Resplendent in a pair of glittery pants and a jaunty feathered hat, Gord Downie belts out the final lyrics of “Grace, Too”: “I come from downtown. Born ready for you. Armed with skill and its frustration. And grace, too.”
He gets into the shouty section that draws the song to a close. It lasts even longer than usual. His face contorts. The only grieving hoser in this house who isn’t crying would have to be one with broken tear ducts, and now Downie is crying as hard as we are.
He finishes the song and tells us he’ll see us around somewhere. We all know it likely isn’t true.
The Air Canada Centre is packed. Tickets for this show, the third of three shows in Toronto, were impossibly hard to get after bots snapped them all up within seconds of the sale starting, and the prices were jacked up.
I’m here with my mom, my dad and my brother. “I just can’t believe this,” my mom says as we sip our million dollar gin and tonics. “It’s like a living funeral.”
But that night in Toronto, you would never have known Downie is dying. He does the same jerky shoulder shimmy as ever. The same spastic head waggle. Everyone around me screams the lyrics at their seatmates.
The only grieving hoser in this house who isn’t crying would have to be one with broken tear ducts, and Downie is crying as hard as we are.
My dad has a deep love for The Tragically Hip. Like so many Canadians, my brother and I grew up with their music as a soundtrack to our road trips, our family parties and barbeques, and our cloudy New Brunswick beach days. Our parents used to take us to shows when we were young. I saw them at Harbour Station in Saint John, N.B. in 1999, and on Citadel Hill in Halifax in 2002.
Later, just after graduating from high school, I saw them on Prince Edward Island on Canada Day weekend with the then love of my life. Still later, after I left the Maritimes for the city, I saw them with two of my dearest friends. We ate weed lollipops and drank contraband Fireball in the baking heat at Niagara on the Lake. We got close enough to the stage to see Gordie’s sweat dripping down his face that day.
I took it all for granted.
Not this time, though. Gord gave us just about every song we wanted. “Ahead by A Century,” “Poets,” “Long Time Running,” “Gift Shop.” The only song I wanted and didn’t get was “Fully Completely,” but it was mainly so I could hear Gord say “You’re gonna miss me. Just wait and you’ll see. Fully, completely.” For me and the Hip diehards in the audience, it's hard to accept these are the last time these songs will probably be played live.
Like any band, The Hip have their critics. Most of them complain not about the sound of their actual music, though, so much as the people who like it. Often, that’s rowdy white hockey bros.
The band may be middle class white Canadiana personified, but we can only tell the stories we know. While The Tragically Hip may only be representative of this country for a certain segment of the population, their show pays homage to it in such a sweet, loving way. Our landscape lights up the screens: rolling bits of ocean, a snowy highway, the bow of a canoe, rough forest trails with spindly branches sticking out over them.
The band wraps up their first encore with “Bobcaygeon.” Everyone but Downie trickles off the stage. He mops his forehead and just stands there, looking out, arms extended to us, before leaving.
I’m openly bawling as we make our way out of our seats. As we hit the aisle, a small man about my age reaches out and wraps me in a hug. Normally this would make me irate, but I surprise myself by returning his hug, patting his back and telling him I’m okay. “I’m not,” he sniffles as he pulls away from me and shuffles out into the night.
Gord’s on his way out, too. But at least he’s leaving us with this gift of inspiration.