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The Tragically Hip Live Between Us

In May, The Tragically Hip's singer, Gordon Downie, revealed he has an incurable form of cancer. The quintet is currently on a farewell tour of Canada.

TORONTO -- I was seated in a small restaurant in my Toronto neighbourhood, fumbling with my tape recorder, nursing the latest in a succession of coffees and keeping an eye on the entrance. It hardly seems possible, but it was more than 15 years ago. I was waiting to interview The Tragically Hip’s Gordon Downie.

As they ascended to status as the most beloved and successful homegrown Canadian band of their time, I had the privilege to see The Hip and Downie in just about every conceivable circumstance — small clubs, hockey arenas, a speedway track infield, football stadiums, elegant theatres, a school house, a recording studio for the taping of a webcast. I spent New Year’s Eve 1999 in the press box of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre (alone, but then not really alone in a room with 25,000 fans) watching the Hip ring in the millennium. Downie, the front man and manic focus of every one of those shows, slipped into the restaurant somewhat furtively, his head covered to either ward off the March chill or maintain some semblance of anonymity. Or a combination of the two. And yet, in the few years I had been living in Toronto, in a house just around the corner from Downie’s home at the time, it wasn’t hard to catch sight of him. He seemed to move comfortably in public and conduct his life in an admirably normal manner outside of his extraordinary public life. It seemed like such an impossible grand leap from the family man entertaining his kids in the park to the neck-bulging sweaty figure commanding the attention of a raging crowd. But that gap is where he lived, in every sense of the phrase.

What’s now gone from that time: The restaurant no longer exists; the tape of my conversation with Downie was long ago recycled to make way for the words of another artist on another day; much of my memory of how our meeting went down that day — I think Gord ordered toast, but I could be wrong; half of the transcript of our two-part published conversation is lost to Google, thanks to weak online archiving and my own sloth about keeping track of my work. I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. We are always learning about how things we take for granted can leave us.

But this I do remember. Throughout the conversation, Downie seemed so thoughtful and open and at ease with virtually every subject — whether it was his then-newly released solo debut album and volume of poetry (both called Coke Machine Glow) or the upcoming Hip record they were in the process of writing. And yet, when it came to discussions of the audience and the source of the Hip’s popularity, for the first time he flashed a defensiveness. I asked him what he had found dissatisfying about what is written or said about the group.

“I guess dismissal by unfounded generalization. Everyone falling into the trap of assuming they don't have to see. In terms of The Hip, you don't have to see what goes on and what goes into it,” he said. “There is this popularity: beer + backward baseball cap + obvious patriotic button pushing = mass success. Come on. Is that all there is?

“And watching people falling just short of saying 25,000 at the ACC last night were dumb, deluded and misinformed. Stopping just short, and watching a lot of people, or their editors, pulling them up just short of leaping over that elitist edge. Which is a charge that won't come back, except in the subconscious of the reader, who thinks: You are an elitist bastard who has no right to listen to music.”

There is no record, and I have no memory, of how I responded to that outburst, but I do know Downie released the tension with a chuckle: “But I digress …”

Is that all there is?

At the time, I was taken aback by the indignation of his response. But I realize now this wasn’t about defending himself or perceptions of his work. It was about defending the honour of his audience. And while I know as these final Tragically Hip shows click off the calendar and the state of Downie’s health and legacy is top of many minds, a million words are being hurled to describe the magic of what The Tragically Hip has achieved. So here’s just one more perspective — what made The Hip unique is their bond with the audience. It was not just the typical “without you, I’m nothing” gratitude that even Bon Jovi can muster. In this ever-more-crass business-we-call-show, The Hip’s connection to its audience was and is profound and uncommon.

At its best, art may be a dialogue between the audience and the artist. Over the course of their recording career, Downie and The Hip grew and the audience stayed with them. They pushed from the gutbucket rock of their early releases into a more textured, atmospheric sound and non-linear lyrics. Part of the joy of a Hip concert was Downie’s improvisations, which created new contextual envelopes for the song and would alter their meaning even as he performed. Whatever you may have assumed “Greasy Jungle” was actually about, when you saw Downie miming and speaking as a hairdresser over the intro, the song’s impression was bound to change. And it would likely change again the next night as Downie summoned some other persona for the song's prelude. The memorable live concert performances of “50 Mission Cap” which rewrote the first verse from the legend of ill-starred Toronto Maple Leaf great Bill Barilko into the story of Pierre and Margaret Trudeau’s marital fallout after the Rolling Stones’ show at Toronto’s El Mocambo, is one of the great acts of rock n roll improvisation, period. And yet, their audience rooted their music, tethered The Hip back to solid ground and pulled them back from the excessively ethereal or self-indulgent. There are some of us who may have wished from time to time that The Hip would be a little bolder with their music and others who pined for the familiar, and neither side ever prevailed. That’s the tension that kept their art alive and vital.

Everyone (or everyone in Canada; or everyone with really good taste and a decent record collection) has their favourite Hip song, the one that defines them, the one you play for your visiting Swedish cousin when they ask you to play something Canadian. “50 Mission Cap.” “Courage.” “Nautical Disaster.” “Fireworks.” “Bobcaygeon.” “Ahead By A Century.” “Blow At High Dough.” But what song defines the essence of Gordon Downie, The Tragically Hip and their audience?

For me, it’s “Daredevil,” what you might call a “deep cut” from their 1995 album Day For Night. Superficially, it’s about those foolhardy show offs of a bygone era, who sought fame and attention by braving Niagara Falls in a barrel. Metaphorically, it’s about the life of a musician. Downie’s perspective changes throughout the song. He is the gawking audience wondering about the sense of the daredevil:

Do you like it inside a barrel

Plunging over the falls?

Curious and grim

We wrestle at the rim

We wonder all about him

And the point of it all

And then he is the daredevil, equally perplexed by the fear that keeps his onlookers on dry land.

What I’m going through is essentially all true,

Made no less amazing,

By the fact that it’s see-through …

And the real wonder of the world is that we don’t jump too.

Downie is saying to the audience “if you could see what I see from this stage, you’d be up here, too.” It’s an acknowledgement of what a privilege it is to have that stage and to have an audience, but also an uncommonly gracious gesture of empathy to that audience, to say “this is amazing and you could have it, too.” All it takes is the nerve to do it. Whether we accepted that challenge or not, Gord Downie has taken us on that ride. 

It’s easy and conventional for fans to have empathy for the artist. That’s what being a fan is. It’s a little more rare for the artist who achieves a certain level of fame and status to look out and still recognize themselves in the crowd.

In every sense of the phrase, that’s where The Tragically Hip lived, too.