Escape Is At Hand For The Travellin’ Man
Gord Downie, The Tragically Hip and Turning 40
Yesterday morning, Gord Downie — the frontman of Canadian heroes The Tragically Hip — let the world know that he had terminal brain cancer. A reckless dancer and incredibly prolific/clever/sharp lyricist, Downie also announced something that might seem puzzling but is actually perfect; the Hip would be touring one more time this year.
You know how there are people who Mean Something™ to you? You know how there are friends who, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve talked, your love and loyalty and attachment never fades? You know how suddenly it’s been 18 years since one of your favorite memories happened and it can’t possibly have been that long ago, but it most definitely is?
Chris Nilsson taught me about the Hip in 1994. While I was mixing mud and slinging bricks in Moab, he had spent the summer after high school working in Glacier National Park. Proximity to the Great White North had led to interactions with some predictably affable Canadians. And, well, all good Canadians spread the frantic blues-rock gospel of the Hip. So, bestowed with a copy of Day For Night and a mix-tape that included a song that became both an all-time favorite and a long-running joke about many of our friends (38 Years Old), Chris furthered the truth. Most people ignored him. Most of North America ignored the Hip, after all, so it only made sense that our circle of friends in small-town Utah would turn a deaf ear to our oddball rock heroes. But I listened. I listened to all of it.
We wore out Day For Night. Our minds were blown when the band showed up on SNL (Dan Aykroyd was the host!). Then there was Trouble at the Henhouse and the album I’m listening to right now, Phantom Power. We knew that the Hip toured constantly, we’d just never seen a publicized stop anywhere south of, say, Missoula. It sounds ridiculous now, but in 1998 finding out when a Canadian band might be in your neck of the woods wasn’t super easy. But it happened. October 24, 1998. Denver, Colorado. We put tickets on Chris’s mom’s American Express (man, we put so many things on that card… I probably still owe her money for some conga drums or a snowboard or something). We borrowed a green Honda Accord (reliable!) and drove across I-70 to Denver.
If we had a plan, it sure didn’t feel like it. The show was Saturday night, but we arrived on Friday. I remember buying a bundle of firewood at a 7–11, then driving around until we found one of those weird suburban campgrounds. Not a KOA, but a KOA. We slept under the stars. We nearly froze. For breakfast, we shared Hostess Donettes and drank some leftover Mtn Dew. Eventually, we wandered back into the city. Fish tacos for lunch. Yeah. Fish tacos in Denver—because, really, why not?
We were just a few blocks from Lodo Music Hall—a place now known as the Summit Music Hall—so we decided to give the place a look. Our hope was merely to get a sense for how many Canadian transplants might join us in a few hours, but as we walked by… A band was playing. Sound check. The door was cracked. We opened it. Instead of slamming it in our faces, someone pulled it open and invited us in.
We stood at the back of the hall and watched the Tragically Hip tear through four or five songs. Fireworks. Membership. It couldn’t be real, could it? Grace, Too. We talked to some wives. The band’s manager asked where we were from and if we wanted to meet the band?! We did. Of course, we did. Most of them walked off the stage and left through a side door, but not Gord Downie. He spent five minutes making small talk with us. He asked about Chris’s t-shirt (Hans Christian Andersen!) and graciously posed for a few photos.
Things like this never happen. Except when they do.
We arrived hours early that night. Staked out a place three feet from the stage. Lost our minds. Took the kinds of artistic photos that college kids take. Grabbed the setlist when the roadies offered it up. Bought t-shirts. Grabbed stacks of free stickers. Slept in a roadside motel for $28. Drove home the next day with the stupidest grins on our faces. Never stopped talking about it. Still haven’t stopped talking about it.
In seven days, I turn 40. Chris did the same last week. Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. It really happens, doesn’t it? Even when you feel like time is a flat circle and the things that occurred 18 years ago could have occurred this morning… It happens. If we’re lucky, it keeps happening. If we’re lucky, we keep getting older, we blow out some more candles then eat another cake. If we’re lucky, we don’t have terminal brain cancer.
The idea of a road trip to see the Tragically Hip’s last tour is both completely exhausting (we’re old!) and completely exhilarating (we can be young again!). That’s the way it should be, right? Maybe there’s no better way to celebrate our mortality, to serenade our aging bodies, than to spend a few hours with a man who has given us everything we’ve ever needed.
We hung around ‘til the final band
Called “Escape Is At Hand For The Travellin Man”
You yelled in my ear this music speaks to me
They launched into “Lonely From Rock And Roll”
Followed by “They Checked Out An Hour Ago”
Closing with “All Desires Turn Concrete”
Those melodies come back to me
At times beyond our heartbeat
I guess I’m too slow, yes, I’m too, yes, I’m too slow
You said any time of the day was fine
You said any time of the night was also fine
See you soon, Gord. Godspeed.