Understanding That Night in Kingston
In which I sit silently and listen to my thoughts.
Part 1: They shot a movie once in my hometown…
A few hours before the The Tragically Hip’s Kingston show, a show suspected to be their last ever, I had the following conversation:
“What do you think the ratings numbers will be for the CBC broadcast?”
“I bet half the country tunes in at some point. What else is there to watch, anyway?”
The band’s all-consuming tour was such that, in certain parts of Canada, they were able to completely dwarf an quadrennial event which totally dominates the rest of the world. I thought I understood The Tragically Hip’s prominence in Canadian culture, but I was totally unprepared for the flood of media coverage of The Hip’s last tour. The band is as ubiquitous as anything in Canada; their music has been part of the soundtrack of life on car radios, in cottages, in coffee shops, at open mics, at karaoke nights, around summer camp fires, and in winter basements. Their omnipresence can be played up for laughs, but its a laugh of recognition.
The first Tragically Hip song I remember listening to is Blow at High Dough. The metronomic drums, the simple bass line, some guitar harmonics, and then the memorable first line “They shot a movie once in my hometown, everybody was in it for miles around”. Then Rick Mercer would show up and the episode would begin. The show’s title was almost beyond parody: Made in Canada.
The band’s sheer cultural dominance within Canada had a quickening effect on the reaction to their Man Machine Poem tour, widely believed to be their last ever. The reaction was if someone had announced that there would be no more rain after August 20th, or that the force of gravity was being cancelled. No one ever imagined a world without rain, and The Tragically Hip were a universal constant a physicist would have to account for in any Theory of Everything they cared to devise.
Kingston’s local rock station, K-Rock 105.7, has played a Tragically Hip song at 5:00 PM for as long as I can remember. The segment is called “Heading home with The Hip.” In the week leading up to August 20th, you couldn’t go anywhere without The Hip. I’ve been trying to figure out why.
Part 2: Don’t tell me what the poets are doing…
From a musical perspective, The Tragically Hip are good. Their production and sound mixing is excellent, and as a live unit, they’re well rehearsed and tight. Still, they’ve never demonstrated the technical virtuosity of a band like Rush. They don’t write perfect The Four Minute Rock Songs the same way Bachman Turner Overdrive did. They’re not as folk as Gordon Lightfoot. Try to introduce The Tragically Hip to the uninitiated, and they’ll correctly say that the band is decent or fine or good, but they still won’t get it. You can appreciate The Hip as a rock band (their riffs are good!), but going under the hood of their songs is what is truly rewarding.
Take a song like Wheat Kings. Musically speaking, it could not be more simple. It is essentially a two chord song. The verse alternates between the I chord and the IV chord, while the chorus briefly touches on the V chord. It’s the sort of song one could write after their first guitar lesson. Yet, Wheat Kings is one of the songs I describe as “perfect”, a song so good, that if I wrote it, I’d stop writing music because I’d know I’d never write something better. It’s a remarkable song. It’s about a man falsely convicted of murder. The lyrics rhyme “rusty breezes” with “weather vane Jesus”. The song’s lyricism: “Sundown in The Paris of the Prairies”. The song’s imagery: “…the walls are lined all yellow, grey and sinister, Hung with pictures of our parents’ prime ministers…” The simplicity of the music is a counterpoint to the depth of the writer’s rage at the injustice of it all. The result is a four minute and nineteen second novella of a song. I can hardly handle how good that song is, but the factors that make that song great are hardly unique within The Hip’s canon.
Good songwriters have an economy of prose that I find mystifying. I am a terrible songwriter. Maybe you have already noticed this, but I do not possess the brevity required to write great poetry. It is cliche to say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but a great songwriter can invoke the image those thousand words represent with seven.
The subjects of The Hip’s lyrics are as diverse as the locations in which their songs are played. Fiddler’s Green is a song about loss, Fifty Mission Cap is a song about hockey legend, Fireworks is really just a song about life. I’m not entirely sure what Little Bones is about, but I’m pretty sure it’s just about a dive bar. Is a song like Bobcaygeon more meaningful to me because of the times I’ve left a girl’s house early in the morning and taken a long drive home along the 401? Has everyone done that, or is that song written for me? The Tragically Hip tapped into the shared experiences of Canadians in a way that few other bands do, and their ubiquity is such that the act of listening to their music is itself a shared experience.
Even the band itself is shared. My aunt lived with Rob Langois’ sister while attending Queen’s University. Of course this meant she met the band. Fully Completely had just been released when she met the intrepid Englishman who would later become her husband. They’ve seen the band together four times. My friend Krystyna went to high school with the band and refers to them as her friends, because they are. Rob Baker is often seen frequenting my favourite bar two blocks away from my Kingston apartment. Everyone has a Hip story.
You see, if The Tragically Hip are considered an integral part of Canada’s national identity, it’s because a set of shared references and experiences is probably as good a definition of a national identity as any. This is Gord Downie’s doing. Ask yourself what separates the band from any other group of good musicians, and it’s Gord Downie’s voice, and Gord Downie’s writing. He is irreplaceable, and the fact that we all know this has made all the difference during this tour.
Part 3: Watch the band through a bunch of dancers…
Everything you need to know about Kingston, Ontario is that the three dominant institutions within its city limits are universities, prisons, and the military. Kingston’s location two and a half hours from Toronto makes it the perfect place for a well-off high school graduate to attend a post-secondary institution. Kingston is inconvenient enough to get to that one need not worry about unexpected parental intrusions, but close enough to home that returning to the nest for Thanksgiving or Christmas is not a great chore. The city’s blue collar permanent residents are constantly in the midst of a cold war with Queen’s University’s bourgeois student diaspora. I suspect only Kingston could have produced The Tragically Hip. The band’s unsophisticated rock riffs and hoser poetry are reflection of the inclinations of their hometown. For their last show, their hometown naturally came out in droves.
Every Kingston establishment was drenched in Hiply sentiment. Signs reading “In Gord We Trust” graced bar windows. Restaurant chalkboards read “Gord, Rob, Gord, Johnny, and Paul eat here!”. Kingston’s newspaper of record, The Kingston Whig-Standard, changed its name to The Kingston Hip-Standard. Coffee shops sold Tragically Drip Coffee. The level of hero worship on display was almost unseemly, but the scale of the crowds which came to the downtown core to take in the show seemed to make it appropriate.
I tried to get a ticket to the show. You see, I am the worst sort of casual fan, the kind who would hear of a Hip tour and think “Ah, I’ll see them next time.” Suddenly, there wasn’t going to be a next time. After my efforts to acquire tickets on the primary market yielded no results, I wrestled with my conscience and bank account before deciding that I would spend up to the amount of a trans-Atlantic plane ticket to get into the building. My friend, Mackenzie, reported that tickets outside the final Toronto show were going for $350, and that price didn’t come down once the show started. Tickets to the Kingston show were going for no less than $1000 on Stubhub. Therefore, I expected to get priced out of the secondary market. What I didn’t expect was that there was no secondary market. At 4 PM, a man was wandering aimlessly at the corner of King St. and The Tragically Hip Way (AKA Kingston’s Royalty District) barking “Tickets! Tickets! Who is selling tickets?”. At 7 PM, he was still there. There was not a scalper to be found. The show was for fans only, and no fan was selling a thing. I would take in the show via the CBC broadcast, just like the rest of the country minus the 6,700 people whose tickets could not be valued in mere financial terms.
Part 4: And lower me slowly and sadly and properly, get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy…
If the person who takes The Tragically Hip from good to transcendent is Gord Downie, it is coldly logical that, in a parallel vein, the thing that provided the impetus for the tour and the outpouring of emotion and sentiment before the show would be Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer diagnosis. That the person responsible for imbuing The Hip with their inherent Hipness would be first to leave this party called life was uniquely cruel.
On stage, the band’s interpersonal dynamics are not hard to determine. Paul Langois and Rob Baker play the guitar, Gord Sinclair plays the bass, Johnny Fay plays the drums, and Gord Downie plays the crowd. Insofar as a musical performance could ever be considered heroic, Gord’s last show was the stuff of legend. He preened and strutted in front of the crowd, he mugged, he pulled faces, he pretended to get knocked over by his own mic stand, he used his microphone as a pantomime fishing rod, he wept, and he sang until he had nothing left to give. He sang his own songs whose subjects were life, and he read the lyrics off teleprompters that were essentially the physical embodiments of his own mortality. I can barely think about the lyrics “I got to go, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you” without weeping. How did Gord sing them? I may never know. A day later, I’m still struggling to comprehend it all. None of us are for this Earth for very long, but how many of us get to place our own capstone on our life’s work? It’s a privilege granted only to a few, and the price to be paid for it is dire.
In the Square (and I’d imagine in the arena), the show was a two and a half hour coming together of humanity that was like nothing I’ve ever been a part of. It was part living wake, part celebration, part appreciation, part culmination, and completely unrestrained. At one point, the sound from the broadcast cut out. The crowd simply sang the lyrics until it returned. No new ground was being staked; everyone was visiting familiar territory for the last time. The band was tight as ever, and through it all, Gord Downie was irrepressible, resplendent in lamé suits, full of emotion, and full of love for the crowd and his friends. He used his platform to draw attention to the cruel history of Canada’s indigenous population and to express his hope that Justin Trudeau will follow through on his pledge to repair the ongoing injustices. If the show was propelled by the imminent prospect of tragedy, we should all aspire to meet it so fully. This one thing doesn’t have to go away.