Ever since the band released their new album “Man Machine Poem” in June I started thinking about writing something to go along with their upcoming tour. I’ve been writing little snippets here and there but ultimately it’s the day before the tour and I’m looking at a blank page. Everyone knows that The Hip is Canada’s band and everyone has had their own personal connections with their music, be it at the cottage, driving down the highway listening to “Road Apples” or having a drink in any bar ever across this country. So in honour of their farewell tour kicking off tomorrow I thought I’d share my story about The Tragically Hip.
I recently graduated from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario and actually ended up living around the corner from Rob Baker in my second year. That fact was one of the first things I learned when exploring the student ghetto. A friend and I were going for a walk and passing this house that didn’t quite fit with all the rest. It had round windows and looked like some strange modern art interpretation of a ship. That was when my friend stopped, grabbed my arm and said, “the guitar player from The Tragically Hip lives there and sometimes in the summer people see him playing guitar on the porch!” He spoke about him as if he were some mystical creature that only came out at night to strum sweet melodies under a blue moon. I thought this was absolutely ridiculous and unbelievable that he didn’t even live a block away from me! Being musicians ourselves we both just stood and stared at the house with stupid looks on our faces, eyes peeling over the recognizable swinging chair hoping he wasn’t watching us watching him. From that day on, anytime I walked home I’d crane my neck desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the iconic rock-star. I never did. He’s an elusive long haired man.
I went to Kingston liking The Hip, courtesy of my brother, and knowing all of their famous songs. I’d say I was a fan but certainly not a big one. That all changed living in the city; its their hometown and it cultivates your interest until it’s a full blown obsession. They live and breath The Tragically Hip; there’s even a road named after the band and, once you spend a little time there, the dedication, pride and love for their homegrown heroes rubs off on you. Walking down Princess Street there’s a good chance you’ll hear The Hip playing from a restaurant, clothing store, coffee shop or blaring from someone’s apartment window. They become apart of the soundtrack to your life and you get so used to it that you don’t realize it until you leave.
The very first Hip song I ever heard was “Wheat Kings.” My brother and I were driving and I distinctly remember hearing this abrupt loon call that transformed into this beautiful guitar melody and then a voice that was unlike anything I had ever heard; slightly unconventional but uniquely appropriate singing about “wheat kings and pretty things.” Years later my brother and I were on a road-trip to Northern Ontario and our truck broke down in the middle of this one horse town. We were stranded and had to stay the night so we made these blanket forts in the truck cabin and sat there getting drunk to “Wheat Kings” singing at the top of our lungs. We wanted adventure, it wasn’t what we expected but it was an adventure nonetheless. That’s what Hip songs do, they help make memories, encourage nostalgia and then cement them into history forever through art and music. A Canadian summer really isn’t quite summer unless you’ve sat by a body of water listening to The Tragically Hip. Their music tells stories about real places (Sarnia, Algonquin Park, Toronto, Kingston, Sault Ste. Marie, Newfoundland, I can actually keep going, but I won’t), real people (Bill Barilko, Jacques Cartier, David Milgaard, Bobby Orr, Hugh MacLennan, The Mounties, etc.) and about what it means to be a real Canadian.
When I had heard the news that Gord had fallen ill I was upset and when I heard it wasn’t something he could come back from I was devastated. I sat back and watched as the nation poured out their hearts to someone they didn’t know personally, but someone who had inspired them. Someone who had connected with them on a deeper level then just everyday face to face communication. His lyrics connect with our heart and soul. He’s an artist, a poet, a man, a machine and he uses his gift to tell stories that create a kinship with his fellow Canadians.
The new album is experimental and artistic and this tour will be talked about forever. We hurt together for his family, for his friends, for his bandmates and for the memories we’ve made with them. There’s an unavoidable underlying sadness that is ready to explode but while we wait there’s the opportunity to witness one of most iconic Canadian bands hit the stage one last time. Whether you are lucky enough to be there or you watch it from home, make sure you are present for this unforgettable experience.
Thank you Gord Downie, Paul Langois, Rob Baker, Johnny Fay and Gord Sinclair. It’s kind of impossible for you guys to take an outsiders perspective and see the impact you’ve made on Canadians of past and future generations, but let me tell you, it’s huge.