“Each night he not only establishes an emotional connection with his audience but re-establishes his own connection to the songs.” – Chris Nadler, Creem Magazine Vol.2 No. 4, April 1993
Man Machine Poem – in typical fashion The Tragically Hip have a knack for saying it better than any critic or reviewer could. As a writer, it is a challenge to write about Gord Downie at a time when so many others are inking his praises. The trick is to have something a little different to add, something to share about the man who has spent his career becoming synonymous with home. Canadians, coast to coast, have adopted The Hip (and the band’s laureate front man) as a symbol of this country on par with hockey and the maple leaf. Nothing makes the band’s cultural impact more clear than our country’s reaction to Gord’s illness and final performance in Kingston, Ontario on August 20th 2016.
Admittedly, I have not followed the band’s career, but still I have always appreciated many songs from the Hip’s catalogue over the years. So I decided to watch the CBC’s broadcast of their final show in Kingston last night and finally witnessed what the hype has been about. I have attended many concerts in my lifetime and have learned that the best ones are engaging, stories are told (either directly or indirectly through song), and the audience feels included – Kumbaya. The Tragically Hip and especially Gord Downie, excel at delivering an engaging show, Gord is a story teller and he definitely connects with his audience – and this is why the band has always had a huge following for their live performances.
During the Kingston show, while taking notes, I remembered a magazine I have held onto for many years (purchased for a Depeche Mode feature and cover during the height of my fandom) which includes an article on The Tragically Hip from the spring of 1993 while touring to support their latest release, Fully Completely. As soon as the simulcast was over I dusted off my 23 year old issue of rock magazine Creem and flipped to the article where Gord explains to the interviewer his approach to touring:
“I always try to make sure I understand the lyrics every night when I’m singing them, because when you tour a lot it’s very easy for the words to become amorphous blobs that just sort of come out. So I try to get in touch with the lyrics every night. And they can mean different things to me on a different night. I try to let the lyrics do the talking and that tends to manifest itself in the performance.”
Now that I have watched the band perform live, albeit from my couch, I can attest (like the legions of Hip fans across this nation) to the fact that this more than “tends to” manifest in his performance – it truly defines it.
The final show, simulcast in all provinces, linked fans in all of our great cities and small towns for one night – a bold declaration of unified vivacity. Despite the permeating tone in much of the tour’s media coverage that has reeked of a premature eulogy – Gord gave of himself to remind everyone to enjoy life despite the inevitable end we ALL face.
Flipping back to the 1993 interview with Gord, he discusses his thoughts on some of the songs that have now become fan favourites. On 50 Mission Cap Gord explains where the lyrics came from:
“A tiny little hockey card and the information on the back. The lyrics are not verbatim, but that’s where they came from. I remember thinking “You can’t do this. This is unconscionable. You’ve got Lou Reed writing about a friend dying of cancer and here you are writing about this.” But then, as a piece of Canadian folklore, it works perfectly.”
As always, the words of Gord Downie perfectly fit the situation and there is nothing else we can really say at the end of this final tour to the man who has given us so much to think about during his impressive career – but for the humblest of thanks.