Monday, 22 August 2016

"Have a nice life."

Some years ago, I ran into my ex-boyfriend.  We'd been having a friendly chat, so I was startled when, as he walked off, he said, "Have a nice life."  I realized I would never see him again.

On Saturday evening, I joined eleven million other Canadians - that's roughly a third of the country, folks - in watching a dying man's final concert. As massively morbid as that sounds, there were many moments of joy, of poignancy and even awkwardness.

 Of course, that was a Tragically Hip concert at the best of times.

This wasn't the best of times. Gordon Downie, the Hip's lead singer, was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer not long ago. This follows hard on the heels of the farewell concert for John Mann, the lead singer of The Spirit of the West, who is heading down the long road of early onset Alzheimer's. The Hip are huge in Canada, so they too decided to embark on a 15-concert farewell tour, starting in Victoria on July 22nd, passing through Hades on August 18th, and finishing in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario on Saturday night.

Demand for tickets was so high that the CBC actually put aside three hours of prime Olympic Games broadcast time - on the last full day of competition, if you please - and broadcast the concert via television, radio and the Internet.

I'm not even a "Hip-head", but you can't live in Canada and be unaware of their music.  I first heard them through Much Music, of course, back in the late eighties when they played driving rock and mostly appealed to adolescent and post-adolescent boys.  As Downie himself commented between songs Saturday night, the "girls" finally started following the Hip in the mid-nineties and, indeed, the first Hip song I recall even liking was the wistful and regretful "Ahead by a Century".  This is also the one song the Resident Fan Boy recognizes -- and he thought it was by some English group because of the cricket reference.

With illusions of some day
Casting a golden light
No dress rehearsal
This is our life.

The Tragically Hip have been described, maybe several times too often, as the quintessential Canadian band, especially over the past few weeks as CBC Radio has been playing hours of Hip music and Hip-related interviews.  Rush fans might contest the "most Canadian band" thing, but frankly, the appeal of Rush has always eluded me.  Geddy Lee, Rush's lead singer, said on yet another CBC Hip-related interview that most people might argue that Bobcaygeon is the most Canadian song (it isn't - that's so Ontario), but he thought that "Fifty Mission Cap" was.  An odd choice, considering that Canadians never had a fifty mission cap, to the best of my knowledge.  When the song opened the concert, the RFB and I looked at each other in bemusement.  Like most of Gordon Downie's songs, the lyrics are a bit obscure and you have to look them up on some web site like A Museum After Dark to know what the hell he's going on about.

You won't be surprised to learn that I disagree with Geddy Lee.  I think the most Canadian song ever is indeed a Hip Song:
Like "Fifty Mission Cap", "Fireworks" also references hockey, in this case, the hockey moment that every Canadian above the age of thirty-five remembers - Paul Henderson's goal at the 1972 Summit Series. However, it also features a girl who doesn't "give a f*&% about hockey" (sister!), and mentions the dreaded Canadian Fitness Programme that made P.E. a hell on earth for kids attending school between 1970 and 1990.

So, I, the non-Hip-head, remained entranced in my chair throughout three sets and three encores, with the growing realization that these songs were being performed for the last time.

Among other things, Downie sang about a cholera epidemic, Hugh MacLennan, the mysterious disappearance of a member of the Group of Seven, the sinking of the Bismarck, and the wrongful conviction and imprisonment of David Milgaard.  He even cornered the Prime Minister of Canada about Attawapiskat and the continuing crisis with the First Nations.

Each song sounded like a finale, but I looked at the Resident Fan Boy and shook my head.  "He hasn't sung 'Locked in the Trunk of a Car' or 'Ahead by a Century' yet."

Finally, Rob Barker started an unfamiliar acoustic solo with a familiar rhythm that segued into the unmistakeable opening chords.

Here's how it sounded in Edmonton, about three weeks before that.

However, Kingston is the hometown of the Hip and with this song, as with all songs that last evening, the crowd sang along, and as the instruments took over, Downie had a last communion with the crowd, who eagerly and almost desperately reached out to him. The sound quality in the video below, taken near the stage in Kingston, is not as clear as the CBC broadcast, but this gives you some indication of the atmosphere, and why so many people across Canada were crying.

Not long before this, Gordon Downie told the audience to "have a nice life".

When a Canadian says that, you know it's goodbye for good.

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