My upbringing didn’t include the Tragically Hip. So how could this band define who I am?
The answer came on a warm summer Saturday night in Montreal – all at once.
I’ve been playing in cover bands for years now, and among the hundreds of songs we’ve played in those bands, I hadn’t heard or played a song by The Hip until I moved to Canada. Then, it clicked.
Soul and hook and depth and jam and groove and guitars and presence … and story: oh, the stories they tell!
Songs like Blowing High Dough, New Orleans is Sinking, and Little Bones captured me. Jamming these tunes on cold winter nights in warm crowded basements with guys who grew up with this music, I could feel how much it meant to them. It was powerful.
Then came the news that Gord Downie, The Hip’s frontman, was diagnosed with brain cancer. Prognosis: 4-5 years at best. And, at his wish, the band would tour Canada one last time.
I would have loved to attend this tour, but I knew that “real” fans, natives, needed to attend way before I did. Instead, I joined our neighbourhood’s annual summer street festival which simulcast The Hip’s final show, live from Kingston, Ontario, on a 50-foot-wide screen in Montreal.
There were about 2,000 people crowding the street a half-block away from my house, all scrunched into a one-block area. It was difficult to hold your spot in the crowd because people kept pouring in as showtime approached and wedging their way into the area in view of the screen. Soon it was shoulder-to-shoulder.
During the first five minutes as the Gord and The Hip walked on stage, the crowd in Kingston, in Montreal, and across the country (I could just feel it ) were roaring in appreciation for the 30 years of music this band had given them.
One of my friends describe the first few minutes of The Hip show he had attended about 20 years ago: Gord had his eyes closed from the time the spotlight hit him through the third song of the show, entranced, swaying and dancing in place. From then, he was wide-eyed and afire with dance, movement and storytelling.
At this, his final show, he walked on stage with eyes bright, making contact with as many people in the crowd as he could in those first roaring minutes. Scanning the crowd, almost person to person, sometimes nodding to acknowledge individuals. And as the band began to play, every person sang every word. Normally, I would have felt out of place, not knowing a majority of the music or lyrics, but the support I felt from this crowd embraced me as if to say, “If you’re here and you’re happy, then you’re one of us. You are welcome here.”
Next to me was a group of four 20-somethings, singing and dancing, happy and also sad. Though I was alone, I didn’t feel out of place next to them. It was fun to watch them experience this night. After the first four songs, predictably, my beer ran low. Over the next few minutes, I eyed the beer stand about 30-feet away, but wouldn’t think of going alone as it would mean my valuable spot on the street would be gobbled up by this growing crowd.
Then I noticed my neighbours were in the same situation. Low on Molson. In need of a beer run. I had an idea.
“Hi,” I said to the woman next to me. “You guys thinking about a beer run?”
“Yeah,” she said. “Not sure how we’re gonna do that.” It was going to take a while to weave through a crowd and back. Surely, they’d miss a few songs in the process.
“What if I go to the stand and got your beers for your group,” I asked, “and in return, you hold my spot? ‘Cause I want to go, too, but I’m afraid I’ll lose my spot if I walk away.”
Her face it up. She handed me some money, and I was off. Getting through the crowd, plus waiting to be served, and getting back took a good 20 minutes. But I was able to deliver four Molsons plus one for myself (not easy in such a boisterous mob).
After I handed her the beers, and change, she smiled with relief that their experience had gone uninterrupted, said thanks and then, “That was very Canadian of you.”
I smiled. What a compliment! One act of giving to a stranger and I’m a friendly. “I’m American,” I replied. Her mouth opened in an ‘ohhh….wha?’ and she nudged her friends saying, “He’s American.”
“ ‘Ray!” they cheered, raising their cups, and we all continued on with the show. No more words shared, no more beers needed as the band took us on an amazing trip that night.
Now, in Gord’s passing, I’ve learned what kind of a man he was, beyond his life and persona in the band. He was a giver, a lover of life, and a kind-hearted friend who always made time to be with and act in support of his friends and family, including his fans. I also understood just how deeply The Tragically Hip not only represented but embodied, the characteristics of this entire country. They were considered Canada’s house band for a reason.
“There’s something about a real good, straight ahead rock band you can hear playing in a bar somewhere,” said Canadian writer Stephen Brunt during CTV’s documentary Long Time Running. “There’s an honesty in what they do, and then you put this crazy poet in front of them. I don’t know if that’s Canadian, but I’d like it to be,”
A crazy poet, a voice for social justice, and a vocal challenger of Canada’s government to do more for its people, Gord Downie took his role seriously. His kindness, openness, and accessibility and as a nationwide star certainly exemplifies the traits of Canadians I’ve met.
People here are warm, friendly, chatty, and happy. To be labeled among Canadians based only on my actions is a delight I carry with me today, and I had to share, even though my intent was serving my own needs as well as theirs.
Here in Canada, I see a lot of people helping each other. It’s a great vibe.
To be called “Canadian” during Canada’s most meaningful night really touched me. To be among that crowd, experiencing that concert – I’ll never forget it. And now, more than ever, I understand what it means to be called Canadian.
PHOTO CREDITS: Crowd photo – CBC.com. Gord Downie photo – Global News