“Canada’s unofficial poet laureate” is what many call Gordon Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip. Thirty years in to singing — he had, and still has, one of the best set of pipes among rock’s leading men — and growling and screaming and talking his enigmatic and multi-layered lyrics, at least one music writer insists on placing him in the lyrical pantheon with Bob Dylan and “post-Graceland Paul Simon”. Downie is a poet — yes, there is a published poetry collection — and there are many phrases that hundreds of thousands of Canadians can sing along with him, as they have been on the Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour, the one that the band has never said is a farewell.
But Downie is dying of inoperable brain cancer. He is not the caged stage lion he once was, and there were times in last night’s final show of the tour, in the band’s hometown of Kingston, Ontario, when we weren’t entirely sure he was going to make it through to the end of the planned setlist. Anyway, here’s the thing: Downie is still a manic stage presence, and he delivered nearly three hours worth of rock ‘n’ roll slamdance poetics, but he’s a quiet dude. Famously private, he had little to say to his adoring fans in Kingston and a national TV audience, even on a night like that. It’s all about the songs, and his band.
But he did tell this little story:
“We started here, as you know, and opened up to 13 people. And at our next show, we had 28. And the next Kingston show after that, we had six.”
It was funny, characteristically self-deprecating. On another and more politically charged occasion, one that he echoed during an encore, he challenged the country and its Prime Minister — sitting in the upper bowl of Kingston’s hockey rink — to right the wrongs of Canada’s historic treatment of Indigenous people, especially in the North. (More on this anon.) Here’s the quote that really got me, plain-spoken and yet profound. He harked back to the band’s humble beginnings in front of nearly nobody, and concluded:
“Our idea was just that everybody’s invited. Everybody’s involved.”
It’s being said over and again that all of Canada shut down to listen to perhaps the last we’ll see of the greatest band we’ve had. This is not strictly true, and I’ll have more to say on this, but the reach of the band as this tearful tour concluded was undeniable, incredible really. (The reviews are still pouring in and out, and here’s one fine one.)
Even the goodbyes were simple. I love words and eloquence and the pouring out of one’s heart when it seems suitable, and last night it did. Gord Downie did it, as did his quiet but thundering bandmates, in their songs. Still, I was moved by the actually rather nerdy, introverted good-bye that Downie had as one encore ended:
“Thanks for listening in the back. Thanks for listening, period. Have a nice life.”
Catch ya later, eh?