In two days, I’m going to see The Tragically Hip play at the Saddledome. I will freely admit that, somewhat stereotypically Canadian of me, The Hip is my favourite band. So I will also state that I’m excited to see them play. However, I’m also somewhat dreading it, too. It’ll be the last time I see them live, in person. It’s their final tour.
Not all Canadians care. I don’t know how many do (I’ll optimistically suggest 40%), but a few of us are more passionate. But it’s not because we’re that passionate about the band per se, it’s more about how The Tragically Hip have affected our lives (past and/or present), to the point where we have defined stories that involve or revolve around them.
My First Hip
I can’t tell you the date, but I can definitely tell you the year: 1991. And I can tell you the place: Dave Begg’s parents’ house, where he was hosting a classic “high school house party”. I believe it was later in the year, as I do recall university being a factor, and all of us had graduated high school in spring of that year. We were energetic, naive, enjoying our first years beyond the households we’d been nurtured within, defining ourselves as individuals … well, when you’re fresh to university, you think freely, right?
Anyway, this particular party, I was admiring Dave’s capacity to down copious amounts of beer with the only apparent effect being the colour of his cheeks. (Though nearly all of us were 19 and legally allowed to drink, I would not start drinking for another four years.) We were all chatting, laughing, not really reminiscing high school yet (we wouldn’t yet learn how sublime high school was compared to the pressures and stress of the Real World™ beyond), and vaguely listening to the CD playing loudly in the stereo.
I’m attracted to music. Today, in the present, I will freely admit that music can distract me so much that I find it difficult to have conversations with people right in front of me when there’s music I wish to listen to. But even then, in my youthful ability to do a thousand things at once, I found myself paying close attention to the song I heard: Cordelia.
By that point, like anyone who listened to rock on the radio, we knew of The Hip. New Orleans Is Sinking, Blow At High Dough, and 38 Years Old were already well-known from The Hip’s second album. By the time of the party, Little Bones, Twist My Arm, and Three Pistols had all received sufficient CanCon airtime to enter into our “oh yeah, I’ve heard that before” catalogues. Cordelia hit me rather suddenly:
Angst on the planks, spitting from a bridge
Just to see how far down it really is
Those are the opening lines. They don’t seem like much, but having read Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye earlier in the year (for one of my high school English classes), the scene of the novel’s protagonist standing on a bridge with her friend Cordelia, acting out that very motion, suddenly rang with me. (For the record, I’ve always believed that Cordelia references Cat’s Eye; I also suspect I’m the only person who believes that.)
I paid much closer attention to the album after that, since no-one bothered to replace it with anything else, so it just kept playing. Though it was nascent, it was that night I became a fan of The Tragically Hip.
By the time Fully Completely came to existence barely a year later, The Hip had gone from being merely known to more of a household name. So much so that, for the first time that I’d ever heard of it, their album would be released for sale at midnight on 6 October 1992.
I was attending the University of Waterloo. Just a block to the east of the campus, at 150 University Drive (where it meets Phillip Street), was an HMV (I think it’s now a Burger King). It was a store I knew well, but generally didn’t frequent (CDs started at $20 back in those days, and university students generally were on tight budgets). But that night, easily a hundred like-minded people joined the line to be among the first in Canada to get their hands on the new Hip album.
Twenty-four years on, it’s hard to remember details, but I do remember the store being smart enough to have stacks of the discs ready to roll, and the cashiers ready to roll them out as quickly as possible. The album was playing over the speakers, which gave us the sample of what we were about to listen to as soon as we could get back to our respective holes in the wall.
At the time, I was living at the University’s Columbia Lake Townhouses, a student “community” on the northwest corner of the University’s land, a series of buildings that generally felt like they’d been assembled by students, with all the attention to detail one would expect. Though my memory is a bit faded, I’m fairly certain I walked (I don’t recall having a car at the time, but I’ve been known to be wrong before.) It was 2.5 km straight-line distance to my stereo.
It was a $500 special my dad had helped me buy some years earlier, when I worked for his company as a general labourer (I supplied the hard-earned cash, he supplied the bargaining experience). He’d taken me to a discount stereo place on Dundas St. at the edge of Toronto. It was a Fisher. Nothing fancy, but it had more than enough oomph to overpower most of the stereos in Village 1 the year before.
My roommates were asleep when I got back. Roger, Brian, and Ed were great guys, but were studious. They weren’t partiers, something I was thankful for. But it also meant that I had to listen to my new purchase on headphones, rather than disturb them with Fully Completely. From beginning to end, it was an album that helped me rethink of how I viewed Canadian music. Like Road Apples before it, there were a few hits, but there were many songs that went well beyond a mere guitar hook or melody. These were things I wouldn’t yet appreciate for years to come, but it was here I learned more about the strength of a lyric.
Skip ahead 22 years. I’m married, with kids, living a few thousand kilometres away in the foothills of the Rockies. And The Tragically Hip were touring again, playing Fully Completely in its entirety, front to back (despite the album being pressed in one order, and the liner notes suggesting a different one), and for a few moments I felt that moment back in my sparse university room, listening on headphones, to something new.
Another Roadside Attraction
It was 1997. I’d left university (I’d not actually graduated yet, though my mother would usher me though that stage), and was working in downtown Toronto at a small software company. My friend Gerry Dessureau had gotten me the interview, and I was willing to subject myself to some rather poor startup habits in an effort to make a mark in my career-to-be.
I’m not sure if was Gerry, or our co-worker and friend Mike Klinowski who had first mentioned it, but Another Roadside Attraction was coming. And the lineup sounded pretty darned good.
The 1990s had seen the rise of the music festival: Lollapalooza, Lilith Fair, Ozzfest, Warped Tour, Edgefest (a Toronto-area event), and the Woodstock revival. (Interesting fact: The Tragically Hip were lauded for their appearance at Woodstock ’99.) Whether these tours became a factor in their decision to run their tour that year (Trouble at the Henhouse came out the previous year, followed by their live album, Live Between Us, earlier in ’97), or that they just wanted to have fun with a bunch of friends, I don’t know. But tour they did, and they brought some really big names with them, starting with supporting and promoting Canadian indie band Wilco and indie sensation Ron Sexsmith, and Canadian Ashley MacIssac (who was still riding high on his Hi™ How Are You Today? album). Along for the ride were also Sheryl Crow (her self-titled second album also released in 1996), and Los Lobos (who, really, needed no introduction). But the headliners were still The Tragically Hip.
The date was set for Sunday, 3 August 1997. The location was Molson Park in Barrie, a large festival space next to the Molson brewery. I picked up Mike at the Kipling Station in far-west Toronto, then swung north to pick up Gerry in Brampton. We drove up the 400 that morning in anticipation of a great day in the sun, to experience … whatever there was to experience. I’d never been to an event such as this, and though there had been many like it by this point, it was unknown to me.
Even in 1997, the approach to Barrie was slow on the 400, and we were diverted to Veterans Drive to the west to sneak in through the north end of the facility. (It’s worth noting that Molson’s closed in Barrie, and sold all the land. Where we saw the Hip is now a shopping mall.) We parked, and braced ourselves for whatever was to come.
The more unknown acts, notably Van Allen Belt, Change of Heart, and the Mutton Birds were on early. So we diverted to the beer garden and the merchandise stalls. It would be Ron Sexsmith that drew us out to the massive greenspace where some 35,000 of new-found friends would gather together over the course of the next few hours. I don’t quite remember the order of performers, though I know that Ashley MacIssac, Los Lobos, Sheryl Crow, and the Hip were the last four. I remember being front-and-nearly-centre for MacIssac, who elicited a mosh pit for playing a (fiddle!) cover of the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive.
And I remember someone landing on my head.
Remember, it was the 90s. People crowd-surfed. And as was always the case, you had to keep an eye out for people headed towards the front of the crowd. Sadly, I didn’t see this guy coming, and I ended up creating the dreaded “hole”. My head cranked to the right. Before I could blink, Gerry had grabbed me and hauled me out of the pack to make sure nothing was broken. Lucky, owing largely to my youth (and possible intoxication), I was fine (I wouldn’t even have the sore neck later). But the events kept me away from the front. Mike, however, was at the front fence; we wouldn’t see him again until nearly midnight.
I still remember the moment The Hip took the stage. It was the first time I’d seen them live, a moment I’d been (unknowingly) waiting to happen for years. If you believe the internet, the first Hip song I heard live was Springtime in Vienna. Though, to be fair, I don’t remember. I do remember hearing the audience overpower them, singing New Orleans Is Sinking, and I remember Ashley MacIssac joining them for a song (history records this as Wheat Kings). I remember witnessing Gord Downie’s presence on the stage, how he both fed and drew energy from the audience. I remember thinking that he must’ve been high on something, because I couldn’t understand how someone could be so acutely strange on stage without being deliberate; I would learn later that to witness Canada’s Poet Musician in the act is an experience in and of itself. And I remember the thunderous applause for the Sons of Kingston, Ontario.
And I remember looking for nearly an hour to find Mike, who’d been pressed so hard into the fence that he’d not been able to escape, the lucky bastard. We waited another hour before the traffic died down enough that we could leave. It was a long, quiet trip back into town. Downtown Toronto was silent at 3am Monday morning, save for the woman in a taxi next to us who flashed her breasts at a rather stunned Mike, who neglected to alert Gerry or I to the spectacle. Gerry stayed at Mike’s that night, whereas I would return to Oakville; all of us still had work in a few hours.
Road Trip to Red Deer
In 2013, the tour supporting Now For Plan A would not come to Calgary until July; their route would only come as close as Red Deer, about 90 minutes north of Calgary. And in the prairies, 90 minutes is just a long commute, not remotely a barrier for my friend Scott and I.
But a mere concert this was not, if just because of the date: 22 January 2013, just three days before Alex’s birthday. So when Alex decided that she wanted to go to Edmonton, there was a problem to resolve. One does not tell one’s wife that you will not be present for their desires.
Options included both Scott and I driving (not ideal, as then both Alex and I would be driving to Edmonton and back), Alex dropping us off for the concert and waiting (also not ideal, since Scott wouldn’t have a way back, and it meant an overnight in Red Deer), or (in the final version), Scott would drive me to Red Deer, and then I would bus to Edmonton after the concert.
Scott and I left early from work. Alex and the kids would leave roughly the same time, but would go directly to Edmonton (they would meet with one of Alex’s friends that evening). Scott and I went to the Toad n’ Turtle, a pub at the south end of Red Deer, a short hop from Westerner Park, where the concert would unfold that night. We ate, we drank, we whiled away the hours until it was time.
The last time I’d been in a “small town” venue was when I’d been fortunate enough to see David Bowie in Kelowna. (The two cities are fairly similar in size.) It was a large hockey arena, appropriate for its two Canadian guests that evening: The Hip, and their opening act, The Arkells.
Until a few days earlier, I hadn’t really known of The Arkells. I might have heard a song or two of theirs on the radio, but it would have likely been by chance and I wouldn’t have known it. But since we knew they were the opening act, both Scott and I listened to them in advance to see if they were worth seeing. In roughly the same amount of time since we’d started listening, both of us had each bought both of The Arkells’ albums, and were anxious to see them perform.
Well-placed on the floor towards the front, we were left in awe of The Hip’s choice to prime the audience. The Arkells came out punching, and didn’t let up for the entire hour of their set. They engaged directly with the audience. They played the songs that Scott and I had come to know only days earlier (such as already-mainstays Whistleblower and The Boss Is Coming), and dropped epic covers from not only Motown, but also The Clash’s Rock The Casbah.
I might not remember all that was said that night, but I do remember commenting to Scott during the lull between acts that The Hip had a hell of an act to have to follow.
The Tragically Hip did not disappoint. Not even remotely.
They played more from their recent albums than from their back catalogue, including the rather curious Man Machine Poem, a literal poem set to music. To watch Gord Downie perform it on stage was like a grand operatic drama woven amongst the guitars and drums of modern rock.
Selfishly, my favourite moment was hearing My Music At Work, which had been a personal theme of mine for years, stemming from my career in digital marketing. I found the words echoed very much in mind:
Everything is bleak
It’s the middle of the night
You’re all alone and
The dummies might be right
You feel like a jerk
My music at work
Following the final song of the encore, Blow At High Dough, Scott dropped me off at the Denny’s on 50th Ave so I could wait in relative comfort until my bus. Despite all my grand foresight, one thing I had not picked up on until much too late was that the buses didn’t run as frequently as I’d liked. The earliest bus was 3am. Like so many years before, I would find myself up to a very early hour, catch glimpses of sleep, before needing to be awake in a distant city.
Others would come into the Denny’s as I sat and read. I overheard their conversations. More than a few were commenting on the concert. It was strongly believed that The Hip were staying at the Sheraton just down the road, and wouldn’t it be cool to see them there? It would, I nodded to myself, but I wouldn’t want to be a pest. So I sat and drank my coffee, ate my snack, and packed up for the cold walk to the bus station.
In June of that same year, I caught wind of plans for a Canada Day concert in London, England, which would feature The Tragically Hip. At the time, I could only smile to myself and think of how fun that would be … and how much I wanted to go back to London. But without even having to question, I knew that getting time away from my family (which included three- and five-year olds) was only a pipe dream. The wistfulness only got worse as The Arkells were added, followed by The Sheepdogs.
Then they added Jann Arden to the line-up.
I have to admit, I’m not a ardent Arden fan. I feel kind of bad for having to say that, especially given that I live in her hometown. I’ve been to one of her concerts, and she is a brilliant performer. Her ability to deliver cracking stand-up comedy amidst heart-wrenching songs is an admirable talent. But her music doesn’t resonate with me as much as it does my wife. Mind you, that might not be a fair comparison; I’m not sure that I love The Hip as much as Alex loves Jann Arden. It’s almost stalker-ish.
So when Alex joked that we should go to London for Canada Day, the laughter was short and nervous, filled with a thick dose of “why not?”.
The kids were “why not”, of course. We weren’t comfortable with the idea of taking them to England. Then we turned uncharacteristically selfish (at least insofar as our offspring are concerned) and started wondering how we might be able to steal away for a few days and leave them in the hands of family who live in town. And, rather suddenly, we had booked airfare to England and found as cheap a hotel as we could while remaining inside Zone 1 of the Underground.
It was a wonderfully refreshing experience to fly with only Alex at my side, and not having to worry about children on a plane. (We would worry about them in other ways, of course, but entertaining children on an eight-hour flight was something were just weren’t ready for.) We weren’t in First Class, but for our first parents-only getaway, it might as well have been a private berth on a luxury steamship.
In the days leading up to Canada Day, we took advantage of being childless in London: we toured. We walked the streets in the rain, went to the Tower of London, and Tower Bridge. We saw Spamalot on a whim. I finally got to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral, something I’d longed to do since my first visit to London many years earlier.
As a boy, my father participated in a choir. He was known as “The Deacon” to his friends; he loved to belt out Christmas carols. One year, he had travelled to London, and performed at St. Paul’s. This was a source of personal pride for him. I wanted to know what it was like.
St. Paul’s is an impressive building, both for architecture and for art. And it that had been all that I had seen, then perhaps the moment would have passed as little more than a tick on my London To Do list. But as I rounded a pillar (cursing again the limitation that prevented me from taking pictures inside), a choir started to sing. I looked over, to see a small group of kids, boys and girls, directly under massive dome. I froze. As their voices wafted and echoed across the stone interior, I could almost hear my father’s voice. It’s rare for me to cry in public.
On the day before the concert, we were invited to join Alex’s friend’s family in Cambridge, where she had obtained her law degree. I nearly had another brush with my father’s ghost, in the form of King’s College Chapel, the home of my father’s favourite choir. Thankfully (I suppose), the Chapel was closed for a private function, so the waterworks were kept at bay. Instead, Alex’s friend Kirstie took us on a guided tour of the millennia-old university.
Kirstie and her family would meet us the following morning in Trafalgar Square for Canada Day. Though not a Bank Holiday in London, it was a chance to get some Canadiana for them; Kirstie had spent some of her childhood in Calgary (it’s how she and Alex know each other). We got in line for the pancakes and waffles, walked past the Blackberry booth (Blackberry was a sponsor of the event), and sat down to watch the street hockey tournament. Kirstie wouldn’t stay the entire day, she had to retrieve her youngest from daycare; her husband Grenville would stay for the concert.
The first band up was one I’d never heard of before: Northern Cree, a First Nations Pow-Wow and Round Dance singing group. It’s a bit of a shame that as Canadians, we didn’t know who they were, or could recognize that we’d probably heard them perform many times before but didn’t know. And I wonder how exotic they seemed to the British, who certainly don’t come across such music.
The Arkells came next, and unloaded their vibe across the Square, and onto the streets beyond. Where Northern Cree might have attracted attention, The Arkells became a full-on beacon for what was to come, and the crowds started to grow. That was when I ran into my friend Terri, who had moved to England some years earlier, and had acquired an accent to boot. It wasn’t easy to chat up while also trying to listen to music. I think I did it rather poorly, to be honest.
I lost Alex (and Terri) for the duration of Jann Arden’s set, even though Jann had stripped her performance down considerably, coming only with two other musicians and playing acoustically. As The Sheepdogs started to play, we opted to take our leave for a bit and get a break from the crowds. Though I did want to see The Sheepdogs play, even I felt like a break might be good.
We got only as far as Parliament Square Garden, across from the Palace of Westminster. Alex opted to call it an evening and head back to our room, and leave me to wind up the show. I will admit a certain amount of conflict within me: should I stay with my wife, or go see what would likely be a brilliant outdoor concert? (There’s a Clash song that echoes the sentiment…)
But Alex encouraged me to go. We had come all this way, and she wasn’t going to have any part in me missing The Hip in London. So I wound my way back to Trafalgar Square, dove back into the crowds, and as politely as a Canadian can, worked my way within a couple of people of the front fence. No mosh pits would land people on my head this time.
From my position at Stage Left, I could see the band approach on the stairs, following George Stroumboulopoulos. Strombo, as he’s known in shorthand, is Canada’s music geek. He hosts a show on CBC Radio 2, playing pretty much what he likes, saying whatever comes to mind. He’s known for being a terrific interviewer, and does his research. Although he’s appeared on CNN (a point that still puzzles me), I suspect that non-Canucks in the audience that night hadn’t a clue who he was. But everyone knew who he was introducing.
They opened with At Transformation, a leading track from Now For Plan A, and followed with Grace, Too. The one-two punch got people excited. And we all waited for Gord Downie to unleash himself, demonstrating to Britain that their former colony had talents they couldn’t have imagined.
Though the set was fairly close to the one I’d seen in Red Deer only a few months earlier, the crowd was decidedly more energetic, likely further enthused by the day and the location. Canadian flags were everywhere, either in the traditional form, or emblazoned on hats or shirts. Everyone in the audience knew the words. The only thing saving the band from being overpowered during the chorus of New Orleans Is Sinking (which wrapped Nautical Disaster) was the size of the audio system; had I been further back, I suspect the audience might have won.
There was no real encore. Instead, The Hip did a song I’d never heard them play before: O Canada. If there were a moment to give me real chills, despite the hot summer evening, I’d struggle to think of one.
With the concert over, the Square started to empty. In hopes of finding Terri and apologizing for our rather aborted discussion, I raced back to the steps before The National Gallery where I had last seen her. However, amongst tens of thousands of people, it’s exceptionally hard to find just one. So I was quite surprised to suddenly find myself talking to Grenville, whom I’d lost track of several hours earlier.
We moved to The Chandos, a nearby pub, to quaff a pair of pints before having to go our respective ways. We discussed the concert in quite some detail. I was curious to hear Gren’s thoughts, especially being a Brit, and Brit’s take their music seriously. I mean, this is the home of more legends of rock and influences to nearly every genre of music I know. It’s not a place you walk into and expect to be respected; you have to earn that right. And Gren is probably as good a representation of that knowledge as I can think of. Suffice to say, I expected reservation.
What I got was: “They’re really good!” he exclaimed between sips of a bitter, “I’ll need to listen to more of them!”
The stories to come…
Like any good book, there’s always room for more. The question that dogs us is: how much more? Since Gord Downie announced his cancer diagnosis, we’ve all breathed softly, already expecting the worst. Though he has endured treatment, the inevitability of the disease hangs over everything like a looming storm.
I have at least two more stories to add. The first one will be on Monday, when The Hip play here in Calgary, the first of two shows. I’ll be in the 8th row with Alex — her first Hip concert. I’m simultaneously excited to see them again, and I’m dreading the finality of it. I hate to see them leave.
The second, and possibly last, will be on 20 August, when The Hip play what might be their final concert. Ever. They’re playing at home in Kingston, which CBC is livecasting to those of us unable to be there.
We don’t know what to expect. We don’t know what to think. In the end, though, we’ll always have our stories.