Home > Culture, Music, Politics, Reviews > An Emotional Farewell to the Tragically Hip and the End of an Era in Canadian Nationalism

An Emotional Farewell to the Tragically Hip and the End of an Era in Canadian Nationalism

For nearly three hours on the night of Saturday, August 20, 2016, Canada paused and gathered for the collective wake of their favourite musical sons, the Tragically Hip. Broadcast live across the country by national public broadcaster CBC from an arena in the enduringly popular rock band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, the final concert of the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, though never explicitly advertised as definitely their last, was understood to be the emotional farewell of a band that defined Canadian nationalism (or a certain strain of contextual thought and sentiment disseminated as such, as I will discuss in a moment) for nearly 30 years. The lead singer and lyricist of the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie, has been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and faces an indeterminate death sentence. Although couched as a national celebration and frequently infused with a positive vibe, a cloud of sadness and mourning was cast over the proceedings as well, and Canadian social media vibrated with those feelings throughout the extended set.

Taking to the in-the-round stage, the Hip’s instrumentalists – drummer Johnny Fay, bass player Gord Sinclair, guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker – clustered close to Downie in the show’s first section, as if they were a phalanx of plains bison protecting a wounded comrade from threatening predatory forces. The show proceeded in album-specific mini-sets, covering three or four successive favourites from classic Hiphipkingston1 records like Fully Completely, Up To Here, Road Apples, Day For Night, Phantom Power, Music@Work, and even the new Man Machine Poem. It reached numerous emotional high points, particular with adored, complex, Canadiana-drenched ballads like “Wheat Kings”, “Fiddler’s Green”, “Toronto #4”, “Bobcaygeon”, and “Scared”.

Uniformly strong though it was, the concert was, to this seasoned attendee of Tragically Hip gigs at least, highly familiar. The band performed as they have for decades, tightly, impressively, but reliant on the dynamic Downie to raise the proceedings to something more special. The trying physical circumstances that he faced must be considered, but it should be noted that although Downie mustered a Herculean effort to perform a hockey-game-length rock and roll show despite debilitating brain cancer, he often fell heartbreakingly short of his customary high standards. Though in relatively strong voice (he joked about his neck scarf made from two socks for this very purpose), Downie’s iconic kooky-uncle dancing and unpredictable stage movement were both badly curtailed. He frequently glanced down in consultation to his monitor at his feet, which hid a teleprompter with each song’s lyrics, to remind him of the many words he poured forth to the world. This arrangement, though doubtlessly necessary in allowing a man with brain cancer to perform at all, did lead to occasional, uncharacteristic missed or flubbed lines, most noticeably and tragically in the glorious bridge of “Bobcaygeon” (“That night in Toronto…”), which he missed entirely. Again, the context of his illness cannot be lost sight of, and Downie’s fight against its constraints was moving and impressive in its own right. If anything, the flubs made the show more affecting, not less.

But do not let it be said that Gord Downie did not rise to what had become a momentous national occasion in other ways. He was keenly aware that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance, donning the “Canadian tuxedo” of jeans, jean jacket and band shirt for the occasion; indeed, they shared a hug prior to showtime, a photo of which quickly went viral online. On two occasions between songs, Downie cannily expressed support and fondness for the young Trudeau (“we’re in good hands”), but in terms couched primarily in a pressuring mandate to correct the continuing social and economic and political wrongs done to Canada’s First Nations peoples by an enduring white colonial majority. To take his perhaps final moment in the national spotlight to divert that spotlight on to the tragic, unacceptable suffering of Canada’s least privileged is one thing. To hold a sitting PM’s feet to the fire in terms of meaningful action to correct historical damage before a captive nation is quite another.

If the concert had one truly indelible, transcendent moment, however, it was during the closing song of the second encore, “Grace, Too”. The swirling, mysterious opening track of 1994’s swirling, mysterious Day For Night, the lyrics depict a tense, ambiguous negotiation (possibly between prostitute and wealthy john) but the song closes, as many Hip tunes do, with an impressive jam. From its recorded release through two decades of live versions, Downie has punctuated the instrumental outro with haunting, visceral, rending cries (“Here / Now / Nah!”). As the band leaned into the groove and the moment for the customary cries approached, Downie began crying.

Weakened by terminal brain cancer, Downie had performed for over two hours with as much of his usual passion and peculiarity as he could muster. With the eyes of a nation on him, he was overcome with a brew of emotions we could observe and imagine but never fully comprehend. The truth about Gord Downie is the truth of all human beings: we will never known what is really in his head and in his heart. Downie, however, has been telling us and showing us the contents of his head and his heart for three decades. Those contents have quite famously not always been entirely intelligible, but like all great art they contain multitudes, activating meanings in each person who experiences it that its creator might never have intended or conceived of. The experience has been a rare privilege of insight for us, and a rare privilege of openness and expressiveness for him.

Whatever Downie was feeling – pain and exhaustion both physical and psychological, peace and humility in the face of a crowd’s adoration, regret and sadness at the prospect of performing for perhaps the final time – this unquestionably strong but sensitive man (he would embrace and kiss his bandmates at the end of each set, expressions of a male tenderness too often disavowed and hidden) allowed the swelling emotion to conquer his resistance, and he wept.

He could have simply stood onstage with his tears amidst his bandmates and best friends for 30 years and it would have been the highlight of the night, its most potent spike of sentiment. But Downie interrupted his tears to let out the screams, transmuting all of the joy and agony and nostalgia and love and hurt and hope into wrenching, primal cries against the dying of the light. It was profoundly affecting, indelible. It was, without hyperbole, the most powerful moment of raw artistic expression I have ever witnessed. This memorable moment has been repeated at this point in the set throughout the tour, so it was a stage-managed and choreographed emotional display to some extent. But its cathartic potency was unquestionable nonetheless. Like all art, its impact was as universally intangible as it was inherently unexplainable. And once it was hipkingston2over, Downie collected himself, politely returned the microphone he dropped to its home on the stand, and walked away.

This was not the end, as the band returned for a third encore, putatively ending their legendary live career with one of their most widely-beloved anthems, “Ahead By A Century”. Basking in the applause and cheers of a crowd and a country one last time, the Tragically Hip stood together, passing from the complicated internecine implications of an active popular culture to the gilded annals of artistic and public legacy. They stood for a final time as Canada’s band, but which Canada?

The discourse around the Tragically Hip in the Canadian media and public in the weeks leading up to last night’s show was stubbornly focused on the band’s role as purveyors of a complicated and not-entirely patriotic strain of post-boomer nationalism. It’s worth acknowledging that the collective meaning of the Tragically Hip is difficult to disentangle from the white Ontario-centric Anglo-Canadian nationalistic narratives that have dominated the discourse of national cultural identity for decades, and are still prevalent in the under-diversified Canadian media and pop culture elite.

It’s been very noticeable in the popular culture that those most moved and captivated by this event, those most invested in its national import, are predominantly white and anglophone in a country whose demographics are moving in a much more multi-ethnic and multilingual direction. What do the Tragically Hip’s cottage country anthems mean to Canadians who cannot afford a cottage? How does their meat-and-potatoes rock music, and this celebratory farewell moment, resonate with Sikhs from Surrey, or Caribbean-Canadians from north Toronto, or Somali immigrants in a city out west, or First Nations in a depressed community like Attawapiskat? Probably not as deeply, possibly in ways not hitherto imagined, but in any case those stories have gone glaringly untold.

It would be churlish and unfair to pin the narrow channels of accepted mainstream Canadian identity on the Tragically Hip. Downie has never been a flag-waving nationalist, and has often emphasized nuanced, complex, and not altogether positive elements of Canadian history, society, and politics. His work with and beyond the Hip has striven to expand the boundaries of Canadian cultural discourse, to erase unjust firewalls between sectors of Canadian society, to welcome more people in. This is an ideal of Canadian identity that is often trumpeted proudly and publicly but not as often lived up to in practice.

White Anglo-Canadian nationalism has not always been a force for good, but Downie and the Hip have always worked hard to encapsulate, express, and embody those forces at their best. This “national celebration” in Kingston, this collective moment of delight and grief that the Tragically Hip have given us (at least some of us, but they are always aiming for all of us), might well be the sunset glow of white Anglo-Canadian nationalism as we know it. If the Tragically Hip give us one last true expression of the best intentions and results of those sentiments before they are laid to eternal rest, they will have done a deep service to their country in their closing act.

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Categories: Culture, Music, Politics, Reviews
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