Benjamin Shinewald lives in Toronto. During the Man Machine Poem Tour, he noticed the Tragically Hip at an airport and expressed his gratitude to Gord Downie.
Gord Downie's passing is a milestone for millions of Canadians, though we don't quite realize why.
From the moment he disclosed his terminal brain cancer, we came together online and in person to reflect on Mr. Downie's remarkable art and impact. With his truly courageous decision to join his Tragically Hip bandmates on one last tour, that reflection shifted to celebration, even as Mr. Downie began to slip away before our eyes.
Deep down, we all knew that we would never see the Hip perform again, but the final concert, watched by about one-third of Canadians in a precious moment of glory for the CBC, was less bitter than sweet. In introducing the concert from Canada Olympic House, Ron MacLean jovially surrounded himself with hale and hearty Kingstonian athletes competing at the Rio Games. Smiles abounded as they politely chit-chatted about their hometown heroes' best tunes.
The contrast, though, was stark. The athletes surrounding the unusually fit and hip (there's that word again) 56-year-old Mr. MacLean were at the pinnacle of their lives, while somehow also having their whole lives ahead of them at the very same time. From their bodies to their speech to their clothes, everything about these Olympians proclaimed: youth. And then, with a few words and a smile, Mr. MacLean cheerily passed the broadcast over to Kingston, where a dying singer began to give his band's final concert.
Downie was only 52 that night, but he was nearing the end. Soon, we would learn that he would dedicate his final months to Indigenous reconciliation. But that night, he was just an artist with a remarkable pull on the imaginations of Canadians, though his relentless brain cancer was already evident. He shrieked, he broke down crying and he needed a teleprompter to read lyrics he himself had written and then sung hundreds of times, yet he still made a few mistakes.
Not that anyone cared, at least not about the mistakes. Instead, fans supped up the concert like a connoisseur finally opening that most precious bottle of wine.
I wonder how many of the fans in Kingston that night, or at any of the other 14 final concerts comprising the Man Machine Poem tour, were thinking about their own mortality – about one of their own being so sick, so inescapably condemned to an early, painful and tragic death. In general, fans seemed more excited than sad to attend their last Hip concert, oblivious to the fact that they had become their parents – middle-aged fans of a rock band of their youth.
If you are old enough to be a fan of the Hip, then you are old enough to have lost people too soon. You are old enough to understand that the world can be both crappy and beautiful at the same time. You are old enough to know that while the show must go on, it also must come to an end.
And yet, time seemed suspended during that final Kingston concert. The 40-somethings filling the Rogers K-Rock Centre, as well as parks, pubs and backyards across Canada and beyond, forgot for a moment that they had clients to impress, RESPs to save for and a few pounds to lose. Instead, they unconsciously reverted to being young again. They listened to the Hip just like they did back in the days of mixed-cassette tapes and summer rock festivals by the lake.
That night in Kingston, for three precious hours, it was 1995 again. We were all young once more and yet, unlike being truly young, we were aware that youth is fleeting and that it would all come to an end at the Hip's last-ever set. Inevitably, Downie sang that final song, disappeared from the stage and the Hip never performed again. And then it was back to Ron MacLean and those smiling, perfect, youthful Olympians celebrating in Rio.
An entire generation of Canadians had finally, collectively and unambiguously hit middle age.