Canadian Gods: Dispatches From Hip Nation

I grew up in the era of The Tragically Hip as local boys. A garage band. A bar band. A new discovery. Their rocket lit for stardom and they became the biggest thing in Canada.

Their music painted the backdrop of my generation of Canadians, and last night, at their final concert, of what is expected to be their final tour, “the boys,” came home and were welcomed as gods.

I have a confession to make: I don’t really know their music. Yeah, I’ve hummed it in my subconscious for decades, we all have, but I couldn’t have named a song and paired it with lyrics. They’re not on my playlists. And their last concert was my first.

Nonetheless, I was in the square last night. Everyone was. I do mean everyone. Not a hotel room is open in the entire city of Kingston, if reports are to be believed. And whoever predicted 25,000 people flooding downtown for the block party seriously underestimated. We were not there, the super fans side by side with the musically apathetic, to hear a concert. We were there to give thanks, to pay homage, and to say farewell.

Anyone who knows anything about The Hip was touched by the news of Gord Downie’s terminal brain cancer, when he made the announcement in May. #gordstrong became the hashtag of solidarity, #ingordwetrust a rallying cry. Their decision to follow through with their full tour for their new, and last, album, Man Machine Poem galvanized their fans and they’ve played to sold out crowds across Canada this summer.

I wandered the streets with my high school friend yesterday afternoon and remembered all of the reasons I love this town, the original capital of Canada. Of all the places we’ve traveled and lived, home remains the place I’d most like to settle. We ran into people we knew. We popped in and out of shops, talking about life and transitions.

We laughed at the neon “The Hip” sign pasted in a hotel window overlooking the square and wondered what super fan had rented that room and posted the giant letters; it was Gord, the guy who played clarinet next to me in the high school band. I saw it on his Instagram later. We listened to people tell stories.

In this town, everyone has a Hip story, and I do mean everyone. Even me, and I neither knew them personally, nor loved their music. So, I started asking people:

What’s your Hip Story?

Hip Nation

“For just one night, Kingston is the capital of Canada again… the Prime Minister is here, and everything,” my childhood friend mused on social media, just after I posted an up close and personal picture of Justin Trudeau.

Kingston was the first capital of Canada, in case you didn’t know that. It might be argued that it’s the music capital of Canada too, with Dan Aykroyd, and Bryan Adams both native sons, in addition to the evening’s guests of honor.

The feeling in the square was one of welcoming sons, friends, brothers, home and celebrating a job well done. I’ve been in concert crowds before: loud, pushing, inebriated, selfish. This was not that gathering.

“You guys taking care of each other out there, right?” The MC questioned from the stage, “Make sure you’re takin’ care of each other, get your friends water, watch out for the kids, make room for the folks in wheelchairs, okay?” The crowd roared. People put their arms around each other. Smiles were exchanged.

This was a party, but it was also a celebration of life; none of us can take care of Gord the way every single one of us would… but we can take care of each other, and so we did.

Even my mother attended. Her very first rock concert. We tucked her up in front of us, and she bopped along to music she definitely didn’t know.

“I wish they had subtitles on the big screen,” she hollered, “I can’t understand the words.”

I gave her my one-eyebrow-up, “Really Mom?” face… “Well, you understand the main line of this song, right? The first line he keeps saying?”

“No,” she looked at me, puzzled, “What is he saying?”

My mother has a knack for asking these questions at just the moment I’d rather not answer them: Tired. As. Fuck. Mom. He’s saying, tired as fuck.”

“Oh!” she pursed her lips in the way she does when she doesn’t quite approve, and turned back to bopping to the beat.

My Dad, who lasted about ten minutes in the tsunami of sound, sniffed the air, “Smells like some of these boys are taking advantage of their medicinal marijuana this evening… I hope they feel better!”

I winked at him, “Well, I feel better!” And he chuckled in his way.

The baby girl, high atop her daddy’s shoulders, rocked it out with her pink ear protection bearing witness to the fact that her parents are doing a good job, and this was, clearly, not her first rodeo.

The police crept along the peak of the metal roof that is above the building next to Morrison’s Restaurant, ticketing the intrepid fans perched precariously on the ridge.

The entire crowd braided arms, swaying as Fiddler’s Green washed through the streets of the limestone city.

My friend Jacq, who scored tickets the morning of the concert and was offered $2400 for them by noon, partied down with boys themselves inside the KRock center.

Gord officially ended the concert with a political statement about the investigations into indigenous affairs in the deep north and an assurance to the Canada he’s leaving behind, that we are in good hands. The crowd roared for Gord, and for Justin Trudeau, who thanked him, visibly wearing the weight of the moment for our nation.

My cousin Erin, a super fan since she was a little girl, texted me furiously throughout the concert. She would have given much to be here.

“They can’t be done yet!” she assured me, as the second encore drew to a close, “They haven’t played the one song that they must!”

What song was that? I wondered.

The stadium, three blocks away from the square, exploded with raw noise, echoed on the jumbo-tron, added to by the sea of people between the limestone shores. Darkness reigned. The screaming continued. The Hip took the stage for one last song.

There were tears on cheeks, and not just Gord’s, as the applause of his people lifted him, bodily, one last time. Then, they played it:

Ahead by a Century

As the lights fell and the Canadian Gods left the stage, perhaps the most important, and truest words of all the lyrics that have moved the hearts of my generation echoed with the great lesson of Gord’s enduring life:

“No dress rehersal: This is our life.”