2016 has been a devastating year for music – Bowie, Prince, John Berry, and Merle Haggard all gone in the first few months. Then came the news of Spirit of the West’s John Mann, and his early onset alzheimers and the band’s last shows. John’s story hit me harder than the news of losing Bowie and Prince as those guys were untouchable global superstars I’d never crossed paths with and the likelihood was impossible that I ever would. Canadian music is different, it’s small… Everyone’s paths cross. When one of our own lands on hard times we all feel it. Spirit of the West are from Vancouver, but the 5000 kms that separate BC from my home town in St. John’s disappeared in a flash the moment I heard the band’s sad news.
Jump to May 24th, we awoke to social media frenzy that Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Holy shit. 2016, you bastard, not The Tragically Hip. This hit me really hard – how terrible his family must be feeling, not just his wife and four kids, but his family in the band, his management, record label, and the rest of us in Canada who all feel The Tragically Hip are somehow part of our family. The internet has been lit up with almost daily love letters to Gord and the band, but so many read like eulogies… which feels weird.
The Tragically Hip are currently on tour – the last Man Machine Poem show takes place in Kingston tomorrow. Gord and the band’s strength to take the stage every night, facing audiences that know their story and what they are going through is incredible. The emotions in the room must be almost catastrophic, and he chooses to do it, to give everyone their moment. Its a celebration of an amazing music history, albeit a bitter sweet celebration. Most concert goers feel they are saying goodbye to one of their favourite bands and Canada is not taking any of this for granted. Again I think of his family, and thank them so much for sharing Gord with us. If this was my Dad, my brother or my bandmate, I don’t know if I’d want to share right now.
I don’t remember my age the first time I saw a Tragically Hip concert, but Gord still had long hair so it was definitely awhile ago. The second time however was in 1995 when their massive Another Roadside Attraction tour landed in St. John’s. I was publishing a little Canadian music zine at the time and somehow managed to swindle a photography pass. Borrowing my Mom’s old Pentax, I sheepishly entered the security pit in front of the stage with other ‘members of the press’. Their cameras all had huge fancy lenses, they chased Gord back and forth across the stage trying to get that money shot. With elbows parked on ‘stage-left’ I tried my best to pretend I knew what I was doing. I think Gord picked up on the fact that I wasn’t going to land that perfect shot from my position and a couple times he guided all the photographers to the far end of the stage then ran to position himself directly in front of me, crouching down giving my camera all the love. It was a very cool gesture and I quickly was aware that while he was playing to a sold out arena of fans, he was keenly aware of each of us. He made sure to try and reach everyone (even those that chose to shyly stay in the corner). The Tragically Hip were the only band I photographed live as part of my one day professional photographer career.
After the show I was invited backstage to meet the band. I gave them a copy of my ‘zine, the first issue had been released recently and I was proud. They offered me a drink and we made small talk. A very exuberant fan gained access to the room and B-lined it straight for the singer and shaking his hand exclaimed, “Remove the ‘R’ and your name would be ‘GOD’!”. I wasn’t the only one that almost spit out their drink in surprise. Leave it to my home province to point out the eerily-obvious in a most comical way. As I was making my exit someone said “oh wait, your book”, and passed me back my ‘zine. I looked down and the entire band had autographed it. I had given it to them thinking maybe they would read it, but when I saw the signatures I put it in my pocket and made my exit, pretty excited that I had their autographs even tho I wouldn’t have built up the guts to ask for them.
As a fun side-note: My girlfriend came across a screen printed tour poster from this show on Kijiji last year and snapped it up not realizing it was a show I had actually attended. Pretty cool to find a limited edition momento from one of your favourite concerts, 20 years later.
More than a few years down the road, I’m living in Halifax, and hitting the road on a cross-Canada tour with my band and I ask the members “who do you want to open for?”. The Tragically Hip’s name gets thrown around a lot, its unanimous. I start trying to think how I could help make that happen, but I’ve got nothing. Over the next couple of years any time we meet someone that knows the ‘Hip we ask them to tell the band that we would love to open a show sometime (but first we have to get them to know we exist). Our manager is friends with their manager and the two are going to be hanging out at a concert in PEI, so I ask him to talk to the band on our behalf. I know I’m kind of being a pest by asking, but can’t help myself.
We hear nothing, we keep touring and writing songs, all the while hitting up friends with a connection to the band… Then one day we get the call – The Sadies had to bail on a tour, can you guys fill in? YEP! You know it!
Its early 2007 and The Tragically Hip are on their USA World Container tour. We’re warned ahead of time by friends to expect audiences to chant “HIP! HIP! HIP!” during our set as apparently that happens to almost everyone that takes the stage before Canada’s favourite band. But it never happens, we play the whole tour and not once does our set get interrupted by a chanting audience. We’re told by a Hip super-fan (he’s seen more than 300 TTH shows) that the only other band he had seen that audiences didn’t sooner or later chant over was Sam Roberts Band. Got to feel good about that.
Our band and the Hip don’t interact all that much on the road, we assume they are the kind of band that stick to themselves and then I find out, years later, that The Hip always hang out with their opening bands, but there was a potential situation on our tour which is why they kept their distance. The story is hilarious to me now, but I’ll save that for another time (or never).
One memorable night however, the band’s legendary guitar player, Rob Baker, joins us in our band room for a drink and tells us the story of how they found their security director. I had learned a lot about concert security just by watching him do his job, at sound checks he would walk every hallway, every staircase, and check every door, looking for potential breaks in a venues security. Apparently in the ‘90s the ‘Hip were playing a show and this guy was a bouncer. He noticed a young lady was being crushed in the audience. He ventured in to the crowd and scooped her up on to his shoulder. Carrying her out she realized she had lost her purse so he went back in the crowd and got it for her (she was still on his shoulder). He actually cared. Gord saw all this and asked to speak with him after the show. They offered him a job and he’s been travelling with the band ever since, probably more than twenty years now.
All of the shows we played on that Tragically Hip tour were in the United States. The venues ranged in size from 400-500 in the lower states to over 2000 the closer to Canada we drove. It was incredible seeing the band play some of those smaller venues and I couldn’t help but feel we were getting a feel for what it must have been like in their early club days. One very special night they were playing Prince’s old bar, First Avenue, in Minneapolis. First Avenue’s audience, like all the shows on the tour, had a HUGE Canadian contingency, but this one was more rambunctious than most. They yelled pro-Canada things between songs and were constantly waving flags or Canadian hockey jerseys. One of those jerseys ended up getting thrown on stage and the band’s guitar tech quickly removed it. Gord, while still singing, gestured to the tech to give him the jersey. The song comes to an end and Gord steps out over security and is balancing on the rail at the front of the audience, jersey in hand – he asked who owned it and this guy triumphantly cheers, his friends yelling and cheering with all their might while pointing at the owner as if he’d won a prize. Gord says (and I might not be word-for-word here as it has been a number of years), “you know how much of the world see Americans as being loud or obnoxious?”, the locals all look puzzled while the Canadians cheer and think this is great, “how Americans are known for waving flags and thinking they’re the best?”. Again the USA residents in the room are puzzled, while the Canadians become increasingly celebratory. “Well you sir are being far worse than any Americans I’ve ever met! We get that you’re from Canada, that’s nice, none of our American friends would come to a show in Canada and act like this” throwing the jersey back to the owner. Every American in attendance (and every Canadian except for the jersey owner and maybe his buddies) cheered at the top of their lungs and the Hip played out their incredible set having once again earned the respect we all carry for the band since their early days of the ’80s.
Its 2014, I’ve stopped playing music for a living and now live back in St. John’s where I’d taken a two year contract to book the Newfoundland & Labrador Folk Festival. We book a solo Gord Downie as our Saturday night headliner and he flies in a day early. At the airport we’re waiting for some rental vehicle documents and Gord says to me, “Wintersleep right?”. I’m blown away. He might not have remembered my name, but he remembered my old band? It had been seven years! A keen memory like that is incredible and I wish I could remember people as well.
Gord has brought his wife and four kids, two of which are adults at this point, and I’m introduced to them all on our way to the house they’ll call home for the next couple of days.
Later that evening something minor goes down and Gord and his family could use a hand, being that they’re strangers in a strange land and don’t necessarily know where anything is in our town. I get my festival duties covered and take care of them to the best of my ability. Things drag on and I end up with Gord and members of his family for hours. All is resolved and I drop them back at their house. The next day Gord presents me with a gift as a thank you. A couple books about art. You see I had mentioned the night before that I am an illustrator/graphic designer and we talked about art. I’m floored, again, by his spirit and generosity. He remembers the people he meets, makes time for them, and is genuinely interested when they speak. He hears you. I’ll have those books forever.
His set at the Folk Festival was incredible. He played a ton of material from his vast catalogue of tunes, and brought the house down with “Bobcaygeon”.
Afterwards a huge crowd amassed outside the Folk Festival back gate wanting to meet Gord. He put on his iconic white hat, marched out, and met with every single person. No one went home without a having their own Gord moment.
I dislike reading the online Tragically Hip stories that read like eulogies. I love the kind sentiments, I love hearing what the band has meant to us all, but I find it hard to read those with morbid tones. I started listening to the band when their debut EP was released more than thirty years ago, “Last American Exit” on cassette still rings in my head. I’ve changed my music tastes a hundred times, but The ‘Hip have always remained cool to go back to. Gord and the band have accomplished so much, anyone would be proud and satisfied with their incredible history, but if you think their story ends in Kingston on August 20th…. I’ve seen no official mention that its the band’s last show, my best guess is it won’t be.
I’m not going to any of the Tragically Hip shows on this tour, I knew it would be impossible to get tickets – but I think its for the best. I have so many incredible memories of the band and I love that the sold out crowds are making new ones. I feel the ‘Hip belong to all Canadians and its exciting for us all to have our own ‘Hip memories. I lived in Kingston in the late 80’s when I was too young to get in to the clubs. My parents however, remember The Tragically Hip being the big band around town, long before Kingston named a street for them. I’ve seen them play between 20 and 30 times and feel lucky that the last two Wintersleep tours I did were opening for The Hip (Wintersleep by the way, are still going strong, embarking on a massive Europe/UK tour in the coming days in support of their sixth album that came out earlier this year). I spent a day at a music video shoot in Halifax as an extra in Gord Downie’s video for “Pascal’s Submarine”. I was nominated for a 2005 Juno Award for Album Packaging of the Year (with my bud James Mejia) and lost to the Hip’s beautiful box set Yer Favourites… and, in Newfoundland I got to spend a little bit of one-on-one time with Gord, he bragged about his kids, and we talked about art.
An illustration I made today thinking about The Tragically Hip’s 30+ incredible years.
Feel free to share or post the image as much as you like.
It is being sold at www.ingordwetrust.com with proceeds going to the Gord Downie Brain Cancer Research Fund. Click link if you’d like to purchase one…