Derek Jeter smacked a game-winning single and Kobe Bryant went off for 60 points during their final games of their respected farewell seasons, but Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip shut down an entire nation for three hours.
11.7 million people watched CBC’s live broadcast of the Man Machine Poem tour final stop in Kingston, Ont. Saturday night, with hundreds of thousands standing in parks across Canada watching the show on jumbotrons.
I love Gord Downie and I love The Tragically Hip. I was born three hours West from where the final show occurred by two Ontarian parents who taught me the good things in life to love; family, loyalty, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Blue Jays, and the Tragically Hip. I have seen Gord and the boys play six previous times, but this one was the most sentimental.
I was one of the many fans who couldn’t land a ticket to watch them live one last time. This was my chance to say goodbye and thank you to one of the greatest Canadians to rock a stage.
It was 35 degrees, sweat was streaming down my back, people were passing out due to heatstroke and I had the chills ripping up and down my spine throughout the evening.
Since he revealed his sickness last May, there have been many great pieces written about Gord by people a lot smarter than me. I wasn’t planning on writing a column about my feelings on the situation. I just wanted to follow their final tour online, but I felt obligated to throw something together after being so deeply moved by his performance Saturday night.
Gord stood before a nation while the Grim Reaper floated backstage and brought a country to their knees. The concert was loud, emotional, strong, nostalgic and very Hip.
I was a little skeptical about how the concert would appear on the jumbotron. Typically, I’m rushing the stage, dancing like a fool at their shows. This was going to be a big change.
As the evening went on, the place lit up. The people at the Kamloops Bandshell went nuts and it felt like we were having our own private viewing party. All walks of life came out in droves to witness the show. There were drunk guys dancing by themselves, couples tangoing and little kids spinning like tops to the musical styling’s of Downie, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Johnny Fay and Paul Langlois.
The concert evolved into a mini time machine. At different moments throughout the show, I would close my eyes and think back to when I heard each song for the first time.
My life happened to The Tragically Hip. I played baseball growing up, attended outdoor barbeque parties, I moved provinces, went to college, made lifelong friendships, graduated college, entered the working world and met a girl all while The Hip and Gord’s distinctive voice jammed in the background.
Like any major event, I remember exactly what I was doing when I heard the dreadful news about Gord’s deteriorating health.
I woke up into my morning routine of showering, egg-scrambling and sandwich-making when I read the released statement from The Tragically Hip online.
Complete and utter devastation.
Dazed and confused, I hopped in the car and did the only thing that felt natural. I hit shuffle on my Tragically Hip playlist and drove to work and became emotional.
Fuck this. This isn’t fucking fair. There’s a ton of more people that deserve this fate instead of this man.
But I got to give it up to Gord. It takes some serious balls to announce to the world about the discovery of a terminal illness and then decide the best thing to do is to travel across Canada for one final tour.
They didn’t half-ass this tour either. They were forced to expand the tour with more dates in attempt to pacify the insane demand for tickets. The reviews from everything I read and saw online told me that The Hip killed it at every stop along the way.
However, Gord’s declining health was abruptly evident in Kingston.
Seeing him seven times now in concert and countless hours of videos streamed on YouTube, my degree in body-language reading allowed me to decipher the fact that he wasn’t well.
First of all, he needed backup when using the stairs to the stage incase he fell over. Also, I never recalled him having to take two or three short intermissions during the set.
Gord’s improvisational skills on stage are second to none. It isn’t just the funky dancing, injecting new lyrics and the arm waving; he turned everything on stage into a form of expressing himself and gave it purpose in the show. Whether it was the way he took his jacket off, or the twirling of his white handkerchief, looking at the mic stand like it owed him money or pretending it as a telescope so he could connect with fans in the back, Gord was always amusing on stage even when he wasn’t singing.
You could tell he was trying some of his old tricks. He wrote cursive passages in the air to fans, rotated through three sparkly suits and ripped off the sixth verse of 100th Meridian with great vibrato, but something seemed off. It felt like watch a once nimble quarterback scramble outside of the pocket following a knee surgery.
Even his dancing wasn’t as fluent as it normally was. The pain was visible and the realization of the end drawing near became obvious.
Gord took a moment during the first half of the concert to thank the fans for keeping the fire inside him alive during the tour.
“Thank you. Thank you for keeping me pushing everyday.”
That was the first moment that night I found myself a little choked up.
Like a true badass, he refused to let the pain take over. He would scream into the microphone to the point of lung explosion. He couldn’t stop wincing in pain or from realization that after 32 years, this was the end. You could see the veins bulging from his neck as he took deep breaths, putting everything into finishing another song.
It was tough to watch sometimes. I kept thinking, God dammit, why the heck does this have to be his last show? Selfishly thinking, this isn’t fair to me.
Over the past couple of years, I would leave their shows and ponder, “Man, I sure hope that wasn’t the last time I’ll get to see those guys.” And then one day, my selfish fear became a gripping reality. There will never be another Tragically Hip concert.
Gord is everything a great Canadian strives to be. He is honest, hard working; he doesn’t take shit from anyone, informative, opinionated, successful, passionate, loyal and loving.
Always with a strong conscious for social and political issues, Gord took a moment to address the direction of country in front of a crowd that contained Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“He’s going to take us where we need to go. And we’ve gotta be a country that’s going to take us 100 years to figure out what the hell went on up there. But it isn’t cool and everybody knows that. It’s really, really bad. We’re gonna figure it out,” said Gord about the historical poor treatment of Indigenous people.
We are lucky to call The Tragically Hip our band and grateful to enjoy one last night together.
I thought it was a given that I would shed a tear at some point during the show. If not during the encore, then definitely during the playing of my favourite song Ahead By A Century.
As the night progressed, I was eagerly waiting to hear the first few notes to Ahead By A Century sing from Baker’s acoustic guitar. I kept waiting for that song like a fisherman waiting for a bite on the end of his line. I had a pretty good feeling it was coming, but I didn’t know when.
They played song after song — Music At Work, Boots To Hearts, Fiddlers Green, Toronto #4, Twist My Arm — but still nothing.
That’s fine, I thought. He will play it during one of the encores.
I figured they would play two encores due to the magnitude of the event. After the first encore, I was nervous but optimistic at my chances of hearing my song.
He came out for the second encore and nearly blew the roof off of the Rogers K-Rock Centre with Locked in the Trunk of a Car and Gift Shop.
“Son of a bitch,” I thought. He is actually going to stiff me in their last performance.
But then, to my delight, Gord came stumbling up the steps for a third time.
“We’re in uncharted waters. We never do a third one,” said a choked-up Gord.
Baker’s airplane-white guitar appeared and stung the first couple of bars to Ahead By A Century and I simply died.
This man. This incredible man saved my favourite song for the end of this historic final performance.
I stood paralyzed with my arms in the air. I was hit with a cornucopia of emotions; relief, shock, weightlessness, disbelief and eternal happiness.
It was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever witnessed. Gord could barley keep it together during the final song. He finished the last line and stood there gazing into the crowd and let his band members blast away. The moment hit him. This was it. It’s all over.
“And disappointing you is getting me down.”
ARE YOU FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME???!!!!!
That’s how this man leaves it?!
Words don’t even come close to describing how unbelievably perfect that ending was.
You didn’t disappoint us Gord, you never did and you never will.
Thank you for everything, Gord. It was a pleasure doing business with you.