Thank you, Gord Downie. Thank you for the incredible catalogue of songs and poems that you will leave us to ponder for generations. For the candour with which you have spoken since you emerged onto the music scene over 30 years ago. For providing Canadians with a fun-house full of lyrical mirrors in which to see ourselves, fully and completely. For giving hundreds of thousands of us one last chance to see “The Hip”, as we so affectionately refer to your band of brothers. For giving my son — the most musical person I know — an opportunity to see one of the greatest live acts of our time. And most of all, Gord, thank you for showing us that even superstars are human.
When I learned that tickets could be re-purchased at close to face value for the Tragically Hip show last night in Calgary — timed perfectly with a planned trip to visit family there — I made a quick decision to take in the show. With Sheila’s encouragement, I bought three tickets — for me, my brother, Paul, and my son, Simon — and held my breath, hoping the set of “used” tickets would work. Relieved at gaining entry to the Saddledome, a stadium that held so many memories from my youth, I exhaled … then began to absorb a quintessentially Canadian moment through the eyes of a father, a brother, and a long-time Tragically Hip fan.
The seats — in the eighteenth and nineteenth rows behind the stage — turned out to be stellar, and the show was sublime. I felt an odd sense of déjà vu, having seen another of my favourite bands, Spirit of the West, perform one of their last concerts only three months earlier. Two Canadian bands, each having played together for more than 30 years, each fronted by a poetic genius facing grave illness with courage — and grace, too.
It is an understatement to say that 2016 has been hard on music. We have lost too many legendary musicians to count; and here we are, losing two of my favourites — one to brain cancer and another to early-onset Alzheimers. Both of the concerts I’ve attended this year have been bittersweet affairs, but they have also been celebrations. Celebrations of lives lived, of chances taken, of opportunities seized. When The Hip played Use It Up in concert for the first time in 10 years, I was glad for the huge screen in front of me that projected Downie’s emotion in larger-than-life detail as he belted out, “Use it up … use it all up … don’t save a thing for later.”
But the most human moment from last night’s show — the moment that will stay with me for as long as my own mind allows — was when Downie spoke to the crowd following Springtime in Vienna. “I fucked up some words,” he said. “And that makes me feel down. But it’s not your fault.”
As the crowd erupted in support of the man we had all grown to love through his lyrical brilliance, I flashed back to a recent book reading where I had found myself standing in front of an audience in silence, the words of a poem that I had recited dozens of times stuck somewhere in mid-air, just out of reach. Watching Gord Downie articulate his own struggles reminded me that we all fall short of our own expectations sometimes. Yet, contrary to what we are told by our own fragile egos, we are usually the only ones disappointed when we falter. I believe that imperfection is what makes us truly great, and truly human.
So thank you, Gord, for once again turning a mirror toward us all, helping us to see our own vulnerability with grace and compassion. And for allowing us to see that even you, the great Gord Downie, the most tragic and hip front man of them all, are as human as the rest of us.