By Chad Ingram
Published Aug. 23, 2016
Last Saturday night, a number of Minden residents made their way into the village’s downtown to an outdoor screen set up at the River Cone to watch a rock and roll show.
Similar rituals unfolded in hundreds upon hundreds of Canadian communities that evening.
That show was most likely the last-ever concert by The Tragically Hip.
Not far from Minden, in Bobcaygeon, a cottage country community forever mythologized by one of the band’s biggest hits, thousands packed its main street to watch what will be remembered as a poignant moment in the country’s cultural history.
For anyone unaware, in May, the band’s frontman and lyricist, Gord Downie, announced he has terminal brain cancer.
Shortly after, The Hip announced a 15-show farewell tour that culminated Saturday night in a final concert in their hometown of Kingston, which was broadcast live by the CBC.
Some 12 million of us tuned in to watch. That’s a third of the country.
If you are a Canadian of a certain age, you know The Tragically Hip. Even if you are not a fan, you know them. You know their music. You know their songs. That’s because they have been a ubiquitous backdrop to our lives. You heard The Hip in the halls of your high school, at the mall, at parties, in campus pubs and arenas.
It’s not that The Tragically Hip have permeated Canadian culture as much as they have helped to define it.
Downie’s lyrics are laced with Canadiana, with references to the prairies and hockey and prime ministers, with the story of David Milgaard and the journey of European settlers to North America.
Downie was once asked why The Hip’s songs focused so much on the place that is Canada.
His response was simple: That’s where we’re from.
His love of place has earned him a place in the hearts of Canadians that will transcend generations.
Though clearly diminished by the disease that is bound to take his life, what Downie gave the country on Saturday night was a rock spectacle, a dramatic goodbye, an energetic show understandably brimming with sorrow. On occasion he’d check the imaginary watch on his wrist. Perhaps the most wrenching part was watching Downie weep during a rendition of the song Grace, Too, his tears culminating in a series of haunting screams before he dropped the microphone on the stage.
However, the biggest gift Downie imparted to Canadians last Saturday was a lesson from a man who knows his time is limited. This is a man staring his own mortality dead in the eye. You could see it in his face. This is a man with a cancerous tumour in his left temporal lobe and for nearly three straight hours, decked in a series of shiny suits and flamboyant, feathered hats, he sang and danced in glorious defiance of the grim reaper, sharing his passion with his fans one last time.
That required a remarkable amount of bravery, courage and grace, too.
It was a poignant and haunting reminder to those of us without a sentence on our lives to live life and live it fully. Completely.