What is it, to be hip, in a tragic way? Lately, I’ve had the opportunity to review a lot of 80s and 90s photographs of myself – the same era of The Tragically Hip’s meteoric rise to fame in Canada – and I would have to say that while I felt “hip” at the time, guffaws from family and friends indicate my look was quite “tragic”. I mean, there’s me in an XXL painter-style blouse over a pair of unflattering Knots Landing inspired cream tights, permed-hair-mistake-number-99 pulled into a side pony, rocking a Robbie Alomar batting pose. Wow.
Do we need photographic evidence of such moments? There are people, though, like Hip frontman Gord Downie, who appear extremely hip displaying odd behaviour while wearing whatever the hell they want.
My sister Jana was there in the beginning, in the mid-80s, at Kiplings, the old club on Wellington Road in The Other London, when the Hip performed in front of very few people. “They played a lot of Doors’ covers,” said Earle Taylor, a former manager there, quoted in The London Free Press. “They hated it.” That dislike must have been pretty evident because Jana and company didn’t get them at the time.
“There was Gord,” says Jana, wrinkling her nose, “making all of these quirky movements and doing all of this weird stuff with the mic.”
And there was Gord, on stage at Budweiser Gardens the other night, making all of these quirky movements and doing all of this weird stuff with the mic. And over 10,000 adoring fans lapped it up and sang along. Same – well, enhanced and perfected over the years for sure – performing style, different songs. Hip songs. Songs that prove the Hip gets us. Canadians. What it means to be Canadian. The places – Toronto, Bobcaygeon and okay, maybe New Orleans from a northern perspective – the faces – we have “prime ministers”, not “presidents” – the cases – also from Wheat Kings, David Milgaard’s wrongful conviction.
It’s bittersweet. The opportunity to see the Hip perform coupled with the knowledge that Gord Downie battles terminal brain cancer. I remain optimistic, choosing to believe his recent operation eradicated the cancer and he will go on, for many more years. Optimistic, like a Hip song, even though, sometimes, they seem otherwise. The London Free Press reporter Ian Gillespie noted, “No matter what the chords or content, the Hip have always struck me as a fundamentally optimistic band that lifts listeners above and beyond the darkness they often allude to.”
We want to be lifted up and out, don’t we? Away from the every day, the mundane. And Gord, in psychedelic purple, in slick silver, in shiny Irish green, can do that. He looks at you, stares you down. What? Huh? Arms flailing, hands reaching, up, out, twirling, flexing. It’s even possible, like my husband B, that Gord Downie has beat deafness. A lifelong, career-driven, love of music AND beat deafness? Gord hitches up those crazy pants and dances his jerky dance, but you just know he’s listening to something greater. Seeing something more. Urging you to hear it, see it too. “I swear to god she said.” The way Gord Downie says that? I believe him. He swears to god. She said.
Another Free Press reporter, Joe Belanger, reviewing the Hip for Rock the Park a few years back, wrote, “Gord Downie, dressed in a powder-blue suit and cream-coloured fedora, looked more like a Southern preacher, dabbing at his face with a white hankie and pointing at the crowd as he moved to whatever beat he hears in his head that no one else can hear.”
Our very own Southern preacher from the Great White North! At times the other night I thought, well, maybe Gord Downie was born into the wrong era. He reminds me of a court jester. Playing the fool for a bunch of fools, knowing full well at all times what he’s up to. It seems there’s no movement or contortion of his body that he won’t try in an effort to interpret the music and he doesn’t give a rat’s ass if you like it. All that matters? The artistic expression.
As you can probably tell by my daft fashion sense mentioned above, I’m a bit slow. I’m a reflective person. Events happen in the world, but it isn’t until I read about them, in the paper, my Maclean’s magazine, that I can make sense of them. Oh. That’s what happened. The Tragically Hip – their lyrics, their music – do a similar thing for me, but in terms of my identity. I’ve been Canadian all of my life, but the Hip hand me to myself on a silver platter. Here you go. This is who you are. Oh. That’s who I am. I get me because they get me.
Wikipedia says “hip” is slang for “fashionably current” and “in the know”. “Hip, like cool, does not refer to one specific quality. What is considered hip is continuously changing.” The Hip kept what worked – Gord’s stage presence – and have written songs over the last 30 years to reflect the continuously changing landscape of Canada and its people. That’s why what looked like sweat – it was a hot August night – around concert-goers’ eyes the other night, as Gord bid his final adieu, was actually tears. Let’s pray this is not truly the end for The Tragically Hip.