Over the years, I’ve often looked at a mountain view in Alberta or a downtown Toronto landscape, and at each of those moments, I think of one of the many of Tragically Hip songs that really encapsulates how it feels to be there.
The iconic rock band The Tragically Hip defines the Canadian sound. It is as if Gord Downie and his bandmates took rocks from the mountains, soil from the prairies, and water from the Great Lakes to create a melodic elixir of Canadian essence and feed it to our starved northern souls. Canada was lost before this band existed, and boy, do they ever bring us home.
Along with 125,000 Canadians that watched the live streaming of CBC’s final Tragically Hip show on August 23, I cried, laughed, remembered, and mourned. It truly is the end of an era. Gord Downie’s tragic diagnosis of Glioblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer, has rocked Canadians to their core. The show was rumoured to be their final performance, and the band will be duly missed for their years of dedication to the local music community.
You could say I was born listening to The Tragically Hip. As the millennial daughter of two parents who were in their twenties in the 1980’s, “The Hip”, as they are commonly referred to, were all the rage. The band began their journey in 1984 and produced 14 albums during the course of their thirty-year career. I am proud to say I have been listening to them my entire life.
My first memory of The Hip is when I was about six years old at our family cottage in Ontario. I have a fond memory of walking out to the campfire hearing “100th Meridian” blasting from the speakers and my dad and uncle rocking out in their blue jeans and mullet-styled hockey do’s. Later on, I would realize how much this song defined my own life. “At the hundredth meridian, where the Great Plains begin” is about the journey from east to west and the division between the two parts of our country. Spending my summers in Ontario with my dad and living the rest of the year in Alberta made me realize the contrast and tension between the two regions, and The Tragically Hip helped me identify with those differences.
I considered one particular Hip song the soundtrack to my life; “Wheat Kings”. This song is for the people in “the Paris of the Prairies” and reflects how it feels to cruise across the yellow sea to my home in the foothills of Alberta. I can recall listening to this song with my cousin and best friend, who was also forced to watch our dads rock out together to The Hip. Needless to say, she is as die-hard as I am when it comes to our love of the music. If I close my eyes while listening to “Wheat Kings”, beginning guitar riff and Downie’s haunting voice floating across the speakers, I’m transported home to a creaky prairie heritage home watching the mountains through the window with the curtain blowing in the wind.
My dream to see the Tragically Hip finally came true when I moved to Toronto and saw them play at a free concert in Dundas Square two years ago. I had just moved to Canada’s largest city, and what better way to celebrate than watching The Hip. When “Bobcaygeon” came on and Downie howled “that night in Toronto, with its checkerboard floors”, 10,000 people were singing along with him — I was one of them. Interestingly, the checkerboard floors are in reference to the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen St., a favourite bar of mine as well. This iconic tune has continued to be loved, now reminding me of what it is like to fall in love in Toronto. “I left your house this morning ‘bout a quarter after nine, it was in Bobcaygeon, I saw the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time” is a lyric I often sing to my partner. It reminds me of the first time he told me he loved under the stars at his cottage on Georgian Bay (cheesy, I know).
Not all of my memories associated with Tragically Hip are happy and sweet. The band had a way of pulling at your heart strings in tough times as well. When a close friend died, I played “Fiddler’s Green” and at that moment, I think only Downie’s voice could soothe me. Later on, I found out the song was written in memory of his nephew that passed away. Downie refused to play it for 15 years, only to sing it at a show in Calgary much later.
In The Tragically Hip’s final show, “Grace, Too” was one of the final songs that caused an uproar of emotion to flood the Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston. Downie was visibly upset, and almost every person I know who loved this band cried along with him at that moment. Belting out the lyrics one last time, I felt the unfairness of it all. How is an amazing musician cherished by his country condemned to get sick and die of terminal illness? I could talk about his legacy as others have done in their courageous soliloquies to Gord Downie, but honestly I am angry. Cancer seems to claim us all.
I will say though: one comfort that The Hip fans can have is the absolute immortality of the band’s music. The Tragically Hip will live on as I raise my child in Canada. It is my turn to wear acid wash blue jeans and rock out to the “Hip” at a campfire while my daughter dances too. [It is her turn to listen to “Boots and Hearts” and learn to line dance. It is my daughter’s destiny to close her eyes and think of our home in the prairies when she hears “Wheat Kings”.
“Does your mother tell you things? Long, long when I’m gone?”
I hope Downie can take comfort in his legacy — he surely has given the world something that will never be forgotten.