Sometimes there are no words. Even when words are your living, your legacy, your magic. When you have the kind of twisted, fantastic brain that can write a lyric like, "If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me, they bury me someplace I don't want to be." Or: "It's a monumental big screen kiss; it's so deep it's meaningless." When you have not only the pluck to name a song Bobcaygeon – but also the ingenuity to rhyme it with "constellations."
On Sunday night, at the Tragically Hip's second show of the tour they're not calling a farewell tour, front man Gord Downie did not address the elephant in the room – his brain cancer, incurable. He did not say a word about it.
But at times, his lyrics did it for him. These words, written long before his diagnosis and under completely different circumstances, seemed to take on new meaning in this new, awful context. And in those moments, as most of us watched Downie on the big screen, a monumental understanding pulsed through Rogers Arena, creating a connection between singer and fans that was so deep – and meaningful.
When Downie bellowed "I'm tired as fuck" or "I'm so hard done by," he pointed at himself. During Wheat Kings, when he sang "Let's just see what tomorrow brings," he gave the audience a penetrating look. The crowd cheered in acknowledgment every time. Even if "cheer" doesn't seem like the right word, exactly.
This unspoken double-meaning business struck most profoundly during Grace, Too – one of the highest points of an emotionally heightened night. He was doing his thing, acting out the song in his Gord Downie way, his finger on his mouth ("she kind of bit her lip; 'Jeez, I don't know'"). Then there was a moment when he looked out at the crowd and there was something about that look, a pause, a recognition that we all understood – that in this song about will, determination and grace, Downie was showing his.
At that point, the crowd went nuts; it was as loud as I heard the place all night (and it was gorgeously loud). Downie seemed to drink it in. And then he tucked his white shirt into his gold pants and got dancing again.
That's grace, too hard almost to imagine. If only someone could guarantee there would be no knock on the door.
In May, the band – which formed in Kingston, Ont., in the 1980s – revealed that Downie, 52, has terminal brain cancer. The Man Machine Poem tour was quickly announced. Tickets sold out ridiculously, suspiciously quickly. There was outrage over digital-age scalping techniques. The bots may have been overzealous, as it turns out. As the tour kicked off, there was a proliferation of tickets available online – some for below face value.
But I can't imagine anyone was thinking about that Sunday night during what promised to be the show of a lifetime.
Downie sounded great. There was the odd stumble over a lyric – but who knows what that was about? Was it the illness? Or just early-tour nerves? Anyway, it didn't matter.
On stage, he was a force. Not the crazed, sweaty Downie of earlier days, but an older, more refined version in three shiny suits (turquoise, then silver, then gold) and hats inspired by Bob Dylan; a little subdued and minus any killer whale tank-type lyrical digressions. (For anyone not familiar, Downie's 1991 live performance of New Orleans is Sinking during which he tells a story about being a killer whale tank cleaner at an aquarium is a classic and a must-hear). But he was still his eccentric self, performing various versions of the Gord Downie shuffle – the fidgety legs, the stomach rubbing and shoulder scratching, the jittery slow-mo robotic dance.
And there were theatrics. On Three Pistols, as he sang that his "hands are steady," he held his shaking, twitching hand up for all to see. On Grace, Too his microphone became a sword, a tennis racquet, a baseball bat. Downie was fencing with an unseen opponent, serving an ace, knocking it out of the park.
The arena was packed and the stage was large, but for much of the night, the band – Downie, guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair and drummer Johnny Fay – played close together like they were back at the Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto.
The Rogers Arena crowd was reverent. Most were on their feet the entire time. They pumped their fists, waved a Canadian flag, cried real tears, shouted the lyrics to hits such as Little Bones, Poets, Fully Completely and Locked in the Trunk of a Car.
During some particularly poignant songs – Wheat Kings; Grace, Too – cell phones were out in full force, not necessarily to record but to light up the place. The constellations revealed themselves one smartphone at a time.
Fans stamped their feet calling for encores, chanting "Gordie! Gordie!" I saw nobody make an early exit as the encores progressed. When the show finally ended, people shuffled out, gushing. I heard not a word of criticism.
But personally, I felt a tiny bit robbed. I believe the set list could have been stronger for this type of show. We all have our favourites, of course, but if it's possibly the last time you're going to see the Hip, you really want to hear the career highlights. I was bummed not to hear Blow at High Dough, Fifty-Mission Cap, At the Hundredth Meridian, Boots or Hearts or Ahead by a Century (the lyrics of which are lasered onto the soles of the custom boots made for Downie for this tour).
I know – so what? We've got a real robbery on our hands here – an immensely unjust bit of thievery that nobody wanted to give too much thought to Sunday, but which hung in the air along with all the pot smoke (which Downie, during one of his very few moments addressing the audience, called "almost unsettling").
At the end of the night, after kissing and hugging his bandmates, Downie stood on the stage on his own, looking out at the crowd – waving, blowing kisses, bowing, giving the thumbs up. He took a long last look at the audience – and exited the stage.