At the risk of being repetitive, 2016 has, to put it politely, sucked.
And to put a shit panini on top of the turd sandwich that has represented the year, this morning I found out that Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip, has terminal brain cancer. He’s 52, which puts him slightly older than me, but not much. Unless you’re from Canada, the odds are you’ve never heard of them, and that’s okay.
The outpouring of love from the number of Canadian journalists who, like me, love their music has been a tonic of sorts.
What David Bowie and Prince did (write and perform some truly breathtaking music and were deserved legends), this band that’s been together for 30+ years did as well but on their own scale. The ownership that Minnesotans had for Prince (and I’ve always respected that he stayed in Minnesota) translates, on some level, to The Tragically Hip. They were ours. You could say they were odd, quirky or any number of other things. They don’t have anywhere near the number of fans as Bowie and Prince do, but that’s okay. They spoke to us because they were one of us.
They never achieved any success of note in the US, because their music didn’t translate to American audiences (WTMD will “occasionally” play one of their songs but otherwise they don’t exist on American radio). Explaining David Milgaard or Bill Barilko, and how these subjects became the impetus for songs, is hard to explain. And yet, the songs that deal with these subjects aren’t unapproachable. They’re quite good. I still remember the first game I attended at the new Air Canada Centre in 1999, fearful that Maple Leaf Gardens had been replaced by some soulless thing. Hearing a slew of Tragically Hip songs during warm-ups combined with the kind of loud support I remembered (the Leafs were coming off of a Conference Final appearance that spring).
I saw them in 1987 for the first time; an 18-year old university student who thought they had an interesting name so I went with some class mates to see them perform in one of the local clubs. They were different; they were still doing a lot of covers back then but they had their own songs as well.
They appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1995 and were introduced by fellow Canadian Dan Akroyd. That was a big deal; they never had that top-10 U.S. radio friendly hit that might get attention (to this day, if I hear one of their songs on American radio I have to double-check to make sure it’s not my MP3 player). They had their own unique sound, and were unchanged for 30+ years. They were from Kingston, Ontario and proudly so. It’s funny reading about people who remember seeing Downie or some of the other guys in the band walking around town and would talk to him as if it were no big deal, which sounds like something he’d do.
I’ve seen them live upwards of 30 times; they have such a heavy catalogue of songs that no two shows are going to sound alike. Here’s them performing at Woodstock 1999 (which was a complete gong show of an event).
All the best, Gord and thanks for all the wonderful concerts and all that you’ve done.