Sunday, August 21, 2016

On remembering The Tragically Hip

"It’s human nature to start taking things for granted again when danger isn’t banging loudly on the door."
David Hackworth
For a while last night, it seemed that most of Canada came to a halt as The Tragically Hip held its final concert in the band's hometown of Kingston, Ontario.

Disclosure: I've never been a huge Hip fan. I've enjoyed their music on the radio, and enjoyed discussing the band's influence whenever the topic would come up among friends. But I didn't run out to buy their music or fill my playlists with them before a major trip. Still, I've always respected them as true musicians, dedicated to their craft, who wrote real songs about real people leading real lives within one of the greatest countries on the planet. In an age of prefab, autotuned, disposable "music", The Hip have always stood out as so much more, so much richer, so much more central to our culture. As such, they've always been something of a musical conscience in this country, and even non-fans have revered them as the unofficial poet-laureates they ultimately became.

After the band announced in May that lead singer Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain, they announced one final cross-country tour. They could have just as easily called it a career and allowed Mr. Downie the time and opportunity to spend all his time with his family. But the decision to tour seemed to light a spark under the country. Almost overnight, The Hip went from longtime musical fave to their dedicated fans to a national phenomenon the likes of which we've never seen north of the border. Scalpers weighed in and tried to ruin the experience for legions of fans, but in the end nothing could cool the wave of warmth that enveloped the country as the band hopscotched from city to city to say one final goodbye.

Social media lit up last night with tributes to the band as the millions of Canadians who couldn't get tickets to the show gathered around TVs to watch the live broadcast. Parks from coast to coast to coast were packed with fans, and any other conversations, at least for the night, were put on hold as The Hip's final concert took over the national stage. No matter what you thought of the band, it was a perfect affirmation of everything that makes this country so special.

Since the news broke of Mr. Downie's illness, I haven't stopped thinking about the fragility of life, and how most of us forget to consider said fragility within the context of the day-to-day. Before May, it's safe to assume that no one much thought about life without their favourite band. It's similarly safe to assume that only the most ardent fans gave much thought to the band on any given day. They were just...there. In the background.

The realization of Mr. Downie's illness, of course, changed everything in an instant. Now there was an end date. And the band's brand awareness soared. The bandwagon - and let's be honest with ourselves and admit that there is a bandwagon - grew by orders of magnitude. We all felt this man, this band, this voice of a generation, slipping away. And we wanted to hold on just a little bit longer.

All understandable. All poignant. All so right on so many levels.

As the final notes sounded last night and the concert faded to black, I couldn't help but wonder about the broader lessons of this one musical act, and its courageous frontman who decided one final tour mattered more than anything else. And all I could come up with was this: Don't wait for the diagnosis to hit before you galvanize yourself into action. By then, for so many of us, it's already too late.

Your turn: Thoughts?


Jamie L said...

I have to say this is one of my favorite pieces you have written. Your closing thought really hit home for me. It was what I needed to read today..... thank you

Joel Warren Smith said...

A poignant reminder and hat tip to one more in a long line of incredible Canadian music talent. I've been a committed life-long Hip fan site since they first broke on the national scene. For me the music was unique, energized and portrayed the reality, ecstasy and tragedy of life against the backdrop of a majestic and diverse nation that had always struggled with its own identity. The Hip helped us see ourselves for who we really are: a nation.

I do not agree with your assertion of bandwagonism. I have seen no evidence of this. The band's beem playing for 30 odd years. Other bands of come and gone in that time. Everyone in this country who came of age in the 80s, 90s and 00s has a Hip memory even if it just revolves around a single song. Dedication and devotion can lapse. And yes, death reminds us of how fragile we all are and how special even brief reminiscences of a song, a time can be. That does make for bandwagonism. It just provides one more chance to appreciate the band and what they gave us as a nation. That's patriotism.

Pat Tillett said...

Fantastic article Carmi!
When you urged people "not to wait," you hit the nail right on the head. For various reasons, that is what people do. Unfortunately, when they are finally spurred to action, it usually is too late.

"Jumping on the bandwagon" is another thing that people do. Many of them, because they want to feel part of something special. Others, because they want to brag about being part of something, that they were never really a part of at all.