No Dress Rehearsal, This is Our Life

I most associate the music of The Tragically Hip with long drives across Ontario and straight through the heart of my childhood. True to Canadian form, these memories are of the summer and winter variety, all cornfields and tall grass and snow squalls flying by, out the window, here and gone. So it is that my earliest recollections of their songs are infused with the sounds of the highway, the sounds of my family as we rolled across the province’s flat stretches of pine and rock. As I took in Canada and its hardscrabble countryside, another vision of the nation found its way in, via the words of Gord Downie. Before I was even old enough to truly understand, he was offering me clues as to what it might mean to be a modern Canadian. Beyond the actual meaning of his lyrics was an unmistakable feeling and the poetic irreverence of his storytelling would stay with me, emerging years later as I began my own personal search for the elusive Canadian identity. But what really remains are those early memories, the music of The Tragically Hip sewn seamlessly into a flying backdrop of Canadian landscapes, Mum and Dad up front and my brothers by my side. This is what I associate most with the music of The Tragically Hip.

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Last night, Canadians at home and abroad tuned in to bear witness to what very well could be the last concert ever played by The Hip. News of Gord’s terminal brain cancer cut the nation off at the knees, and so the CBC’s decision to broadcast the final show of the recent Man Machine Poem tour in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario had fans bracing for what would surely be a gut-wrenching and triumphant send-off.

What does it really mean to watch a national hero say goodbye in the most profound sense of the word? How do we navigate the uncharted waters of witnessing a man’s farewell to his art, his comrades, his country, his life in real-time? These are the fundamental questions raised by last night’s show as, ultimately, we as a nation were granted privileged access to a man’s personal confrontation with mortality. Every note, every lyric, every gesture was pregnant with the truth of Gord’s grappling with life and death. And that was his gift to give, perhaps the single greatest artistic gesture of his time in this world. Because at the innermost centre of the artistic struggle — far beneath the noise and flash of aesthetics and style — is the fundamental conflict between life and death. It is from this elemental duel that all else proceeds. And to put this most primal, vital battle on display as the culmination of a life’s work, to offer it up as a thank you and goodbye, can only be the purest action an artist can undertake.

This is what Gord gave us last night. He revealed with poise and grace the truth of mortality and human frailty. He upheld the music as a measure of his life and times and, most importantly of all, gave it to us to cherish one last night. Together. And maybe all we can really offer Gord in return is a humble thank you. And maybe the best way to say thank you would be to continue allowing the music to shape our memories and understanding of a country Gord worked so hard to set down in his art. Maybe that is enough.

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And somewhere, here, there, I am a child and I am with my family as The Tragically Hip plays on the stereo and we are driving home through Canada and this moment will last forever.

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