Entertainment·Point of View

Not quite saying goodbye to a Canadian who made us see ourselves

We'll use words like "lifetime achievement" and "history" and "legacy" about Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip, but the word we're not saying yet is "Goodbye."

With an impressive catalogue, The Tragically Hip gave us the crayons needed to sketch our national identity

The Tragically Hip were extraordinary on stage during their final stop of the Man Machine Poem tour in the band's hometown of Kingston, Ont., on Saturday night. (Mike Homer/Live Nation)

Several weeks ago, the CBC asked Dave Bidini, a founding member of Rheostatics and author of 12 books, to share his feelings about The Tragically Hip and the band's legacy following this tour. Here are his thoughts:

Last night, it emptied: the tears and love and everything else that had welled up like a swollen river growing to one cresting gesture, one last song, one final image: Gord rooted on stage, in his rink, in his town, surrounded by his band, his family and fans, the roar of song in his ears.

The band played almost non-stop for just under three hours, with frontman Gord Downie refusing to let up, sweat pouring down his emotion-filled face. (David Bastedo/Live Nation)
We don't want to say it — and we hope we don't have to for a long time yet — but, even if we chose other words, there was one that floated above like a plump cloud: Goodbye.

We're left staring at the bottom, and that's the hard part. Filling the cup was easy — we rushed to pour ourselves into this band and what many expect to be their last great tour — and, instead of pathos, most of us pretended that sorrow was joy.

Springer Market Square in Kingston, Ont., was aglow: hands shot into the air with choruses and drum breaks; a young man was the prime minister; and people sent in pictures from around the world of themselves watching TV, watching the band. A female friend wrote to tell me: "There was this guy in front of us who turned around and said, 'Can I have a hug?' And while I was a little creeped out, I thought, considering the circumstances, it would be fine. But he didn't want to hug me. He wanted to hug John." The tour was good for the country, but it was especially good for men. We wept into our forearms, remembering how to cry.

The crowd in Kingston's Springer Market Square sways, listening to Bobcaygeon. (Andrew Foote/CBC)

It was easy for us and hard for the band. But now it gets harder. It gets harder today. We'll use words like "lifetime achievement" and "history" and "legacy," but legacy is a heavy word. It weighs a lot and doesn't move. It sits there and stares out blinklessly at the vacuum of its future because all it has is its past. It's made of gold inlaid marble and glitters in the light, which is nice, but it doesn't do anything. People want it, but when the time comes and they're given it, they don't want it anymore. It casts a shadow while the sun lurks behind. Darkness comes next.

Canadians will hold onto their own memories of that tour. For me, Gord Downie's performance at the end of Grace, Too in Toronto is both something I will never forget, but am careful to remember, for all that it registers in my heart. That night, everyone stood for the set. Even the visual work by Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier — who produced and shot a series of cinematic breaks embedded in the show — couldn't push us down into our chairs. Partly because we were showing respect for the band, the moment and Downie, partly because we were excited beyond expression, and partly because it was easier to be taken this way: lifted from under our arms and chins and guided to wherever Gord wanted to take us, which was sometimes a familiar place — and sometimes not.

If Italy had once given itself to the great Enrico Caruso, and France bowed to Jacques Brel, and Zimbabwe followed Thomas Mapfumo all the way to emancipation, Canada was drawn to the lamplight not by warring or watching hockey or rallying behind a noble humanitarian cause. Instead, singing.

Gord Downie wipes tears from his eyes in the middle of the Tragically Hip's Grace, Too

7 years ago
Duration 1:04
Gord Downie wipes tears from his eyes in the middle of the Tragically Hip's Grace, Too

Over the past few weeks, interviewers asked me: "What did you learn from The Tragically Hip?" The answer that I didn't give them, but what I'll give you, is that is wasn't me who needed learning, it was others. People who'd never seen themselves in the mirror, never recognized themselves as being this kind of Canadian.

Before The Tragically Hip, we were a huge country made huger because of the hole in it, which is where our identity was supposed to be. If the sweet and modest nature of the band has them giggling at this notion between bong hits, that's OK — it makes them more Canadian still — but their music gave us the crayons needed to draw our image. We ended up funny-looking and weird and "not big in the States." But that was OK, too. This wasn't about the States for a change.

If the cup is empty and if the band is now really no longer a band, and Gord settles into completing his last set of works — although, as we've seen, time is a trickster and the last isn't until it is — it's up to us, isn't it? Let's use what they've taught us. Let's not apologize for who we are, even with the tedium of empty spaces and still-careful ways we announce ourselves on the world's stage. After this tour, we can't go back. Think of this today, tomorrow and the next day when you think of what we've lost. Start filling that cup. Let it spill over the top.

'Thank you people for keeping me pushing': Gord Downie

7 years ago
Duration 0:54
Tragically Hip singer addresses the crowd at Saturday's show in Kingston


Author and musician Dave Bidini is the only person to have been nominated for a Gemini, Genie and Juno as well CBC's Canada Reads. A founding member of Rheostatics, he has written 10 books, including On a Cold Road, Tropic of Hockey, Around the World in 57 1/2 Gigs, and Home and Away. In 2014, he was nominated for a Toronto Arts Award and published his latest book, Keon and Me.