My first experience with the Tragically Hip was a memorable one. My friend Driver invited me to Pine Knob, the summer after our freshman year in college, to see this amazing Canadian rock band I had only barely heard of, with an enigmatic lead singer and bluesy vibe. I was really going to see the opening band, Guster, but the Hip were a new, added bonus. I had no expectations.
Then they opened with “Tiger the Lion,” a booming, slightly psychedelic rant on a hot July night, and I thought, “My God, where have these guys been?”
The rest is personal history. I’ve since seen the Hip more than any other band (more than a dozen concerts, easily), traveling back and forth over the Canadian border to see the North’s favorite rock and roll band. The last time, in January 2015 at the Windsor, Ontario casino, was just months before lead singer Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
The news hit last week that Gord passed away. I’ve spent the last week in mourning. It’s been rough.
Last Wednesday I loaded up my Hip playlist, grabbed my camera, and hit the streets for some fresh air and therapy. It’s all I felt like doing: playing music, and making pictures. What else can one do when a music hero dies?
The show was notable because Gord Downie, the Hip’s lead singer, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer earlier this year. Saturday night’s show, broadcast on the CBC to a third of Canada’s citizens, could be the Hip’s last ever – capping a 30-year career.
Imagine that in America. What U.S.-based band would garner a national broadcast on its last show ever? Bruce Springsteen, maybe? What modern music act can unite a country on what night in the way the Hip did this weekend? It’s amazing when you think about it.
I have a great history with the band. My friend Chris took me to a Hip show in the summer of 2000 at DTE Energy Music Theater (Pine Knob to those who remember the good ol’ days), north of Detroit. Since then, I’ve seen the Hip more than a dozen times: in Detroit, in Grand Rapids, in Sarnia, in Toronto, in Windsor (photo above). Their country and my own, I’ve seen them on almost every tour since 2000, sometimes catching them on several dates on a given tour.
Saturday night was emotional for me. It was especially difficult watching Gord, obviously frail and tired, giving it his all. He was spent emotionally, physically, and perhaps even creatively. But he went out with a bang. Here was a guy who has dealt with terminal cancer, on the last night of a country-spanning tour, deliver a three-hour performance in front of his hometown crowd and his nation. That’s grit.
Not that I think about death a lot, but watching my musical heroes pass away over the years makes me think about mortality, and the limited time we have.
It’s hard not to dive into the live-like-you-were-dying cliché here, but hear me out.
What would you do, artistically, if you knew you were on borrowed time?
And what’s holding you back from doing that, right now?
I try not to be morbid about this stuff. But it’s hard, having kids, not thinking about being taken away suddenly, and what kind of situation I’d leave behind. The unexpected happens all the time. Any of us could get a diagnosis that changes everything.
We can’t think about this stuff every day. That would be paralyzing in a way. Then again, that’s the whole point of the your-life-changes-after-you-get-the-news storyline – hardly anyone young-ish sees death coming. Saturday’s concert was a good reminder.
I mean, if a guy with terminal brain cancer can hit the road with the band one more time, travel the country and give it his all every night in the name of art and performance and duty, surely I can get that undone project completed. Right?