Gord Downie’s Two Solitudes

I didn’t like The Hip at first. I liked Guns N’ Roses because my older sister liked Guns N’ Roses, and the singles from Fully Completely were being pitted against November Rain on MuchMusic’s Combat des Clips. I was only 11 but I knew that the Hip weren’t cool.

I’m 33 now and I still know the Hip aren’t cool, but at some point I started to like them. A little at first, and then a lot. I bought cassettes that turned into CDs that turned into mp3s. I saw them live a bunch of times, camping out for tickets in the days before virtual robots made that obsolete. I wore their t-shirts until they shredded. I got older, and my tastes changed, but a lot of the things I know about liking a band I figured out with the Hip. There’s a server somewhere, still running, that stores hundreds of my posts to a Tragically Hip usenet newsgroup. I’ve read them, and I don’t sound very cool.

You already know why Gord Downie and the Hip are in the news. He’s dying, apparently soon, and the band is touring Canada’s hockey arenas for an encore. The eulogies, being written in real time, share a common sense of shock and sadness, but they also pivot around the same thing that’s followed every mention of the band since they hitchhiked out of Kingston: they’re Canadian. The near-mythical Canadianness of The Hip is long-established, apparently because Canadian place-names dot the lyrical geography of their songs, or because they famously missed the net every time they had a shot at recognition south of the border (SNL, Woodstock ’99, your older brother’s college roommate making mix-CDs for his girlfriend from Philadelphia). They were proud of being from Canada, the logic goes, so they could never make it in The States.

The Canadianness of their concerts is just as legendary. Baseball caps and bad beer. Fights. 20,000 charged up bros-before-they-were-called-bros, fist pumping to FM radio blues-rock chug. These were the fans that booed the Rheostatics! THE RHEOSTATICS!

But this is the band that picked The Rheostatics as their support. And Hayden, and By Divine Right (with a young Leslie Feist on bass), and Eric’s Trip. This is the band that wrote a hit song featuring a passage, excerpted in its entirity, from Hugh MacLennan’s The Watch that Ends the Night. The eulogies might reduce the Hip’s Canadianness to a listicle of small towns name-checked in various songs, but that’s not what’s earned Gord Downie a summer of mourning.

In a country connected by just one highway and the fact that we aren’t Americans, the Hip are a band that looks like your uncles and sounds like the drive to your cottage and reads like your first year CanLit class. They’re the bro and the poet. The kid on a hockey scholarship to a good university.

In a country that is suddenly hip, The Hip are comfortingly not.