(Editor’s note- It’s been a while since I posted on the blog after my announcement about my work with the Omaha Lancers. I’ve thought of ways to re-engage, but could never quite get the topics right, and the last thing I want to do is confuse people by posting subjects that lead folks to believe I’m still in the covering the Boston Bruins and prospects biz. So, when I got the news of Gord Downie’s passing, I believed that there was no better way or platform for me to pay tribute to the man and band. So, here it is- probably nowhere near the best thing you’ll read about the Hip on this tragic day, but it’s from the heart. Make no mistake- I am a proud American, but Canada owns a near and dear place in my heart- always has, always will. Thanks for returning and reading…-KL)
I love Canada.
Three simple words, and yet I struggle to convey the extent of how true they are in the aftermath of singer/songwriter/Canadian icon Gord Downie’s passing. The man who made song called “Courage” famous, finally succumbed on Tuesday night to his long bout with brain cancer at the age of 53. The band released a statement today and those of us who loved the Hip are now left to deal with the emotions of news that was expected, yet unexpected, in that nothing really completely prepares you for that moment when you have to make a final goodbye.
It makes sense that I would be a fan of the proud Kingston, Ontario-native rock band The Tragically Hip because, after all, the band’s frontman is Harry Sinden’s godson and a lifelong Boston Bruins supporter. But no, I liked the Hip long before I learned of that neat connection, not to mention that Mr. Downie was once a pretty decent hockey goalie before he traded in the pads for a guitar and chance to transcend the aspect of being a simple entertainer- be it a professional athlete or musician- by becoming one with the social fabric of Canada.
Go ahead and try to find a Canadian who doesn’t at least have a passing knowledge of Gord and the Hip- I’m not saying they’re not out there, but good luck finding someone in that great country to our north who hasn’t at least been touched in some way, shape or form by the Hip’s music, or who is completely unable to recognize Downie’s signature lyrical stylings and vocal sound. There aren’t many entertainment acts or entities that can claim as much of a nation’s identity and conscience as The Tragically Hip, in the embodiment of Gord Downie, can.
I once read that the Hip was the greatest band to never make it in the United States and I agree with the assessment, especially with the fundamental conclusion that Downie and Co. were simply too Canadian to make the kind of impact in the U.S., and that die-hard fans and proud Canadians are perfectly happy with that. You know what? I agree- screw America on this one (those obvious enlightened ones like yours truly aside of course)- their loss is Canada’s gain because the uniqueness of this band and the way that so many of their songs speak directly to citizens of that fine nation is something that few American bands, with so much diversity and polarization across the 50 states, can even come close to claiming.
It is probably with no small coincidence and dare I say- tragedy– that the passing of both Downie and American rocker Tom Petty came so close to one another because the two are similar in that if there are some U.S. musicians out there who earned the love and passion of a wide and diverse listening audience the way the Hip were able to do in Canada- it is one Tom Petty. Sure, Downie’s passing won’t generate nearly as much attention or news stories as that of Petty, and Prince and David Bowie earlier in 2016. But, for those who knew and loved the Hip, Downie’s loss, though not sudden and unexpected the way Petty and Prince left us, leaves no less of a gaping hole in our musical souls.
I am not Canadian, but I owe a debt to those friends and brothers north of the border in Ian and Tim who helped strengthen my interest in and love of the Hip’s music over the years. Actually, I have to credit former Bruins goaltender Blaine Lacher, who in 1994 listed the Tragically Hip as his favorite band, and I was curious. The Tragically Hip? What, or who…on Earth…were they?
This was in the earliest days of the Internet, so I wasn’t able to just pull up Google and do a search- I instead headed to the now-defunct Ear-X-Tacy record store in Louisville, KY (I was stationed at Fort Knox at the time going through the U.S. Army Armor School to learn how to be an M1A1 Abrams tank platoon leader) and just happened to stumble across the band’s greatest commercial success- the Fully Completely LP (1993)- in a very limited choice of just one other Hip album in compact disc format. It had to be the cover art, but I took it out of the store, popped it into my 1990 Honda Accord’s CD player and was immediately taken in by the sound, unlike anything I was expecting…and of course- once I heard “Fifty-Mission Cap” the first time, I was hooked.
There were many other albums and songs…I walked away from the Hip at times for other bands and acts, only to come eagerly back with each new release. I admit I even began to take the band for granted. Sure things: death, taxes and a Hip album sure to come out at some point.
It was Memorial Day weekend 2016 and I was in the Denver airport waiting on a flight back to Austin, Texas when good pal Tim (mentioned above) called me to confirm that I knew of Downie’s announcement of his terminal condition and that he was taking the band on one final farewell tour across Canada, and did I want to come up to Toronto and we’d make a road trip to see the London show together in August. There was absolutely no hesitation- I was in.
And so, just a few months later, I flew from Texas to Ontario and the two of us made the drive from Mississauga to London, listening to our favorite Hip tunes- Blow At High Dough, Bobcaygeon, Poets, Something On, Grace, Too, Nautical Disaster, New Orleans is Sinking, Vapour Trails, Wheat Kings, Fireworks, The Darkest One, Use It Up, Courage (for Hugh MacLennan), Ahead By A Century, The Lonely End of the Rink, even the underappreciated Coffee Girl…and so many others- it’s hard to keep straight to be honest, because there are so many great songs.
Walking into the building where the OHL’s London Knights have earned such a storied legacy in major junior was a surreal experience, but it was ironic that in making the trip to London, Ontario for the first time, I wasn’t there for the hockey.
I’ll just say it was a great show- it had everything I had hoped for and more. True, they didn’t play “Fifty-Mission Cap,” and at the very end, it looked like Gord himself was so completely drained of energy that he simply could not go on and perform the final expected song of the set list- Ahead By A Century– instead, he stood on stage for what seemed to be an eternity and just waved to the thousands who screamed, chanted and cried- he didn’t say good bye- he didn’t have to. In that nearly perfect two hours of music, he poured every last bit of himself into that performance. It was one he would replicate a few more times before the final Hip tour ended that summer, but to this day- I remain grateful that I got to see it. We all knew…every one of us in attendance…that Gord would be leaving us, and although you knew it was coming, nothing can ever completely prepare us for the final farewell. But, instead of fighting the battle against the insidious enemy called cancer, Mr. Downie chose to spend those precious moments with his fans doing the thing that defined his all-too-short life. We should all be fortunate to live as well and be able to go out on our own terms as Gord did. Godspeed, sir- you are already tremendously missed.
So…that brings me back to the three words that opened this blog post: I love Canada.
It’s always been the country I’ve respected the most even as a young lad taking family and hockey trips to Quebec and Ontario- a respect that began with the realization that even though it seemed like America, Canada was its own country, and one that deserved respect for its culture, values and national identity. For me as a young adult, the Hip symbolized their pride in Canada and deep roots as sons of that great nation to the North.
Today, I tweeted photos from that London show, and a Canadian radio personality and friend in the Ottawa area responded that I am “half-Canadian” by now, and that by “getting the Hip” it means that I understand Canada. I can only guess that was Jon’s way of saying, I’m not like typical Americans who chose not to get the Hip…and I can think of no higher compliment, to be honest.
The greatness of The Tragically Hip isn’t in how many albums they sold or how many stories Gord Downie’s passing will generate, but in the fact that they stayed true to their nation and themselves. They could have done things a little differently to become a more mainstream commercial success in the United States, sure…but in so doing, they would not have been The Tragically Hip. They did it their own way, much like Gord Downie did when he threw a giant middle finger to the disease that ravaged his great brain and dedicated everything of himself to spend the precious time he had left on this Earth to take the stage and drive home his love of country and the legions of fans that the Hip meant so much to.
I love Canada.
Long live The Tragically Hip.
Raise your glasses to Gord Downie and his mates- and tonight, if you are able, look to the sky and see the constellations reveal themselves…one star at a time.