Unlike most music I listen to, I couldn’t possibly say where or when I first heard The Tragically Hip. Which is odd, because I know exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard Arcade Fire (my backyard; the eighth grade; trying to skateboard even though I have notoriously poor balance), The Arkells (an overnight summer camp; the ninth grade; eating a very culturally appropriated Chinese stir fry), and pretty much any other musical ensemble that I would eventually label a favourite.
Most Canadians appear to share this problem. Many of us grew up with The Tragically Hip, but few can point to a time when we first acknowledged the band’s presence. The Hip were always around, whether we intended to hear them or not — on CBC radio, in our parents’ CD collection, or in local concert venues. They recorded prolifically and toured regularly. I didn’t go to see them the times they performed in Toronto; they were here so often I would always think, ‘I can go next year, when they inevitably return.’
The winter was peak Hip season for me. As a teenager I spent the colder days in Toronto playing pick-up hockey at the local rinks in my neighbourhood, and I would often listen to the band on the way to and from the makeshift arenas. Skates and stick in hand, I would listen to “New Orleans Is Sinking” and then “Three Pistols”—two songs expertly crafted to act as pre-game pump-ups. Then I would listen to “50 Mission Cap,” the Hip’s hockey song—a song about Bill Barilko, a former defenseman for the Toronto Maple Leafs who died on a fishing trip shortly after winning the Stanley Cup.
It was no coincidence that my interest in Canadian history peaked around this age, either. The Hip were meticulous chronicler’s of Canadian history. Early education failed to instill in me the excitement of our home-and-native-land’s vibrant past, but a rock band whose eccentric lead singer sang about the Group of Seven and Quebec separatism certainly did.
Playing in a few bands throughout high school, Downie quickly became an inspiration to me and to many of my fellow bandmates. His poetry was far better than ours, but inspired us to see the value in our immediate surroundings as potential musical subjects. We didn’t have to sing about California; Orillia would work just fine.
He found value in the crevices of Canadian lore where others failed to look. Few may have known the small town of Bobcaygeon before Downie deemed it worthy of a song, and few may have remembered the wrongful rape and murder conviction of David Milgaard before the story was archived in “Wheat Kings.” But Downie did, and we’re better for it.
During The Hip’s early years, Downie developed a cult following of sorts. Prairie kids would flock to Hip shows donning their team jerseys as coats of arms. Something about Downie, perhaps his upbringing in Kingston or his fondness for the pseudo-national sport, must have struck a chord amongst them. He never seemed anything like these people, though. Nothing about his lyrics appeared to purposely tap into their culture, and rarely would he address the youthful masses that attended the shows. Instead, he would lose himself in the songs —twitching, dad dancing, and spewing stream-of-consciousness nonsense like the victim of an exorcism gone wrong.
For many Canadians, Downie is a familiar — if not comforting — presence. When it appeared as though all Canadian rockstars were the poor man’s Bruce Springsteen or a wannabe Tom Petty, Downie was unabashedly himself, ranting about Killer Whale tanks and double suicides in the shadow of a hit-churning mega-industry down south. He and the band gave Canadians something to be proud of — something to point to when the calibre of our artistic product came into question.
That’s why the late-May announcement of Downie’s diagnosis and the subsequent implication of The Hip’s numbered days felt like an irremediable stab wound in the collective solar plexus. Downie has brain cancer —glioblastoma, to be exact — and there’s no known cure. Ninety per cent of victims live for less than five years upon diagnosis and, in the meantime, are subject to early onset dementia and countless other side-effects.
For the band, it’s an end when there shouldn’t have been an end in sight. For Downie, we can only hope that modern medicine prevails, and that he’ll have the good fortune of surviving despite the odds. It’s a daunting assignment, but as we’ve seen throughout the past few months, it’s one that he’ll undoubtedly approach with will and determination.
And grace, too.