The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie say goodbye
As a kid, the radio was on in my house all day. Literally. It was our de facto home security system. So when I moved away to university, I had to buy my own sound system. The first CD I purchased to break it in was The Tragically Hip’s Up To Here.
I used to work in the music biz, and felt that, as a woman, it was sometimes tough to compete with masculine-style rock adulation. No, I don’t have every Hip album, I’ve seen them about six times and, like so many music fans, my interest in them tapered off as I got older and especially as I moved away from covering music as a writer.
But the Hip and Gord Downie are collaged into some of my most vivid life memories. For one of my earliest newspaper assignments, an editor asked me to write about what it’s like to audition to be a MuchMusic VJ (the channel was throwing high-profile auditions across the country), and during my faux-audition, I wore a pair of muddy boots that I’d worn that weekend to the Hip’s Another Roadside Attraction festival.
Along with many friends, we bussed out to a rural speedway (that’s right, I got to hear Downie sing “out at the speedway,” at a speedway. Meta ) to see a full day of music. Of course, it rained—in fact, it rained so badly that nobody could light their cigarettes because all the lighters were wet (it was the ’90s!).
But the sun came out during a set by Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers, and the weather was fine for the Hip. I wore those muddy boots into my audition tape and was so proud of the VJ article (thanks Brian Gorman for the great edit) that I had it framed. Every time I see that framed, I think of the Hip.
Years later, Downie released his solo Coke Machine Glow, and what is so fascinating is that it didn’t signal the end of the band. The Hip played on. Downie did an art project but remained part of his band, no crazy ego there! Around then I finally had my chance to interview Downie; he was soft-spoken and listened intently. At an after-party, he asked if I had a chance to speak with Julie Doiron, who collaborated on the disc, because I’d referenced the track she sang on during our interview. We also joked about how his home life had gotten particularly chaotic since having a third child (he is the father of four now).
Like the rest of Canada, I found out Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer on, of all weekends, the May 2-4 long weekend. It’s so poetic because you just know someone at some cottage or some campsite has been listening to the Tragically Hip. Even though I was out of town and it was all over the news on my hotel room TV, I felt detached.
This week, though, it really dawned on me that this is happening and that an era is ending. I’ve loved seeing friends on Instagram at the shows, especially some of my younger friends who couldn’t possibly have been old enough to see a Roadside Attraction. I’ve loved hearing the Hip oeuvre and thinking about what my favourite album is (Day For Night). And it’s funny that I get to hear “Wheat Kings” so often after spending a life-affirming week in southern Saskatchewan with my husband.
I love knowing that even seasoned music industry veterans are saying they’ve never seen anything quite like this public goodbye. It’s eerie and it’s sad, but more importantly, it’s generous. Downie and I might have joked about his chaotic family situation all those years ago, but now that I have my own family, I wonder if I’d want to be on tour at a time like this? But it’s just so obvious why it makes sense: The fans are part of the family.