On Gord Downie, My Dad, and the People We Take For Granted
Hello, I am here with yet another emo Tragically Hip thinkpiece.
Gord Downie, as he should be, in a denim jacket. Photo via CP
When I was a teenager, my 52-year-old dad died of a brain tumour, leaving behind a heartbroken family.
Watching this beloved, dynamic man suffer through such a cruel and unforgiving disease is the hardest thing I've ever experienced, and even though it's now been more than a decade, I will forever be a little bit broken by his passing.
Finding out that Gord Downie, also 52, had been diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour was an echo of something all too familiar. And while I have never met him and cannot pretend to know what he and his loved ones are going through, I know that this cancer (any cancer, really) brings about a fresh kind of hell for all involved.
Last night, I had the privilege of seeing one of Mr. Downie's last shows, in front of a full house at the Ottawa Canadian Tire Centre. The show was incredible: energetic, emotional and Canadian as fuck. Everyone around me in the nosebleed section stood through the entire two-and-a-half hour performance, singing along through every song. I teared up when the first bars of "Nautical Disaster" rang out, and wept when Gord, singing the words "and we're heading for home," pointed up at the sky.
Sure, he was actually pointing at the metal ceiling of a sports arena, but the symbolism of this gesture cut through all of the artifice of a rock show and brought me right back to a place of intense vulnerability.
To just take a little detour back to my dad: he was an amazing man fueled by the great outdoors, politics, and his family. I was a total daddy's girl and loved our camping trips, bike rides, and rollerblading excursions (this was obviously in the 90s). But there is a moment in my early teens that will be forever seared into my memory. As he dropped me off at middle school, my dad told me that soon, I wouldn't want to hang out with him anymore because that would no longer be considered cool. That would be ok, he assured me, because all teens go through this and he would understand. I told him he was crazy, hugged him, and went to class.
As he predicted, I became a total teenage asshole, eschewing our hangouts in favour of bush parties and boys and often treating him like a nuisance who just didn't get me anymore.
If only I had known how little time I had left.
As I stood there, in a stadium with tens of thousands of people worshipping Gord Downie, I realized that in a way, a lot of Hip fans have been like ingrate teens. The band has been so ubiquitous on Canadian radio, a comforting if not overplayed soundtrack often resented for being too present (thanks CanCon requirements!). We didn't appreciate the Hip because we just figured they'd be around forever, putting out another album every two or three years, each one with at least one killer single.
I had long been the band's target audience, a rural Canadian kid who grew up fishing and hanging out in Tim Hortons parking lots. My musical library was largely based on what local radio stations played, and so that meant a healthy dose of The Tragically Hip. When I left for the big city and met cooler people than I, my tastes evolved. Liking the Hip became as corny and embarrassing as my predilection for Tim's double-doubles and chocolate-chip muffins, and I needed to shirk my pseudo-redneck past to fit in with all the cultured, fancy city people I was meeting.
Rediscovering the band's library in recent months has been a revelation. For one, the songs make me deeply nostalgic for the ski-doo trips and high-school parties they used to score. But it's also made me realize how much we take for granted, constantly.
Getting to last night's Hip concert was an absolute cluster fuck: I'd been out of town all day covering a medieval role-playing event for work (which I was forced to do whilst wearing a floor-length long-sleeved velvet princess gown) and got back home to Montreal (very sweaty, disgusting, and exhausted) with just enough time to make the two hour drive to Ottawa for the show. Then, I accidentally Google mapped us to the airport instead of the Canadian Tire Centre and walked into the venue just as the canteen ran out of beer and the band played the first chords of "Boots or Hearts."
But seeing Downie swaying around the stage in his metallic suits and assortment of tall hats made me (and I think, everyone in the arena) realize how lucky we'd been to have this brilliant mad poet composing the soundtrack to Canada all of this time. Seeing his chemo-puffed cheeks reminded me of my dad and made me think about all the pain Downie and his family must be going through at the moment.
After my father had his tumour removed, he became a completely different person; impatient, confused and meek. There was this one night near the end, however, where he had this incredible moment of lucidity during which he asked me about my dreams and told me not to worry about the future. In that moment, I had the occasion to really thank him for everything he'd done for me: the boat rides, the life advice, the bandaged knee scrapes...
Last night, as the ravenous crowd pleaded for not one but two encores, Downie obliged and then told us (told us!) to take care. I realized this tour was like Canada's lucid moment, our opportunity to tell Downie how loved and appreciated he'd been. Despite our petulant and fickle fandom, despite our underappreciation of his words and magic, Downie has left an indelible mark on the people he's leaving behind. And though we are all, at times, like silly navel-gazing teenagers, his fading is a reminder that we should not wait for impending tragedy to express our appreciation for the people who shape us.
As Gord once put it, "all songs are one song and that song is Don't Forget."
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