I had the fortune of meeting Gord Downie, however briefly, in early 1990 at the age of 18. Although they were only one album and an EP into their storied careers, the band Downie fronted, the Tragically Hip, were fast becoming my favourite. They were certainly better than my band at the time, a somewhat generic five-piece pop-rock outfit I shared with my friend and lead guitar player, Paolo.
So yeah, the Hip were playing a show at Toronto's generically-named Concert Hall, and Paolo and I lined up hours beforehand to nab some front row balcony seats, so he could unfurl a sprawling Hip banner he'd spent an inappropriate amount of time stitching together.
As the afternoon wore on, Paolo eventually noticed something. Something unmistakable. Band members walking toward the venue's side entrance for their sound check. Like a diminutive Italian-Canadian puma, he pounced with focused intensity, hell-bent on getting his banner signed. I'm always leery of approaching public figures I admire, in case they fall short of the virtues I've charitably projected onto them. But Paolo pulled me along for the ride, so here I was, anxiously rolling the dice.
Moments later, we found ourselves exchanging handshakes and pleasantries with Downie, guitarist Rob Baker, and bassist Gord Sinclair, three towering figures of Canadian rock. (Figuratively and literally: Sinclair, the 'short' guy in the band, is easily 5'11".) As an ardent fan, I'd be crushed if any one of them acted like a dick to us. Possibly devastated. Goddamnit Paolo, this wasn't what I'd signed up for. The plan was to catch the show, adequately sing along with the lyrics, then shuffle home with a t-shirt, ringing ears, and a ticket stub to slide into my CD case.
I played it cool with Downie, peeling off a calm, collected, "Hey Gord, good to meet you." This despite the fact that internally, I was the equivalent of a squealing tween at a Justin Bieber concert. As for Paolo, there was little disconnect between his inner and outer monologue: "Gord! Gord! Can you sign my banner?! Gorrrrrrrrd!"
Paolo foisted up the damn banner and a black Sharpie, as if presenting them to a foreign dignitary. And Downie, this soft-spoken giant of a man who'd go on to become an undisputed poet, cultural icon, and Order of Canada recipient, obliged him with some written pearls of wisdom. Words that, for the past 27 and a half years, have been inexorably linked to my memories of not just Paolo, but that particular time in my life. They read:
"Paolo: Fuck you. — Gordon Downie"
To many, this would be considered the ultimate slight: Some entitled-rock-star-in-the-making tearing into an overly enthusiastic fan. The quintessential dick move I was hoping to avoid. Paolo looked down at what Downie had written, squinted hard, then glared over at me. A moment of silence, followed by him beaming with unbridled glee: "Gord Downie just wrote 'fuck you' on my banner!"
Downie's brief missive was inappropriate and ironic and awesome and funny as hell. It didn't mean 'fuck you.'
Downie's brief missive was inappropriate and ironic and awesome and funny as hell. It didn't mean "fuck you." It meant, "We get each other: We're meeting only briefly, but I appreciate you're here and I refuse to take myself too seriously, so let's do away with the formalities and get a kick out of this short time together." Paolo understood this. I understood this. And Downie grinned coyly, pleased that we understood this. Looking back, it felt like some instant, unspoken form of micro-bonding. One that created a far more memorable moment than a hastily scribbled, "Best wishes — Gord." Needless to say, Paolo proudly hung his signed "fuck you" banner from the generic Concert Hall's generic rafters that night. (The show was brilliant, by the way, but I don't need to tell you that.)
A few years later, I took the plunge and started my own band (sorry, Paolo), called Trailer. Shortly after it formed, I submitted my details to a national music directory: a sort of phone book that listed Canadian bands and the best way to contact them. One thing I hadn't realized until getting my hands on a copy: Trailer comes right after Tragically Hip when the laws of alphabetization are applied. Which led to this unexpected juxtaposition:
Despite the written description, I most certainly didn't believe Trailer was "probably better than your band." Or anyone else's band for that matter. But just as with Downie's banner message, I'd like to think folks could see past the saucy bluster I jotted down. Hopefully they'd get a kick out of its subtext: that I didn't take myself too seriously, and was genuinely happy to be part of this scene with the rest of y'alls, for as brief a time as that might be.
Although I still adhere to a pretty strict rule about never meeting my heroes, I'm happy I was roped into making an exception back in 1990. So in light of a particularly sorrowful day in Canadian history, I'd like to close out with some words for our country's dearly departed artist, statesman, and friend. And I say them with the intent in which they were once affectionately relayed to Paolo and me: "Fuck you," Gord.
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