Today, I'm finding it hard to put my thoughts together about the death of Gord Downie this past Tuesday at the age of 53. Mostly, I'm having a hard time putting it into words as a good chunk of people who will read this won't be able to relate, or understand.
Gord Downie was the frontman and lyricist of a little band called The Tragically Hip. The Hip, as they are commonly known as, just always seemed to be around to me; they were just always there. Growing up, you could easily count on hearing at least one Tragically Hip song anytime you turned on a radio. I'm sure part of that was due to Canadian radio regulations which dictate that a certain precent of music we play on the airwaves must be Canadian. But another, much larger part of that was due to the fact that the Tragically Hip were a really fucking good band.
When I started high school in 1994, the Tragically Hip's album Day for Night was released and it just spread like wildfire around my High School. I think the stat was that 9 out of 10 Canadians at that point were said to own at least one Tragically Hip album. I was one of those Canadians, playing my copy of Day for Night over and over again. It was the CD we took with us on long drives to the beach in the summer. It was the album we did our homework too and it was the record we put on late at night on a Saturday, after the party had started to settle down and we would finish our last beers and sing along to every song on that album, perfectly.
The Tragically Hip were just inherently Canadian - like maple syrup, or hockey, or free universal healthcare. It didn't matter to us or the Hip that they never really exploded north of the border the way they did here. In fact, I think many of us loved the fact that the Hip seemed to be just for us - something only us Canadians can have and really understand.
Gord was one of the most prolific poets I have ever read. His lyrics are haunting and beautiful and witty and funny and brutally honest. That's what really pulled me in and made me a fan. The music was solid, but those lyrics...they taught me about love, and pain, and hurt, and even about Canada.
When Gord Downie announced in May of 2016 that he was diagnosed with Brain Cancer, many of us didn't know what to think. I was frustrated, sad, and upset. At the same time, my own father was going through a battery of surgeries and test which, early this year, determined that he also has cancer. Two men who I admire, both for different reasons, were starting very difficult battles and I wasn't ready for either of them.
Gord and the Tragically Hip gave us all the opportunity to say thank you by announcing that they would go on one more tour across Canada, finishing with a show in their home town of Kingston, Ontario on August 20, 2016. The concert was broadcast by the CBC on both radio and TV. I was traveling with my son at the time, in a small city called Regina. We went out for dinner and as we drove home, I made him listen to the concert with me. I cried in the car as I heard Gord scream the lyrics 'Courage, my word it didn't come it doesn't matter...'
That concert was watched by 11.7 MILLION people - which means one third of the population of Canada was a part of this tragic and beautiful show. ONE THIRD. I was watching, as were both my parents and even my sister, who I was sure didn't even know who the Hip were (she did. Of course she did...we all do).
While listening to that concert with my son, my Maximum Rhythm and Booze co-host, Warren Peace texted me and asked "Penny, is there something going on in Canada tonight? My twitter and Facebook feeds are full of you Canucks talking about some band?" I tried my hardest to explain to him, to tell him about The Tragically Hip and how ingrained they are in Canadiana and about Gord and his diagnosis and this last tour, this last chance to say goodbye.
He was able to comprehend, but I don't think he was really able to understand.
And it's hard to understand unless you're Canadian, I think. See, I think the problem for a lot of Canadians around my age is that we just don't know what is to be 'Canadian.' Sure, we can adhere to the common stereotype that we are all peaceful, beer drinking, hockey playing citizens who say 'aboot' and 'eh' a lot. But honestly, I think most of us fell like a generation with no real idea of what been Canadian means.
But The Hip and Gord Downie showed us. They taught us about our history - both the rights and the wrongs. They made us proud of our countries accomplishments and helped us hold ourselves accountable for our mistakes. They helped shape our identity.
I think our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, while fighting back tears, said it best in a statement he delivered on Wednesday:
"We are less of a country without Gord Downie in it. We all knew it was coming, but we hoped it wasn't. I thought I was going to make I through this, but I'm not. It hurts."
I'm thankful we had the chance to let The Tragically Hip know just how important they are and what they mean to us before before Gord Downie passed away. It's rare that we get the chance to really thank our idols and I'm grateful we were able to here. It doesn't make it any easier, but it does help. I'm also thankful that my most formative years were coloured with an amazing soundtrack by The Tragically Hip. Many of my most fond memories of growing up in rural Manitoba and on the Prairies include a Tragically Hip song or two woven in there.
So, thank you Gord and The Hip for helping me understand what it is to be Canadian. I'm forever grateful.