My friend, Lorien Crow, recently shared some thoughts with me on last tour of the The Tragically Hip. As I enjoyed reading them, I asked if I could also share them here. She has graciously agreed to let me do so.
“Scott’s gone,” Kristin said.
“What do you mean?” I didn’t understand.
“He’s gone…he passed away.”
Kristin was my best friend. Scott was her older brother. We were nineteen years old, and she was a sophomore at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont.
She left for school in the fall of 1995. I’d gotten in, but decided not to go to college yet. It was the first time we’d been apart since we were five years old. I started visiting her almost immediately, once every couple of months, crashing on her dorm room floor, going to parties, inserting myself into her new life.
It was at one of those parties, probably the spring of ’96, when I started hearing people talking about “The Hip” and “The Hip Show.” These Canadian guys Kristin knew had an apartment off campus, with this giant boa constrictor they kept as a pet—total party attraction. I had the snake wrapped around my neck when I asked “what are you guys talking about? What’s ‘The Hip?’”
Their reaction was so incredulous, it startled the snake, which attempted to suffocate me.
“How can you never have heard of The Tragically Hip?”
I was used to being the resident music junkie and mix-tape aficionado among my friends, so being teased for not knowing a band was a novel experience. Someone put on a record. Someone invited me to the show.
That week, I promptly went to my local record shop and special ordered Fully Completely and Road Apples on CD. A die-hard SNL fan, I realized I’d seen TTH perform on the show the previous year. I pulled out the VHS tape and re-watched. I played the CD’s trying to figure out an appropriate comparison to the music I knew: sort of grunge, in certain moments; Gord Downie’s vocals occasionally reminiscent of Michael Stipe; poetry like Bob Dylan, but with an eclectic edge; a little twang, like the classic country I grew up on. My knowledge base just didn’t compute. This was something totally new.
Sadly, I don’t remember many details about The Hip show, the only one I ever attended. I couldn’t tell you where it was, just that it was someplace small. I don’t remember exactly which songs they performed; I was probably high, drunk, or both. I know there was some crazy dancing (on stage and off), and that we had a blast. That we hugged, smiled, cried, and didn’t know how young we felt. That some of the lyrics were really strange (“did he just say ‘sled dogs and Kurt Cobain?’”), and that that night, Gord Downie was unlike any other performer I’d seen. Some sort of alien Warhol from another dimension, who’d never quite landed among us, but knew what we were thinking and feeling.
Or maybe that was just the pot. The Canadian guys always had the best pot.
What I do remember is the long car ride home from Vermont to Connecticut, a year later, bringing Kristin home for Scott’s funeral. Today, thanks to the internet, I know what “Wheat Kings” is really about, but back then, it was just the soundtrack to the saddest event I’d ever experienced. Beautiful and heart-wrenching, wafting out the car windows with our cigarette smoke, over the fields and ramshackle farmhouses of northern Vermont and upstate New York.
Kristin and I drifted apart pretty quickly after that. Somewhere along the way, I lost those battered Hip CD’s, and mostly lost track of the band. The advent of streaming brought me back to TTH over the last few years, and I delighted in catching up on what I’d missed. The deluxe reissue of Fully Completely in 2014 is a masterpiece, and Man Machine Poem is TTH at their finest (if you can’t relate to the song “Tired as Fuck,” we probably can’t be friends).
Then in May came the awful news of Gord Downie’s cancer diagnosis, and shortly thereafter, the announcement of a 20-city Canadian tour rumored to be the band’s farewell. Families went together—brothers, sisters, parents. Articles and conversations began popping up about what TTH means to Canada’s national identity. A piece in The Guardian referred to their music as “the antidote to American imports” and the headlines kept proclaiming them “the most Canadian band in the world.”
In all my years as a TTH fan, I never really contemplated their Canadian-ness. Why would I? Like almost every band I discovered and fell in love with, they inherently became part of the soundtrack of my life, attached to emotional memories, rites of passage, good times and heartbreak. Now, all of a sudden, people were talking about why I couldn’t fully understand them; why they could never mean as much to me because I’m not Canadian. It didn’t seem fair, at first. I loved them too. I was grieving, too.
Then, on Saturday, August 20th, the CBC aired the band’s final show of the tour, in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario. Live. For more than three hours, uninterrupted by commercials, an entire nation watched and cried together. The Prime Minister attended. Twitter exploded with #Canadaisclosed. Canadian Olympic athletes watched together on a big screen from Rio.
I went out that night, figuring the footage would be online later; it wasn’t.
Ask yourself this: can you think of one band or artist that could unite America that way for five minutes? One hour? One band that warrants so much respect, our networks would eschew billions of dollars just to let them perform for a few hours? One artist that means so much to all of us, Americans would put aside their political agendas and prejudices and just sing along, together, as a nation of fans?
Cases can certainly be made for some artists. Johnny Cash comes to mind…maybe he could have done it. Springsteen? In the eighties, perhaps. Elvis, way back when, well…probably. Michael Jackson in his heyday, perhaps. (I promise, I really tried to think of more than one artist who wasn’t an adult white male, which is obviously part of the problem). But what about now?
Listen, I’m not hating on America. I’m just saying, like almost everything else in our culture, we tie music and movies and television to individual identities, not a national one. Diversity is a wonderful, necessary, and inevitable thing, but too many artists and genres are politicized, classified into categories befitting specific subsets of the population. Think of the stereotypical country music fan, rap fan, alternative music fan, EDM fan: a picture came to mind, I bet. Most of us, in the age of streaming, cross genres sometimes, but those stereotypes go deep, and they’re incredibly divisive. They turn fans into opponents, words into weapons. Where is the picture of someone who truly bridges this divide? Why isn’t there one?
There’s something to be said for having one band that would be able to transcend all of the noise and social media chatter and political bickering, the road rage and the racial tension. Maybe it never existed here; maybe it never will. But if music is one of the only things that can truly unite people…we might be in some trouble.
So, Canada, I realized: you’re right. I can’t ever totally understand what The Tragically Hip means to you as a nation, because there is no American equivalent. That’s a rare and beautiful thing. Hold on to them tightly. Keep the footage and the memories. Know that for all our noise and bluster, we envy you this. We, the United States, are incapable of uniting this way. You are so fortunate. You are an example of what should be possible.
I hope you won’t mind if I borrow Gord & the boys, though, from time to time. TTH grieved with me and my sweet friend on that car ride so long ago, and we’ll grieve with you, when the time comes. Maybe we’ll drive up north into farm country with the windows down, listening to “Wheat Kings,” remembering what it was to be young and free and open…and high on some killer Canadian weed and music.