I watched Sunday's concert at Rogers Arena with tears in my eyes. As Gord Downie closed the show with kisses to the cheeks of his bandmates and nods of gratitude to the 20,000 fans in Vancouver, the courage the lead singer displayed overwhelmed me. It saddened me, too.
Downie, my cultural hero, is battling the same awful disease -- glioblastoma multiforme -- that took the life of my wife, Julia Pelish-Brijbassi, 137 days ago. The monstrous form of cancer is aggressive and there is no cure for it. Downie has already gone through an energy-sapping radiation and chemotherapy protocol.
Yet, he didn't hold back during the second of 15 scheduled concerts on the Man Machine Poem Tour. His performances are always riveting; more so this time because of the bravery of it. From his facial expressions, he was clearly soaking in the love coming his way and remembering, too, previous shows in this part of Canada. "We've had a lot of great times in this town," he told the audience during the encore.
Downie knows what he's up against and so too do his bandmates and many fans. We may never see a tour such as this one again. It has the most unusual, bittersweet dynamic of fans and rock-star heroes knowing this could be it.
In Vancouver, both the band and the fans wanted to communicate how much they each mean to the other. What the Hip mean to me is 30 years of joy, nostalgia, escape and inspiration. Their music will be the soundtrack at my funeral.
These five pals from Kingston have gotten into the hearts of their most ardent fans, this one included, because they found commonality in a country that didn't know what to think of itself. In the 1980s and '90s, the Hip helped define my generation of post-Loverboy Canadians. They came out singing hockey songs that didn't sound country corny and other tunes that included references to the nation's history and icons without coming across as parochial. Many of us were amazed a band could do that and still sound, well, hip.
Being unabashedly Canadian worked for Downie and crew early on because they connected with an audience yearning for an identity beyond not-American. In songs about Dieppe and Hugh McLennan and David Milgaard and the Kingston Penitentiary and single nights in Toronto, the Hip said our history and culture mattered; the experiences of Canadians had just as much right to be considered seriously as those of any other group.
When I first heard the Hip it was in a video for "Smalltown Bringdown" and I thought for a moment Jim Morrison had been reincarnated. With a headful of out-of-control hair, Downie mesmerized, making the band curious beyond the music. The next single, "Last American Exit," galvanized the Canadian road trip in song and for the nine years I lived in the United States, I would cue it up on the CD player just as I hit the border on my way home for a visit.
Ex-patriates will all tell you when you live in another country you learn more about the essence of home. Seeing the Hip in New York, which I did a dozen times or so, was akin to being bodychecked by a battering ram of Canadiana. They were heroes from home and we crushed into small clubs, sometimes sports bars, to watch them perform.
These next few weeks, they will march across Canada as they have so often and many fans will reminisce about the songs, the road trips and the energetic concerts from the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto to the Misty Moon in Halifax to the mega-arenas in the big cities. It will be emotional, this Hip lovefest.
Ultimately, it's a celebration of Downie and the band's significant contribution to Canadian culture. For those of us near or beyond 40, their music helped define us. Anything so powerful knows no end.
Help Beat Brain Cancer
Passionate Tragically Hip fans Dorian Banks and Jeff McCormack have launched the "In Gord We Trust" fundraiser for the Sunnybrook Foundation's Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research. Looking to support their favourite Canadian icon, the pair will donate all funds raised from the sales of their "In Gord We Trust" and "50 Mission Cap" hats and T-shirts to Sunnybrook in Toronto. The hospital will put the donations toward the tools needed to beat brain cancers.
More than $23,000 has been raised for the cause so far.
To order T-shirts or hats, visit the In Gord We Trust website.
More Cancer-Fighting Initiatives
Vacay.ca has teamed with InspireHealth and 20 of Canada's leading chefs to produce "Inspired Cooking," a cookbook filled with stories about how nutrition has altered the lives of the nation's leading culinary talents as well as recipes from them aimed at promoting better nutrition.
The cookbook will be published by Fresh Air Publishing late in 2016 and will be sold across Canada. More details are available on the Inspired Cooking website.
More About the Man Machine Poem Tour
Dates: Visit the Tragically Hip's website for details of upcoming shows.
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