The Tragically Hip: And Their Voices Rang

1. Hip (slang, adjective): familiar with or informed about the latest ideas, styles, developments

2. Tragically (adverb): has the elements of tragedy; involving death, grief, or destruction

Thus: to be informed about the realities of the recent developments necessarily includes a familiarity with destructive elements.  Consciousness (as awareness) is an unhappy phenomenon, thus one can only be Tragically Hip.

The account that follows focuses on personal experiences and observations of two events:

14 AUG ‘16: Seeing the The Tragically Hip live at the ACC

19-21 AUG ‘16: Travelling to Kingston (albeit ticket-less) for what would become “A National Celebration”hip.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x591

Now… toronto-on-may-19-2010-the-tragically-hips-front-man-g

“How do I explain this?

I mean how do I put it into words?

It’s one thing or another,

But it’s neither this nor that,

Actually it’s a collection of things.

She said, ‘That’s it, that’s it, get out!’”

-lyrics from I’ll Believe In You (Or I’ll Be Leaving You Tonight)

Whatever my relationship has been, is, or will be to The Tragically Hip – I can reflect on some deeper roots before this August’s harvest of music and emotion.  My earliest memory is an unsettled fascination with the album artwork on Fully Completely.  What is this?  These bodies all tangled up together?  What does it mean to listen to something that looks so unlike anything else?  But that cover; the bodily throng all tribal and wild and seizing my supple attention was something else.

[Only recently, by chance, did I notice Jaws on that cover…]

We either liked the hip or we loved the hip. My second earliest Hip memory was playing pool at “Double Z” in Niagara Falls, when Maids put “Nautical Disaster” on the jukebox, walked past me to take his next shot and just said in passing “It was as though…” and I thought about those words until the third line in that song revealed them: “It was as though I’d been spit here/Settled in, into the pocket”.

And (fittingly) it was as though Maids’ object-ball always settled into the pocket.  “It was as though” — those four words, seemingly meaningless when out of context, still possess a certain gentle poetic quality, a simplicity of natural beauty lyrically expressed.  And it was next to Maids that I would witness that night in Toronto, and Gordie’s rendition of the ferocity of Grace; their final encore.  But the night before the concert we had a party to attend.

Liefs was turning 30 and it was a backyard surprise.  Central to that plot was his being relieved at work, under the false pretense of going home to be with family *wink* and then to be surprised by all of us.  Liefs was not only keen but adamant on working and finishing his shift, and even refused to leave work.  Scrambling, we did the best we could: we sent Maids, our St. John’s surprise, to collect Liefs and bring him home.  And we can only assume that Liefs, so focused on the social imposition and on the work he was now to miss out on, did not come to suspect the surprise that was afoot.  It would become a celebratory outpouring complete with preschool percussionists.  The second leg of the surprise was that he was also going to see the hip in Hamilton.  And in discussion he told me that he had just come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t going.   The back and forth of these emotions caused some tears that night, and many more to follow over the coming week.

I feel the context that I’ve known and have been friends with these guys for well over ten years matters.  If only because I believe that there’s something about adolescence that fosters an openness to forging deep connections that can fade away.  “Ahead by a Century” captures this youthful world-openness: “I tilted your cloud, you tilted my hand”.  The ways that we allow ourselves to be affected and to affect others may dull over time, and it becomes harder for me to tilt your cloud, and for you to tilt my hand.  One is in the prime of life, in terms of forging and establishing lifelong bonds, as a young person, or as a teenager.  That, to me, is the beauty of friendship and, in turn, the true delight of adolescence.  Should you, the reader, fall into this category: revel in it.

The next day, after Liel’s party, hungover as all hell, we slouched toward Toronto: me, Maids, NC, and Camps.  We spent the whole day in Toronto but ‘twas merely a prelude, as all I remember was sitting’ in 303 of the ACC.

Maids and I enjoyed the space of (astonishingly) a few empty seats, and we alternately sat and stood and watched intently until the Gizzie brothers found us and awoke us out of our clearly entranced this-music-speaks-to-me state, effectively reminding us that this is a rock show.  When Gordie sang this changed line in “Blow at High Dough”: “moved so fast, moved so fast, into this rock n’ roll thing,” it occurred to me that this was a reflective and retrospective moment for the band.  It (life) all happens and transpires seemingly in an instant, and anything that moves so fast makes it hard to take stock of where you are and how far you’ve come.  Thirty years can sweep you up and blow right by, leaving a picture of two people we used to be: there’s me and there’s (beautiful) you.  There will be peaks from whence you glimpse the unity of all things in that We Are the Same, and there will be nadirs when you’ve had it Up To Here and will mutter to yourself “You talentless fuck…”

The one moment that I felt, at first, that was “missed” was really hitting the “that night in Toronto” line in “Bobcaygeon” — and we’ve since speculated that Gordie thought that we would sing it, and we thought he would.  But, even that was a quintessential Canadian concert moment:

“Sorry, we thought you were gonna say it.”

“No, I’m sorry, I thought you were gonna.”gord-downie10.jpg.size.custom.crop.1086x724

And even if that is to be their last ever show in Toronto, we would do well to remind ourselves that the little imperfections always add something, and that we cannot love live music on our own terms, we have to love it “warts and all”.

But that night, in Toronto, the ACC was angelic-choretic.  And to compensate for the line about that night, we duetted the last two lines, as if we all stepped to the mic and sang and our voices rang with that aryan twang.

Gordie must have known that he would have bigger and more heartfelt goodbyes forthcoming, and this felt like more of a monster rock show.  Absent from the setlist were “Scared” and “Fiddler’s Green” — and I don’t think any of us were ready for that; not quite yet, not just then.

And in his goodbye Gordie was succinct: “I’ll see ya down the road somewheres, alright?”  And I thought it was perfect.  But I noticed that the man next to me couldn’t wipe under his eyes fast enough to redirect the saltwater stream that was collecting like constellatory stars in his beard.

They ended up playing “Scared” at the Hamilton show, which ends with the line “I gotta go, it’s been a pleasure doin’ business with you” — NC reported that it was as though that line (written well over twenty years ago) was written for that exact moment.

Concerts are so simple.  I wonder if they will ever become a cultural relic.  Concert: you have your ticket, you show up.  It’s real and it’s physical, and I was fortunate to follow some harder fans demand their hard copy tickets as part of being there.  We may live in a digital world, but we were there in “real life” and we have the stubs to prove it.  And somehow this is all part of knowing who we are.  And the hip, quoting Bruce McCulloch, note that “the love you’re given will pour right through your hand/If you don’t know who you are”.  So, capturing and holding onto the symbols and the memories of the love we’re given (in being loved) is predicated on self-knowledge; of who you are, where you are, and what you’re doing.  Knowing who you are facilitates the recognition-collection of the love that surrounds you.

We made our way to Kingston (along with two lucky ticketholders) and as I didn’t have a ticket I was loose and unattached and unfocused.  We tailgated, we partied, we got a good sense of the town and the scene that weekend.  When the broadcast broke on the CBC, Myles and I were sitting in a bistro sipping sangria.  In my eyes I was there for the live show, even though it was Springer (a live, high quality broadcast of the concert in the town square, just a block away) and not K-Rock, we were still there.

What did I, and what can everyone, take away from all that transpired?

First of all: use your voice as an instrument of truth, in Adorno’s sense that “The need to let suffering speak is a condition of all truth.” — when suffering speaks, truth is served.  As Gord ended the show (pre-encore) on a modified “Fireworks” lyric:

“Isn’t it amazing what we can accomplish/when we don’t let no First Nation get in our way”.  When we come to a point of amazement with our own accomplishments, do we realize the colonial violence upon which it’s all predicated?  This moment of conscience would later be expressed in full in Gord’s national-historical-altering monologue… and it subtly changes we hear that song, especially how we read its final lines:

“This one thing probably never goes away

I think this one thing is always supposed to stay

This one thing doesn’t have to go away”

Will the spectre of colonial violence (from contact to genocide to residential schools to MMIW and mass-incarceration) stay or go away?  Or will whatever moments of truth and reconciliation we’ve achieved stay or go away?  To give it a more personal emphasis, will indigenous peoples and voices ‘stay or go away’ as part of this fragile experiment in Western democracy (viz. Canada)?  Because that rich cultural gift of life doesn’t have to go away, and the way we (Euro-Canadians) were “trained” is what needs to go away:

“[W]e were trained our entire lives to ignore, trained our entire lives to hear not a word of…” (G. Downie)

I don’t know how a nation trains itself out of inattentive deafness, but I can infer that attentive listening is part of it.  And Gord was willing to sacrifice whatever “glory” belonged to him in the national spotlight, with all of our attention upon him, to contribute to a necessary untraining-retraining task.  What could have been entirely a celebration of personal accomplishment was converted into something bigger that speaks to and informs an audience:

“[T]he people way up North…And what’s going on up there ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been…”  And while there have been more intense and violent periods for indigenous peoples, when we situate ourselves in the present moment we realize that each progressive instant is one that further heaps neglect in staying the vicious course.

Otherwise, it would have been a celebration of Gord and the rest of the hip, and a celebration by Euro-Canadians.  The Hip instead turned the moment around in inclusive conscientiousness.

While no culture is superior to any other, it seems that our own failings are the hardest for us to see.  One of the subplots leading up to the show was ticket gouging.  The news of Gord’s diagnosis and then the news of the tour caused such a stir; it was the perfect opportunity to buy and re-sell tickets for profit, cashing in not only on fans but taking advantage of the emotion surrounding the events.  The fans with disposable income who paid exorbitant sums on their own entertainment are not blameless, in that they reveal how much we prioritize our own entertainment and leisure experiences.  This minor ugliness that underlay the tour is a reminder about who we are and what we value, on all sides.

Many of us saw and shared the meme that Canada would be closed.  But whose Canada is it, by whom was it closed, and to whom was it closed?  Canada would re-open the following day, at least it would for me…

“and you’ll get

You’ll get left out in the cold

It’s the same mistake

It’s been a long time running”

We might be tempted by this thought: Gordie could have just enjoyed his moment and not made it political.  But when is the right moment to be ignorant, to be blind, and to be silent?  In other words, Gordie purposed the moment as he meant to, and  “only a fool would complain”.

And thus we return to the lyrics from “Scared” — the song that seems to transcend time:

“Their lives need not be shortened

Truth be told, they can live a long, long while”

The word “scared” pertains to fear, which in my mind is different than anxiety.  I think of anxiety as a generalized form of being scared, in that it is caused by an unknown object.  Conversely, fear is a specified form, in that its cause is known.  This leads me to the out-standinding symbol of the entire tour: the Jaws shirt.

One contemporary philosopher (Zizek) gives an interpretation of “Jaws” (the film) that I think is apt.  Jaws represents the concentration, collection, or constellation of all anxieties into a single, unified fear.  That a general sense of fear needs to be harnessed and mobilized and requires a particular object.  And it could be a scapegoat which almost always follows the logic of the in-group/out-group, that the problem is “them” or “they”.  It could otherwise be an appropriate object of single focus that rallies and assembles our attention and our efforts, such as the “Napalm Girl” photo that told the horrors of the Vietnam war.

The continued legacy of Indigenous historical trauma (inflicted by Euro-Canadian colonizers) is a national disaster.  When I tried to train my sensitivity to hear it “the screaming filled my head all day”.  This legacy of racism is the madly-thrashing parasite in our national blood, much more than mere fingernails on our historical hull — it is our Jaws.  It is our nautical disaster, dear.

And that is how Gord might want to portray the national, historical and contemporary, crisis facing indigenous people in this country.  If there is one thing that Canada absolutely has to figure out, to improve, to find a way to undo or to mitigate or to offset or compensate for, this is that one thing.

Considering that the history of inflicted trauma is “our Jaws” (as I put it) it presents us with a clear path: we can either rally against the reminder of what we have perpetrated (and continually recommit ourselves to racism and atrocity) or we can rally against that which we have perpetrated (and de-commit ourselves, or un-invest from these patterns).  This fact of our Jaws is our “truth” — and how we chose to respond to it will determine the possibility of our “reconciliation” — with ourselves and each other.

We cannot, at the same time, both come together as a proud nation to celebrate “our” culture while ignoring the greatest crisis (present and historical) in the nation — which we cannot forget is truly a nation of nations.  We white Euro-Canadians (especially in Ontario) are behind by a century.  If we continue to refuse to prioritize this issue, we cannot continue to identify as a nation that embodies diversity, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and tolerance.  In other words, we cannot ignore this disaster any longer:

“Let’s swear that we will Get with the times”

Did this tour and the final show bring us together, as a Nation, and did it celebrate Canadian culture?  Yes.  And in that pivotal public appearance, Gord turned it into something else, and tried to turn us all to look into ourselves: who is being brought together, who is this nation, and which culture does it celebrate — and in our celebration of Canada, is any culture excluded?

It may even be necessary to reconsider one other song, one that the hip did not write:

Is this “our” home, or is it native land — and can it be both?

Do all of our sons and daughters equally rise — not just East to West, but North to South?

Are we glorious?

‘On-guard’ for what do we stand?

For what do we stand?

We want to continue with our relative comfort and wealth as freedom loving Canadians celebrating our diversity and multiculturalism, while ignoring the crises of indigenous people and even ignoring the problem of racism among us and within us.  Will we live to survive these paradoxes, or will they survive us?  The urgency of now is well expressed as “(this is) no dress rehearsal, this is our life” — as an inclusive “our”.

Let’s not put all of our hopes into Trudeau, but let’s demand accountability from him.  We are charged to take up this tragic historical mantle in becoming vehicles of human forces not only in spite of our colonial legacy but also because of it.  The shared and collective acceptance of our culpability as destroyers is necessary in first becoming defanged destroyers, so the kids can wade out to play down at the beach.  “For a good life we just might have to weaken” — as sacrifices made for the sake of justice are not sacrifices at all.  Equality does not necessitate that you must give up, it resides in the wisdom that we all have so much more to gain.  We unwittingly diminish our super capacity to love and maintain our patterns of oppression.

Gordie left us with questions for ourselves and for each other and for renewed urgency on a swelling and soul-searching national conversation.

From that stage, that night, Gordie led with his words, and then left us with words, words that are now forever ours.

Gordie left that stage (musical, national) with conscience and integrity.

He left the stage with musicality, with vision, and with poeticism.

He left with

Grace, Too.


[special thanks to Nick Clemens and Greg Campagna for making this

journey possible]


Dan Clemens, Brock Alumni


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