In Canada, a country where national identity is so elusive that it's often oversimplified, equated with hockey and a certain brand of coffee, it's a beautiful moment when we have something real and profound to unite us. Even if it's, well, tragic.
Who needs a double-double – or even the Olympics – to pull a country together when you've got a country pulling for a national icon and his mates? What's uniting Canada this summer is a rock band that sings of Jacques Cartier, Millhaven maximum security and, yes, the Leafs; a genius life being cut short by a brain tumour; and a long cross-country goodbye. It has left a vapour trail of heartbreak and exhilaration, this act of enormity.
Over the past few months, and especially these past few weeks, Canada has rocked with the Tragically Hip and rallied behind Gord Downie, its lead singer. Fans have railed against scalping bots, marvelled at Downie's shiny courage, sung along to every lyric, wept openly with strangers in packed arenas. The Hip hype will reach a deafening climax on Saturday as the band plays the final show of its Man Machine Poem tour in its hometown of Kingston, Ont. Across the country – and beyond – Canadians will be watching.
The news that stung the country broke on May 24. "A few months ago, in December, Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer," read a message on the Hip's website. The band (also Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair, Johnny Fay and Paul Langlois) said it would still tour this summer and vowed to "dig deep, and try to make this our best tour yet."
The nation did not whisper. It wept.
And tweeted. "Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada's soundtrack for more than 30 years. #Courage," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wrote.
In the bedrooms of the nation, people woke up to the terrible news.
In Vancouver, Spirit of the West's John Mann and his wife, Jill Daum, heard the story on – where else? – the CBC.
"The news about Gord just hit John so deeply," says Daum, who assists with interviews as a result of Mann's early-onset Alzheimer's. "I think it's [because] he knows what he's going through. It just gutted him."
Mann kept writing Downie's name on a piece of paper. And despite almost never making calls any more, he was anxious to phone bandmate Geoffrey Kelly. They had played their last shows the month before.
"Jill said John felt it was so important to talk to me about this because he just knew I'd be taken aback like the whole country was taken aback," Kelly says. "And I was and John was especially moved by that."
In Los Angeles, Brad Schwartz's inbox was filling up. "People were concerned for me," says Schwartz, president of the CBC/Lionsgate joint venture Pop TV. The Toronto native has been following the band since its early days in Kingston and had seen them perform 126 times (possibly more, he says, but definitely not less). In 2006, when CTV GlobeMedia launched MTV Canada, Schwartz was senior vice-president and general manager – and the first video he played was the Hip's Ahead by a Century.
The country was whipped into a frenzy; this was going to be the show to see this summer. But as presales began, many fans found it impossible to find tickets. The scandal snowballed; fans learned that scalpers were employing bots to buy up tickets. The hottest ticket in the country became a hot issue, with politicians all the way up to the Prime Minister addressing the problem.
Calling Downie a creative force and an icon, Trudeau said, "The industry should be able to police itself without government intervention at this point, but it's something we'll follow up on."
In Edmonton, talk-show host Ryan Jespersen and three friends were at their computers as the tickets were released, with no luck. Jespersen took his desperation to the airwaves on his 630 CHED show, and, thanks to a listener, managed to secure four excellent tickets. "I was being shameless," he says.
Shows were added, more tickets released, the CBC announced that it would air the final show from Kingston live.
As the show moved across the country, city after city would declare Tragically Hip days, and money was collected for the Sunnybrook Foundation's Gord Downie Fund for Brain Cancer Research.
The tour kicked off on July 22 in Victoria. Fans and even some connected to the tour were anxious about how Downie would do.
"A lot of people … [were] on the edge, just hoping that it was going to be all right," says Izzy Camilleri, who designed Downie's colourful metallic leather suits. "That whole day, I was just completely consumed by thinking about him and everything, just hoping everything was going to be okay."
In Toronto, she stayed up late, watching social media for fan reaction from the West Coast. She was relieved and thrilled to learn of Downie's terrific performance.
Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press
"It was amazing and it was more emotional than I thought," says B.C. MLA Lana Popham, who was in the audience, close to the stage. "I could see Gord's face and the band members' faces and I think what struck me most was at the beginning of the show they were all playing so close together like they were protecting him in a way. And you could feel so much love."
While Downie stumbled on a few words, who wouldn't with a catalogue that large, Popham muses. "Once he got into it, he was outstanding."
In Vancouver, Mann and Kelly – whose own band had been part of the Hip's Another Roadside Attraction touring festival years ago – attended the first concert together.
"It was an inspiring, triumphant evening musically, for humanity, in every respect. It was so courageous," Kelly says. "And, oh man, I was so proud to be there and be a Canadian and to have worked with those guys at a certain point; I felt a connection that I just treasure now."
The next morning, Kelly sent notes to Downie and Baker telling them how much it meant for them to be there.
"And they both wrote back and talked about the times we've had and how strange it is for both Gord and John to be hit by such horrible illnesses," Kelly says.
Mann, who is quiet these days, becomes uncharacteristically animated when asked about this subject.
"That show was fantastic," Mann told The Globe and Mail, calling Downie's performance riveting and powerful – a word he repeated several times. "It was one of the finest performances I have ever seen. I just don't think anyone else could possibly do it." Mann was in tears as he spoke. He said he was crying for both Downie and himself.
"I think John just felt like he was united with him," Daum says. "He felt a brotherhood, that's for sure."
By then, it was apparent how the shows worked: rotating set lists – a few songs from an album, then a few from another; one three-song encore, then a two-song encore.
JONATHAN HAYWARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS
The show's next stop was Edmonton, where Jespersen, who hosts CHED's flagship 9-to-noon program, watched with his three buddies from the second row on the floor. They had joked with each other about bringing tissues to the concert. But as soon as the band started into Long Time Running, it was no joke any more; he felt himself welling up. Halfway through the song, he let the tears flow. "I thought, I can't fight this any more." But by the end of the night, his face was hurting from smiling so much.
In city after city, the shows were not sorrowful or funereal. They were celebrations – if bittersweet.
"I was bawling my eyes out, to be honest," says Toronto radio personality Josie Dye, who flew to Calgary for a remote broadcast on 102.1 The Edge, and to take in the show there. It was Fiddler's Green, the third song in, that had Dye, a long-time fan, in tears. "You can't even control yourself and you're looking around at these big burly men who are also crying."
The band famously never really cracked the U.S. market, but sometimes on this tour, south came north.
Minnesota radio programmer Jim McGuinn has been playing the Hip throughout his public radio career around the United States. He is now program director at The Current in the Twin Cities. McGuinn has attended many Hip shows, but being in the United States, they've all been at fairly small venues. On Aug. 5, he and three friends – one of whom has brain cancer – drove eight hours to Winnipeg to see the show. It was wildly different from the U.S. club experience, with thousands of sweaty, emotional fans singing along.
"I found myself getting lost in the music and then something would cause me to snap back to this reality that this is probably the last time I'll see this band, and the reality of the situation that Gord and the band and their fans and their country are going through this week," he says. "That just added a level of intensity and heaviness that I don't think I've ever experienced at a show."
Because one member of the group had worked with the Hip on their U.S. label years ago, they were able to meet the band after the show. "The crazy thing was the guys were so gracious. 'You drove up from Minnesota; thank you so much for coming to the gig.' And I'm like, are you kidding?"
Back home, McGuinn picked up his guitar and started learning some Hip songs, something he had never done, despite his years of fandom. "There's a heaviness, but it's also like a celebration. It's sad and beautiful. It's life, I guess."
Finally, as the tour machined east, it reached the homeland: Ontario.
In London, Mayor Matt Brown (back at work following a temporary leave in June; he had an inappropriate relationship with his then deputy mayor) wasn't able to get a ticket but headed to the venue anyway, just to soak in the atmosphere. The preconcert vibe has been festive – radio stations broadcasting live, merchandise galore, fans milling about in order to stretch out the experience for as long as possible. Brown noticed a short lineup – some tickets had become available. He bought two – for him and his wife.
"The show was phenomenal. I have never heard Budweiser Gardens louder," Brown says. "Each and every one of us in attendance realized that this was a memory we were going to carry with us for the rest of our lives."
He continued, "They really are a cornerstone of Canada. And when I listen to their music, even if I'm at my desk in my office at City Hall, I can be transported to a dock at a cottage, a patio at a bar and a positive memory – just like that." His music at work.
The Toronto shows, three of them, were, by all accounts, extraordinary. Schwartz, a broadcasting powerhouse who sings his young children to sleep with Long Time Running, flew out from L.A. for the first show on Wednesday – his 127th Hip show.
"I jumped up and down even though I'm in my 40s now, and I sang every word," says Schwartz, who also ran MuchMusic and was one of the producers of the Canada for Haiti broadcast that included the Hip. "The room was on fire with love and energy."
When the band exited the stage and Downie remained alone, basking in the loud love from the wildly cheering crowd, acknowledging the fans and taking it all in (he did this everywhere and it was something nearly everyone The Globe spoke with for this story talked about), "that was the first moment of the show when I felt like I'd swallowed a hockey stick," Schwartz says.
Dave Bidini, whose Rheostatics had toured with the Hip years ago, was there for that final night in Toronto on Sunday. "It was torturous in a lot of ways because of the emotion. Hard to see it through the tears, right? But also grateful that I was seeing it that way, that my heart was so invested in it," says Bidini, who has written several books, including On a Cold Road: Tales of Adventure in Canadian Rock, in large part about opening for the Hip on their Trouble at the Henhouse tour.
"There's not a word invented beyond courage to describe what Gord is doing," Bidini says. "It's a shining example for everyone … how you turn pain into art."
Fashion designer Camilleri finally got to see the show – and her costumes (upon request, she added three more during the tour) – in person, attending all three Toronto concerts. "As each show comes and goes, he's gaining a lot of confidence and just being a lot looser and a lot more not holding back at all. I know that he's also taking care of himself and he has a lot of people taking care of him and making sure that he's taking care of himself. I personally worry about him pushing too hard. But it all seems to be going really, really well and he's being a good boy and listening to his doctor."
Even with three shows, Toronto was a tough ticket. Erica Ehm, former MuchMusic VJ (and now head of YummyMummyClub.ca), was one of many who didn't manage to get one. So she travelled to Hamilton this week to see the show there. "It was a party," she said the next morning. "We weren't at a wake. We were at a party to celebrate Gord and his band and what they mean to us. And he's the host of the party."
Ehm has encountered too many musicians to count and can tell the good guys from the others. "They are decent and they never have played the rock and roll game," she says. "And the audience reflected that. It was just a bunch of happy Canadians out for a great time to celebrate our own."
That night, Downie told a story about a Hamilton gig years ago, when exactly zero people showed up.
Like many others, Ehm was particularly struck by the band's physical proximity at the start of the show.
"I'm sure that's choreographed, but to me it highlighted his vulnerability. His performance was anything but vulnerable. It was aggressive, it was rock and roll, it was powerful. He took great pains to connect with people, make eye contact, he was lit right up. And if we didn't know he was sick, I would have never known," she says.
The band's penultimate show was in Ottawa on Thursday night. Musician Jim Bryson, who played keyboards with the band on tour in 2009, was there.
After one of the sets, Downie talked about the Hip's history in Ottawa. Then he told the crowd to carry on. "And it just killed me, that," says Bryson. "Then I realized that even all the time I spent around them, you don't know what it is when you're there. You only know what it [means] after." Bryson cried through the next three songs.
On Saturday, in Kingston, at the Rogers K-Rock Centre, located at 1 The Tragically Hip Way, the band will play its final show of this tour, and maybe forever – although no one is saying that. The Prime Minister will be among the 6,700 people who will be there.
Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press
For the rest of us, there's the CBC broadcast. Many will watch in their living rooms, others at one of the more than 400 public screenings being held across the country. In London, Mayor Brown will be at the city event at Victoria Park with his family. Camilleri will be up north, watching by the lake – she'll pass Bobcaygeon en route. Dye will be at the show itself.
In California, Schwartz and three other industry executives have rented a Santa Monica screening room and have invited other expats – broadcaster Jay Onrait and actor Eric McCormack among them.
In Alberta, Jespersen and his buddies have PVR'd the show; they're going to miss it live because they'll be off-the-grid, hiking. But they'll have their own tribute: They've made a playlist – the set list from the show they saw together in Edmonton – and they'll listen to it around a campfire, somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.