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Tragically Hip Curtain Call Soaked With The Tears Of A Nation

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gord downie

Photo: David Bastedo

On Saturday night, everywhere was Kingston, Ontario. Everywhere.

I felt strange when I woke up. Part of me was questioning why The Tragically Hip's curtain call was impacting me so heavily. Then I spoke to a friend who told me he couldn't explain why he was moved to tears when he heard a Hip song through the speakers of a passing vehicle.

Then I spoke to another friend who was compelled to drive from his home in Hamilton to Kingston the day before the show. He didn't even have tickets to the concert; he just wanted to soak in the vibe of the city. While we were on the phone I could hear "Bobcaygeon" in the background. It was another passing vehicle.

"It's everywhere," he said. "And it's really powerful."

I could tell he was happy he made the trip. I could also tell he was holding back tears of his own, yet another Canadian afflicted with an overload of emotion, prompted by the sick lead singer of a band we grew up with. It wasn't supposed to end like this, and now it is hard to imagine any other ending.

On Saturday night, everywhere was Kingston, Ontario. Everywhere.

It's OK to feel sad or be moved to tears and not know why. I know countless Canadians felt the same strange sadness. I could see it everywhere I went on Saturday. I could read it in people's faces, in their eyes. But while walking through my neighbourhood that day I also felt enormous joy. Bar workers were chalking the sidewalk with announcements that they were going to devote all televisions inside to The Hip.

tragically hip

Photo: Michael Churm

More passing vehicles playing "New Orleans Is Sinking" and "Ahead By A Century". People were engaged in conversations about where they would watch the show, or who was going to be there, or how sad they were. This is a Toronto neighbourhood, but it felt like downtown Kingston.

Here's the truth; I wanted to feel sad about all this. I wanted to remember the montage of my teenage years and all the turning points where Downie's voice echoed through the trees, or bounced off the pavement, or lingered on the porch where my heart was broken. I wanted to cry for the life of a man I've never met, and for the band he is leaving behind.

I wanted to feel like a Canadian for a night, instead of a person always struggling to define what it means to be a Canadian. Through bloodshot eyes we can often see what matters most, and in between the tears there is a strange joy where getting caught up in the moment is both heart-wrenching and exhilarating.

I remember thinking that every Canadian who will be watching would be doing so from their own stage so that the band could watch all of us as well. After all, as much as the music has provided something for regular people, we have also given The Hip something back; ourselves. And in one final evening, we were about to share the spotlight with them, giving and taking until the stage was left empty, the memories of what we watched beginning to take hold.

Then the concert started, and everyone was thinking the same thing; is he OK? My god, is Gord going to be OK?

tragically hip

Photo: David Bastedo

It wasn't because he was awful or anything; it was because even though Downie had always taken some liberties with his stage presence and delivery, there was something not quite right. He forgot the lyrics briefly during "The Hundredth Meridian" and improvised a couple awkward sections when belting out his words.

But we did not give up on him. We had his back. We may have stood still for a few minutes, wishing Gord would find his stride, but we had his back, and we weren't going anywhere until we found him, or he found us.

Emotions got noticeably higher near the end of the main set. Not to say that up until that point we weren't caught up in everything, but you could feel something change. Gord reached down and gave us everything he had at that point. Maybe he was saving it all for the last 90 minutes, because those 90 minutes were pure magic.

All of us became on-the-spot patriots, singing along with ourselves from the past, the one drenched in wistfulness that we used to think about more often, as Downie guided us towards high school or college or even last summer. We were all in, helping our guide find his way back to his family. Helping us get to the present.

hip sign

Photo: Michael Churm

We were home again, captured by the music of a Canadian band that gave the nation some long, overdue pride. I even got to pace to Fiddler's Green in my neighbour's living room, just as I imagined I would. It could have been the wine. It wasn't, but it could have been.

My buddy who drove to Kingston woke up on Sunday to grey clouds and some scattered rain. He said the city was tired. I imagined a city hungover with pride, putting on its slippers, sipping a coffee and drifting to what it went through the night before. If a city could speak, this time it would probably say nothing and just let the mind wander around the clouds from yesterday night.

All we had to do was sing along to songs we knew by heart, allow ourselves to feel the moment, let our tears express how we felt, let our fellow Canadians know we were all in this together, and then, as a nation, say goodbye to Gord Downie.

And for once my newsfeed wasn't filled with stupid jokes or politics or dead civilians or fleeting gossip. This time it was more human. Stories from people I knew 20 years ago, stories about driving to a Hip show after a lacrosse tournament with a half dozen buddies in the trunk. Back then you left nobody behind. You were all in it together.

Another person posted a story about how "Fully Completely" got them through the death of a parent. One person shared a memory of battling depression, armed with a new pharmaceutical and a cassette, "Road Apples."

And some people, people you wouldn't expect to share anything personal, they opened up and were speaking from the soul.

The whole country came together. Not since Terry Fox have we seen such a strong example of how a Canadian could summon so much national camaraderie among the people. And pardon me for saying so, but it fucking sucks that it seems to always be about how cancer can put a brother on death's door.

The best part is we will never really say goodbye to The Tragically Hip. As long as we have kids, camping trips, road trips, backyard barbecues, headphones and private moments, we will never have to say goodbye.

But we stepped up. All we had to do was sing along to songs we knew by heart, allow ourselves to feel the moment, let our tears express how we felt, let our fellow Canadians know we were all in this together, and then, as a nation, say goodbye to Gord Downie.

The best part is we will never really say goodbye to The Tragically Hip. As long as we have kids, camping trips, road trips, backyard barbecues, headphones and private moments, we will never have to say goodbye.

As for me, I watched the concert in the living room at a friend's house where, as expected, I was moved by "Fiddlers Green". My neighbour's husband passed away from brain cancer years ago and had the same doctor as Gord Downie.

Interesting aside, they both had the same surgeon too, a fella who originally hails from Bobcaygeon.

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