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Joseph Boyden’s seven love songs for Gord Downie

Award-winning author Joseph Boyden’s emotional reflection on his relationship with The Hip’s Gord Downie—and ours, too


 

Courage. It couldn’t come at a worse time.

The Tragically Hip is a great tide that has enveloped our country for three decades, and now we witness that tide begin to recede: first in Victoria, then Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, London, Toronto, Hamilton, Ottawa, and finally, Kingston, Ont. The tide leaves in its wake a beach littered with glittering pieces of favourite lyrics, of memories, of hugs and laughs and now tears. Thousands and thousands of Canadians, hundreds of thousands this summer, beachcomb alone or in groups of two or three or four, stopping to pick up and admire the pretty shell that is “Courage” or “Hundredth Meridian,” or to laugh about that time Sally got to meet some of the band or Jimmy got so hammered at the show he threw up or the time Sue went with her dad of all people because he is a superfan, too. The summer of 2016 is no doubt the summer of the Tragically Hip. And it is a summer that will be remembered 50 years from now as one of those iconic summers that subtly, gracefully, changed a nation.

The powerhouse that is the Tragically Hip has come to the end of the most important, radical and historic music tour this country has ever seen. Anyone lucky enough to witness it knew this wasn’t one more mega-band’s final kick at the can, another endless Who final tour announcement. Even the most jaded music critic admits that what we just witnessed was something BIG, something culturally—and yes, historically—significant as these five friends from Kingston played 15 concerts that ended in their hometown, televised across the nation.

At the show in London, Ont., I was lucky to be close enough to the stage that I could see the sweat glistening on Gord’s face. At one point, I swear he blew me a kiss. But this is one of Gord’s magnetic qualities. He makes every one of us in the packed arena feel like he is talking just to us. That he loves us. He is the great prince and joker and poet and madman rolled up into one. He is gangly and spastic and an incredibly suave dancer. He’s tall and thin, and he dresses in an impeccable way. The shaved head and wide mouth that cracks into a smirk that rarely shows teeth and the blue-grey eyes that say everything that the mouth won’t, the sum of these parts are exactly what make him truly handsome. And when he whispers or screams into the mic with his perfectly imperfect voice, the words that come out of him and into us somehow make sense in the way that only true poets can, weaving together words that shouldn’t make sense but so desperately do. At that London show, I watched a real and grizzled Hell’s Angel crying into his beard at the same time thousands of voices sang along with our Gord, “Courage! It couldn’t come at a worse time.”


Joseph Boyden (left) and Gord and Tanya Tagaq at Waterkeeper gala in Toronto (Joseph Boyden)

Joseph Boyden (left) and Gord and Tanya Tagaq at Waterkeeper gala in Toronto (Joseph Boyden)

He said, “I’m fabulously rich, come on
just let’s go”; she [he] kind of bit her [his] lip, “Jeez, I don’t know” 

May 2005

Dear Diary:

You won’t believe what happened to me today. OMG OMG OMG!!! Guess who wrote me an email. Gord Downie. The Gord Downie. Like as in the rock star Gord Downie. He wrote me to tell me he read my book. And he liked it! The Gord Downie wrote me a frickin’ email. The subject heading is, “Whoa.” I swear. “Whoa.” So understated, but deep, too. I’m going to print it up and frame it. I haven’t written him back yet. I’m not sure what to say. What do you say to Gord Downie? Should I play it cool? “Cool. Thanks, man. Glad you liked it. Check ya later.” Or more upbeat? “Wow. Gord Downie. I love your music. I’m thrilled you liked my book. Want to be best friends?” Maybe somewhere in between? God, how am I going to sleep tonight?

March 2006

Dear Diary:

You ARE NOT going to believe who called me on the phone today. Yep. Gord Downie. You take the “R” out of Gord and what do you get? Exactly. And are you ready to have your mind blown? Guess who asked me over to his house tomorrow? I swear!!! I knew we were “friends,” but is this becoming a “bestie” kind of thing? It’s like I’m sleeping and I’m scared I’m going to wake up and it was all a dream. That voice. So deep. So raspy. So, what’s the word? Penetrating. All I could think to answer was, “Sure.” I’m such an idiot. I was about to hang up when he laughed and asked if I wanted his address. I’m an idiot! I’ve tried on like six different outfits tonight. I don’t know what I’m going to wear. I don’t know how I’m going to sleep. But I better. I don’t want to show up tomorrow morning looking all tired at the rock-star mansion of Mr. Gordon Downie.

P.S. “I’ll leave for his house tomorrow at just a little after nine. He also invited Amanda to join us. You should have heard me whine.”

June 2007

Dear Diary:

Well, I don’t think we can call this a fling anymore. I asked Gord to meet my family. And he said yes. We’re going to stop in at Ahmic Lake so he can say hi to my mother and some of my siblings, and then I’m taking him all the way up to James Bay lowlands to go fishing and hang out with William and Pam. You know what? I think I’ll realize what kind of a person he truly is after this trip. Will he eat my mother’s famous cheese and bacon bagels with ketchup or without? Will he dare try her moose stew? Do rock stars even know how to fish? He’s such an urbane dresser. What’s he going to wear in the bush?

September 2008

Dear Diary:

OMG OMG OMG!!! It’s official! This is more than just some bromance! Gord and the band asked me to write the liner notes for their new album! Oh, and they asked Amanda, too.

P.S. “They asked us both to write the essay, and I said sure, to them, that’s fine. I let Amanda do most of the writing, while I polished off a bottle of wine.”

April 2009

Dear Diary:

Finally. Just me and Gord. Alone. Finally. Maclean’s asked me to interview him. Not me and Amanda. Just me. Just me and Gord. Finally.

P.S. I went to his house that evening. Just a little after nine. He asked me where Amanda was. I said, “Christ, don’t worry about it. She’s fine.”

September 2010

Dear Diary:

I’m pretty sure Amanda is in love with Gord Downie. I’m pretty sure my mom is, too. I’m not sure which upsets me more.

January 2011

Dear Diary:

Just got back from the Waterkeeper Gala in Banff. Possibly the strangest, most interesting night ever. What’s more iconically Canadian than playing a game of hockey on a frozen pond with Gord Downie, Kevin Lowe, Karen Percy Lowe (BTW she’s way harder at checking than her husband) and Waterkeeper co-founder Mark Mattson? And what’s more bizarre than your teammates and opponents including Bobby Kennedy Jr., tennis legend John McEnroe and that weirdly handsome Paul Mitchell shampoo dude, while Hollywood A-listers watch and cheer us on? Maybe he was feeling the pressure of all those famous eyes on him, but I just wish Gord had played better. I’m not saying he’s bad at hockey. But I just wished we had put him in goal or something.

August 2012

Dear Diary:

Amanda and my mom remain in love with Gord. Now nine of my 11 siblings are in love with him, too. Of the two siblings who are not, one is dead and the other is a lawyer. If Gord’s taught me anything, it’s that you have to have lots of self-confidence if you’re going to be with a rock star.

October 2013

Dear Diary:

I’m not whining. But he didn’t call me on my birthday. It’s not like we’re drifting apart or something. We both have such busy lives. But even a simple hello from the road would go a long way.

August 2014

Dear Diary:

The world feels perfect here in Woody Point, N.L. Gord and I are having a wonderful vacation, along with, I guess, his family and Amanda.

P.S. “Could have been the Shelagh Rogers, it could have been the screech, but when I woke up in the morning, I was lying naked on a beach.”

November 2015

Dear Diary:

I was thinking about him while sitting on a plane. The plane was about to take off, but something demanded I call him anyways. I still don’t want to believe what he told me. I’ll call him soon as we land to tell him I heard him wrong. It can’t be true.

August 2016

Dear Diary:

I love him. As much as I’ve ever loved anyone. Amanda and I are on our way to Kingston to see the show. When I ask Gord his plans after the concert’s over, I want him to tell me, “Let’s just see what tomorrow brings.”


Gord Downie and Joseph Boyden check out an ice fishing hole on James Bay, while attending the Great Moon Gathering, a native focused annual conference for educators. (Photograph by Andrew Tolson)

Gord Downie and Joseph Boyden check out an ice fishing hole on James Bay, while attending the Great Moon Gathering, a native focused annual conference for educators. (Photograph by Andrew Tolson)

I worked it in, I worked it in to look like that

One of the more surreal flights we’ve ever been on was in 2012, on an Air Creebec charter from Moosonee, Ont., to the remote reserve of Fort Albany, Ont., on the James Bay coast. I still don’t know how I was able to convince them, but I’d sweet-talked the whole of the Tragically Hip to come with us to play a concert for the Cree of this isolated community during their Great Moon Gathering, an Indigenous education conference. There must have been 75 of us packed onto the plane, friends and family, educators, management and the scaled-down team of magicians led by the band’s guitar tech, Billy Ray, the quiet ones who keep Canada’s greatest road show running.

RELATED: Joseph Boyden and the Hip go north of the 52nd

Nighttime: 30,000 feet above and deep into the frigid Arctic lowland winter, the plane humming, people talking, excited with the adventure. Laughing. A lot of laughing. All of us were on what we’d coined a guerrilla act of love. Idle No More burned hot across the country, and Fort Albany’s nearby and isolated cousin Attawapiskat and its chief, Theresa Spence, were under attack by politicians, by media trolls, by pissed-off rednecks and, it seemed obvious, by the prime minister himself, simply because Chief Spence dared ask for help for the Cree of James Bay.

Not since the Oka crisis had there been such misunderstanding, such vitriol, this pure unadulterated hatred aimed square at our First Nations. But this new hate, this anger raging in the hearts of so many often well-heeled and lighter-skinned Canadians, it was so prolific, so obvious. Finally, these well-heeled and lighter-skinned Canadians felt allowed to say what they’d secretly harboured for generations, since they had first created residential schools and a reserve system to deal with the Indian problem once and for all. It was just so easy to jump on the bandwagon of hate, but the guys in the Hip, they knew that when something seems too easy, it probably is. To a man, the Hip are not just musicians. Some are environmentalists, others activists, some politically involved, all of them humanitarians. They are engaged and inquisitive citizens. This is why they have remained not just so relevant but so creative for so many decades.

We arrived that night to the whole community showing up at the tiny airport to greet us, and over the course of the next few days, gifts of hand-sewn moose hide and beaver hats and instruments were exchanged, Rob and Gord S. and Johnny and Paul jammed with Cree teens, and Gord D. in an interview perfectly captured the state of a nation: We are only as good as how we treat our most vulnerable, as how we respond to those of us most in need. Gord knew full well that maybe it wasn’t the Cree most in need, but those Canadians who so quickly jumped to judge a people they’d never bothered to visit.

We Canadians tend to be painfully polite, even in our racism. But this gang, our gang, flew up to this remote reserve in -30° C weather to play the Hip’s first high school gym show in 25 years just so we could shout some love to our original people. We had high hopes of transmitting the show across the country via the web, but alas, a lot of reserves in Canada don’t get near the same access to what the rest of us consider guaranteed amenities. It didn’t matter, though. We were there for the Mushkegowuk Cree first. Our planned guerrilla act of love, we hoped, might start a ripple.

On that plane ride rocketing so high across the frozen muskeg, I had so desperately wanted to lean over to the band and whisper, “Hey, fellas, I don’t mean to alarm you, but basically we’re flying over the exact same place, like literally the exact same place, where Bill Barilko from your iconic song ‘Fifty Mission Cap’ went down in his own plane so long ago. He died on that fishing trip. But don’t worry. That won’t happen to us. On a night like tonight, with so much love on board, a night like this? We’re never going to die.”

RELATED: Gord Downie on the Great Moon Gathering

 

Seven years later, and that guerrilla act of love the band started as a ripple now just finished roaring across the country. And they did it for our Indigenous peoples, for our blue-collar workers, for those who survived cancer and for those who haven’t or won’t. They did it for our middle class, for our residential school survivors as well as those who did not survive. And yes, the Hip even did this for our politicians, for our businesspeople and professional hockey players and 85-year-old mothers, too. And when Gord gave his shout-out to our nation’s original peoples to thousands of screaming Canadians on each stop of the band’s last tour, this became obvious in the most simple of ways: the Hip have become that perfectly worked-in ball cap that all of us are proud to wear, that all of us can find comfort in donning, that all of us have worried and bent and shaped to look just like that.


The Tragically Hip wave to the audience at the end of their last concert, in Kingston, on August 20th, 2016. (David Bastedo/The Tragically Hip)

The Tragically Hip wave to the audience at the end of their last concert, in Kingston, on August 20th, 2016. (David Bastedo/The Tragically Hip)

You teach your children some fashion sense, and they fashion some of their own

It is undeniably true that sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. What is unique about having watched one of the shows on the Man Machine Poem tour is that—so much more than the average concert—we were conscious participants in something bigger than our individual selves. To emote love for an iconic group is one thing. To emote love en masse, utterly unified for every moment the Tragically Hip played on stage is to be a part of Love with a capital “L.” Hope. Kindness. Thanks. Love can really be a palpable physical entity. You could feel the love in the arenas, the love pouring out of those of us lucky enough to be there to raise our fists for “Courage,” to put a hand on the shoulder of the stranger next to you who can’t stop the tears.

Gord Sinclair recently gave a commencement speech at Queen’s University in Kingston. The band had received honorary degrees, and Gord S. was the one to bring their unified message to those graduating that day. It could not have been more poignantly directed at the Man Machine Poem audience members had he delivered his talk right in the arena before the opening chords. Gord S. said, beautifully, that they are the better for their dedication to the communal whole. He said that the next generations of us need to collaborate, listen to one another, work together, remember humanity. Nothing could be more true. If there is an offstage message the band has given us, Gord S.’s commencement speech nails it.

RELATED: Read Gord Sinclair and the Hip’s commencement speech

 

Is there a more apropos request of us? The Tragically Hip would want us to consider humanity first. They are all staunch advocates of the environment, progressive thinkers and collaborators with the likes of the geniuses Jim Balsillie and Neve Peric, Mark Mattson and Robert Kennedy Jr. of Waterkeeper. But more importantly, they keep the faith for the future of this world, Canada in particular. They believe in reconciliation. They believe we are all better when we support one another. The band’s children, and in turn our children, are inheriting what we leave them. The Hip wants the kids to know that they need to work together. They need to talk to each other rather than staring into their phones. They need to chatter and pick up a drumstick or a guitar, a pen, make a new friend of somebody being bullied. Please interact, they say. See live music. And exist in the moment.

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The ‘carpe diem’ spectacle of the Tragically Hip’s final stop

You can see what the tour looked like on any of the YouTube videos. But what did it feel like? When the band takes the stage and then their dark silhouettes transform with one blast of blazing light to reveal the objects of our affection, you’re first hit like a steel-toed boot kick to the chest with the Power of Them, and next in a split second our roar of excitement morphs us into a singular power combined. What is so striking, as our eyes begin to focus and our ears tune in, is how close the band stands in their first set. Is it an homage to their days in divey Kingston venues, days when they each had only two square feet on which to stand on a makeshift stage? Hard to say. But what is instantly apparent is that they are a unit. They are the tightest wolf pack, protective of each other, of their entirety, till death do them part. We in the audience see that, feel that. The songs are intimate, some of them raw, some of them so familiar you’re caught for a second thinking, reminding yourself, “I am here. I am alive. And I am part of something so much bigger than just myself.”

The second set, after a visually impactful and quick break, reveals the band owning the whole stage. They’re big and covering it, spread wide. They’re telling us, “Yep, we got here somehow. From there. That tiny place where we started.” They’re telling us, “We share this whole big grand adventure with you.” They open themselves up to all of the rest of us. They share their most intimate of last days on the long road. (We can also hope some clandestine pop-up shows manifest in the next months, right?) Their bravery is infectious, and we scream and scream back at them, “We love you we got your back we are your huge wolf pack we love you we love you we got your back we do we do we do we do.”


Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip performs during their last concert in Kingston on August 20th, 2016. (David Bastedo/The Tragically Hip)

Gord Downie of The Tragically Hip performs during their last concert in Kingston on August 20th, 2016. (David Bastedo/The Tragically Hip)

You’re in my heart, and in
my pocket and in my eye. In
my blood.

Memory is a funny thing. It plays tricks, it jolts you awake early in the morning, it makes you unsure about whether you locked the car or left the burner on. It says, “Hey, you, remember the last time you saw Grandma at the end? Why can’t you picture her face clearly anymore? Do you remember what you said to her? Do you remember what day it was?”

The show in Kingston proved an opportunity for closure for some of us, closure of a sort. We will all remember the show, how we felt. But we can and should also hang on to the journey’s opening memories, the ones we can still dredge up about where we were and what we were doing when the Hip first entered our lives. When they provided the soundtrack for the first breakup with the first girlfriend. Or because their concert proved so intoxicating it made sense to take that cute guy home afterwards. These. These kinds of memories exist by the hundreds of thousands.

“I saw them for the first time in Saskatoon when I was 16. My dad was foolish enough to loan me his car, and I drove through a snowstorm to get there. A blizzard, really. I kept the T-shirt forever. It’s blaze hunting orange and teal. God, I love that thing. I brought it with me to this last Kingston show.” Greg A., Watson, Sask.

“I decided to crowd-surf at Sask Place on Another Roadside Attraction in ’95. I wore wool work socks, black steel-toed Cat boots, red shorts and no shirt. I climbed up on the steel barrier in front of the stage, held my arms out in front of the crowd, and when Gord screamed, “And the pendulum swings!” I just went for it. The crowd kept me up, which was crazy since I’m a pretty big guy. I crawled front to back, over and over, for God, or for Gord, for what felt like hours.” Steve M., Prince Albert, Sask.

“1987, and I was in law school. We had a committee to put on the Law Games and a $2,000 budget. We put together an all-in $2,000 contract with the Tragically Hip, still wet behind the ears, to play. Then they got their first manager, and their price went up to $3,000. We bailed. Who knew someday that an individual ticket for one of these shows could net $2,000. For just one ticket. What an amazing ride they’ve had.” Nora O., Hamilton

“Kensington in Calgary, 2002, In Violet Light, and the Hip start their first song, “Silver Jet.” I lit up a joint and got unceremoniously and promptly ejected. I couldn’t even stay for the first song. But my friends could. I had to hang out in a bar, waiting. I sat there thinking, “I waited this long to see the Hip and fate deals me this.” Chad H., Edmonton

“The Hip had just released Trouble at the Henhouse: “Gift Shop,” “Ahead by a Century,” “700-Ft. Ceiling”—so good it hurt. My boyfriend and I took a road trip to catch the epic Canada Day weekend show at the Toledo Zoo. The crowd passed around a massive Canadian flag. Emotions ran high. I lost my virginity that night. Unforgettable.” Melissa R., Windsor, Ont.

“It was 1984 and I was at Queen’s University. Everyone attended the home football games on Saturday. But often we never lasted past the halftime. One afternoon, as usual, we quit the stadium and headed down to the Lakeview Manor just down the street to catch our friends the Tragically Hip playing the bar. The Lakeview was a biker bar, the sister to the Cornet in Kitchener. The band was rocking on the stage, barely visible through the cigarette smoke. A topless waitress took my beer order. I remember hearing the music, looking at the place and thinking these guys might have the coolest gig in Kingston.” Mark M., Wolfe Island, Ont.


The Tragically Hip's bassist, Gord Sinclair, and guitarist, Rob Baker, perform during their final tour on August 2nd, 2016. (David Bastedo/The Tragically Hip)

The Tragically Hip’s bassist, Gord Sinclair, and guitarist, Rob Baker, perform during their final tour on August 2nd, 2016. (David Bastedo/The Tragically Hip)

I won’t send you in a cab when I
can take you there myself

So many of us have watched over the summer of 2016 as Gord Downie has become a shaman, and his bandmates around him his priests.

A long time ago a few of us got to go to a Hip show in Toronto at the iconic Massey Hall, an intimate venue for such a big band. Gord and the guys were at their best, the music perfect, Gord the ultimate showman, shimmying and strutting, wiping his forehead with a white hanky and throwing it into the crowd, using his mic stand like motorcycle handlebars or a sparring partner, ducking and weaving. His sense of humour and fun shone full force, punctuated by extraordinary and improvisational rants.

Downie is that rare performer: holy fool and dancer, the charismatic poet you can’t take your eyes off as he walks the tightrope of his stage, a man possessed by the energy of the audience and especially the music. All of them—Rob with his straight, long hair, Paul always cool as a scruffy cucumber, trim Johnny working out on his drums, Gord S. rhythmic and dexterous in his bass runs—serve alternately as posts, as pillars that Gord monkeys around on, or as a runway that allows the showman to take off into his acrobatic flights that can make our stomachs drop, the band always there to offer him a solid landing.

When he’s on stage, Gord appears much bigger than he really is. It’s as if he absorbs our energy, taking in as much as he can, sweating it out in buckets. He takes it all in and then gives it right back to us, leaving us full even as he, afterwards, is left empty. We hung out with him after the show that night and were nearly shocked at how much smaller he looked—skinny, almost like he’d aged in front of our eyes. I had the overwhelming urge to protect him from people simply hoping to come up and say hi and bask in his light for a moment. How much more could he give?

RELATED: Why poets love Gord Downie, and vice versa

 

Jim Morrison liked to share the story of how when he was a child on a road trip with his parents, they passed by some Native Americans who’d just died in a car wreck and how Jim felt the spirit of one of them enter into his body. This spirit, Morrison believed, was what sometimes possessed him onstage.

It’s hard not to wonder about this story. As a kid, I thought it was way cool. Now, not so much. I’m not one for believing that people get supernaturally possessed up on a stage in front of a bunch of watching people, especially by a poor, dead Indigenous guy. But watching Gord on his own stage over the course of this summer, that word, “shaman,” keeps haunting me. Gord has become a shaman in front of our very eyes.

This tour, he obviously doesn’t have the energy of past tours. Yes, he can still shimmy and shake like Elvis and drop his white hanky before deftly kicking it up and back into his hands again. His illness has clearly slowed him down, though. He has monitors to help him with some lyrics, and he’s more tentative on the stage. He doesn’t speak off the cuff too much. His bandmates surround him like that protective wolf pack.

But he’s got a new dance move, one where he crosses the stage almost ape-like, or maybe more like original man, his back curved and his long arms held out just a little from his body like he’s almost dragging his knuckles, his legs wide as he grins and strides across the stage. Yes, it’s definitely more like original man. Gord is seeing something new out there in the screaming sea of the audience. After 30 years of audiences, he’s seeing something, maybe, for the first time. And he likes it. Clearly, the audience does, too. Very few people have been to a concert like these this summer where everyone from the band’s entrance to its last encore stands for the entire gathering and sings and laughs and hugs and high-fives and cries. Gord and his friends, the shaman and his priests, have created something akin to magic. The man who is much physically lesser than he was can now with a flick of his hand or a concentrated stare or with his simple silence whip many thousands of people into an instant frenzy. A love frenzy.

We are worshipping for those hours we spend with him. We’re not worshipping Gord and the band, per se. We are worshipping the freedom of being here, right now. We are communing with a man we love who we know will not be here physically in the foreseeable future, but we’re not really thinking of that, either. We are singing along and laughing and crying with that mother or father who is no longer with us, or the best friend we lost to life moving on. We shout out Gord’s lyrics that become prayers to all of the people in our life, and we’re whispering to all of them that they are our world. As Gord tells us, “Use it up. Use it all up. Don’t save a thing for later.” The summer of 2016, the Tragically Hip taught a whole nation how to simply be in the moment.

If you need any more proof that Gord Downie has shifted from a living, breathing human being into something more right in front of a country’s eyes, check out the YouTube video posted after the band’s last concert in Toronto on Aug. 14. The one I saw is called, “That Last Night, Last Song, Last Scream in Toronto.” I’m sure there are many much like it, posted from all across the country. In this particular video, Gord screams a single word a number of times as the band reaches its crescendo. Is Gord shouting, “Help!” or is he screaming, “Now!” or is it, “No!”? All I know is that those are real tears, and our dear friend is no longer himself. He is something more. He’s transcending something. All I want to do is protect him. But I can’t. And that’s okay. He doesn’t need protecting. He’s on a beautiful path.


The Tragically Hip's singer, Gord Downie, embraces Canada's Prime Minister ahead of the band's final show, in Kingston on August 20th, 2016. (David Bastedo/The Tragically Hip)

The Tragically Hip’s singer, Gord Downie, embraces Canada’s Prime Minister ahead of the band’s final show, in Kingston on August 20th, 2016. (David Bastedo/The Tragically Hip)

This is our life

Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016, in Kingston broke hot and humid even by New Orleans measures. The expected crowds shuffled through the historic Market Square not with beer-soaked exuberance but with a strange reserve, a hushed anticipation. Wet heat rose through the hockey arena that night; if you’d walked in mid-concert, it might have seemed you were walking into the mouth of a panting and overheated dog. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there. He respectfully kept his T-shirt on, but even if he hadn’t, all eyes would have still remained glued on Gord and Rob and Paul and Johnny and Gord S.

Gord, on the final night of the tour, spoke directly to the Prime Minister in front of a sweating hockey arena, in front of a nation, millions watching in homes and beer halls and by campfires. Gord praised Trudeau for his new vision, for his desire to unify Canada through reconciliation with our original peoples. But Gord was also clear that our North and its people need a whole country’s attention. Trudeau stood still and listened. All of us could see it. Gord spoke not to the prime ministers of our parents but to the Prime Minister himself. And there is no question that Trudeau was listening. You could see in his eyes, in the way he held himself, that he was paying attention.

After the show, we poured out of that arena, stunned, the heat and humidity dissipating in a strong east wind off the expanse of the Great Lakes, a blow the Cree legend and Gord Downie’s close friend William Tozer calls a bitch wind and foretells nasty weather ahead. All night that bitch wind kept up, bringing intense rain, drum-rolling on rooftops and splitting branches from their trees.

At 5 a.m. after that last show, Amanda and I lay on a couch on a screened-in porch of a great friend’s ancient house on Wolfe Island across from the nation’s original capital, the first light of a dreary day revealing the watery crossroads where Canada as we now know it was born. The ghosts of a thousand past inhabitants and travellers around us at this meeting place had kept us awake. And so had all the last weeks’ images, and the sounds in my ringing ears, the flashes of light, the enormity of the love we’d all witnessed playing out on a continual loop in my head. The wind whipped up sporadic bursts of hard rain and then quieted, only to come again. I realized my mind refused to let my body sleep for the fear that I’d wake up to a grey morning believing all of it was just a dream.

The Tragically Hip really is more than the sum of its parts. Billy Ray is almost as recognizable at their shows as the band. He’s the tall, lanky one in the black cowboy hat you’ve seen at every show since 1992, about 1,650 of them by his count. He puts any superfan to shame. Billy Ray’s never missed one gig, one song, one note of the band’s live performances in 25 years. He’s the dude you see slipping onto the stage between songs to deliver a perfectly tuned guitar or to move around an amp or to adjust a mic stand. Billy Ray’s real name is Dave Koster, and he’s the Tragically Hip’s technical director. On this last tour, you can see he’s devastated. It’s in his eyes.

If you ask him about his work, he’ll say, “It’s never been about a job. It’s been a life.” If you ask him what he’s going to do now that the band seems to be winding down for good, he’ll probably answer, “I’m taking it day by day. It’s not over yet. As long as Gord’s still here, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll be by his side.”

The sheer stubbornness, the refusal to say it’s done for good, it’s what the whole country feels. We’re not ready to say goodnight and sweet dreams to you yet, gentlemen. Please won’t you just get back up on that stage and keep playing? Didn’t someone hear Gord say he’d like to keep going, play, like, another 50 shows? Someone said Gord said it. We’re sure of it.

And then Dave Koster, a.k.a. Billy Ray, says this without prompting, a line from one of Gord’s poems: “I’m here because you’re here. When you go, I’m going, too.” Immediately Billy Ray explains that this isn’t meant to sound morbid. It’s just what it is.

I think of all of this as I lie on an old couch on the screened-in porch on Wolfe Island in the first grey light of the day after that last concert, another band of hard weather sweeping through. Rock star, friend whom we love, father and brother and son and poet, please don’t go just yet. Tell us it isn’t over. Tell us that story just one more time. You know, the one about rain falling in real time, about rain falling through the night. That story. No dress rehearsal. This is our life.


 

Joseph Boyden’s seven love songs for Gord Downie

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