It's not often a man gets to sing at his own wake, but that's what Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, has been doing this summer. Diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Mr. Downie and his bandmates have undertaken a final cross-country tour that will end Saturday in Kingston, Ont., the city where they first came together.
The tour has been immensely emotional. The Tragically Hip are a band whose songs are unashamedly inspired by Canada's geography and stories, but which at the same time are not earnest, folkie or patriotic. They are simply the work of talented artists who find poetry in their world, and this country, and translate it into a singular sound, one that grew from straight-ahead bar-room blues to something more complex and nuanced over a 32-year career.
Their fans are deeply attached to the songs and have been singing them with the band one last time this summer. The sadness, when combined with the power of the music, has at times been unbearable. Everyone knows that when Mr. Downie goes, he takes The Tragically Hip with him.
This is not a suggestion that the other members – Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay – are merely backing musicians. The writing credit for every one of their songs is listed as "by The Tragically Hip," after all.
But everyone knows the Hip couldn't exist without Mr. Downie and his weird and wonderful presence on stage. It just wouldn't make sense. It's also fair to say that it is unlikely the band would have sold eight million records without the singer's ambitiously poetic lyrics and their conspiratorial Canadian inside references.
The flip side to singing at your own wake is that you get to hear what everyone is saying about you. To the many well-deserved homages that this final tour has generated, we want to add a simple message of gratitude.
Thank you, Gord Downie, for giving our country something that is at once shared with the rest of the world but ours alone to understand fully. Your words will always resonate the most deeply with a Canadian audience. To get them, to feel them, you have to be from here. And that is a hell of a good reason to be Canadian.