. We now all have one memory of the Hip that is truly collective. You’ll always remember where you watched that show. You’ll remember those standing beside you and the twelve million others who were singing along with you, how your voices rang with that Canadian twang.
Thanks Gord, Gord, Johnny, Paul and Rob.
Written by Richard Brunette
*edited by Kate Erickson