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Saying Goodbye to the Tragically Hip

Illustration by Wenting Li

As the bartender poured our beers, a friend of mine asked where I was, ‘that night’ while the man in the corner played a familiar tune that reminded us of countless dive bars and bonfires. What he meant to ask was, “Did you see it? The Hip’s final performance?” He looked at me with wide-eyed anticipation.

I had never been a diehard fan of the Tragically Hip, at least not the kind that can recite every lyric like a mantra, but it felt as though I might have been betraying everyone I knew if I had said, “no”. After all, most of the country disappeared into the night on August 20th to join Gord Downie in one final outpouring of emotion.

Watch parties were set up in Rio for the Canadian Olympic team, the Prime Minister sang along with a sold out crowd in Kingston and our southern neighbours scratched their heads as their Twitter feeds were swarmed with images of a strange man in a feather hat.

It's a story that so many Canadians can tell in the same way that you might be led to believe we've all been trapped in a recurring dream. “I can't remember when I first heard about the Tragically Hip, and that is the point.” Rachel Sklar, a CNN contributor and blogging lawyer, tried to explain to Vox’s American readers. “They seeped into my life from the background, via the radio and summer camp guitar maestros and songs slipped onto mixtapes by boys looking to close the deal.”

That was the effect the Hip had on all of us. Whether we lived by every solitary note or racked our brains to remember where we’d heard those deeply personal and uniquely Canadian lyrics before. Their music was — as the Prime Minister said — our soundtrack. A shared experience that hovered just below the surface for decades and taught us something about who we are as a country when Gord Downie let us in.

Facing death is an intensely private experience. It's not something we like to talk about, it's something we prefer to have a distraction from and, ultimately, something we face alone. But in choosing to continue with the tour, which was scheduled before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Gord also chose to show us that death can be a much smaller part of life than our fears allow it to be.

Very few bands get to say goodbye in this way. Fans have been crushed so often by the untimely death of a favourite artist that it almost seemed as though Gord owed it to the people whose lives he captured in his poetry to sing those words one last time.

But then, Gord never said goodbye. He simply thanked us all for listening and showed us that accepting something you can't change is not the same as giving up. There was never any need to say the words. Instead, there was an understanding of what that night meant to everyone involved and a silent agreement to let the music speak for itself.

“I surrender,” Gord once told his friend Joseph Boyden. “I throw myself on the altar of song and I see my own personal musical life in fast flashes of faces and names and colours and sounds and I get lost in the euphoria of standing up there like Howlin’ Wolf or Otis Redding or David Bowie with a mic in my hand and an audience that’s ready.”

There are some bands that are painfully aware they are the focal point of a performance. The Hip are not that band. They seemed to recognize and prefer to be a part of an exchange of emotion with their audience. Every gesture and grin was directed at a face in the crowd as though one dancing fan would have made all the difference. It allowed Gord to disappear with the rest of us into an experience that was genuinely Canadian.

With so many different cultures in one place we often struggle to define what it means to be Canadian. We can point to several things that we are not — namely American — but for many who have come as immigrants, our personal identities have little to do with Canada’s national symbols. Our flag is only 51 years old and the ink on our Charter of Rights and Freedoms had barely dried when the Hip was still playing covers in Kingston.

Canadians have had to find meaning in the symbols that were given to us, and craft our own culture from hundreds of others that have chosen to call this place home. Despite this heavy task, we never seem to have trouble finding that common ground to connects us all.

As an immigrant, I’ve come to realize that a large part of being Canadian is not who you are, but how you are made to feel. The feeling of being welcomed no matter where we came from or the look we get when we see a maple leaf on a backpack in an unfamiliar place. We may not be a country of flag-waving patriots, but we never have to ask which way is home.

The Hip’s final performance in Kingston was only a spectacle to those who watched in wonder as we left the world behind for a night. For Canadians, it’s just what we do.

“This was the curse of being the Hip,” Rick Mercer said as he tried to explain why Americans weren’t quite familiar with the band, “they would go to [San Francisco]...and they would sell out in five minutes. But, no Americans could get in. By the time they were like, ‘What’s this happening in this sold-out show with this insane band,’ you couldn’t get in because every Canadian filled up the space.”

Whether it be the frenzy we're thrown into every four years for Olympic hockey, or staying in on a Saturday night for a National Celebration, that feeling of home is always with us because it’s who we are. Or as Gord Downie once said, “It’s the things we’ve made together that keep us together and, maybe more than that, it’s the vague promise of what we might still make together.”