Posted by on 08/21/2016

I was a kid when The Tragically Hip were at their greatest in the early 90s. So they weren’t exactly my main band. But last night, I put the TV on in the background. I didn’t want to miss this last concert, but it was back of my mind.

Turns out The Hip had been all along, too.

I was reading a book excerpt by Porter Fox about a boat ride through the Great Lakes from Montréal to Minnesota when I first began to realise, listening to the music on the TV, that The Hip’s lyrics had been in the back of my mind for years through some beautiful Canadiana music osmosis.

And, just as I read Fox’s beautiful paragraph—

“A rain shower hit, carried by a ferocious wind. Five minutes later it passed, and the evening sun hammered the deck. I had never moved this slowly as a passenger and wondered if I would lose my mind with boredom in the next six days. But the pace was meditative, too. From the 75-foot-tall wheelhouse, you notice things onshore you would typically miss in a car, train or plane.”

—Gord Downie sang that haunting line, eerily similar to what I had just read:

“The beautiful lull
The dangerous tug
We get to feel small
From high up above…”

And it all came crashing back: the constellations at Bobcaygeon, “wheat kings and pretty things”, “no dress rehearsal: this is our life”…

So I found myself singing along to lyrics I barely knew that I knew, as a man made music his personal mission, as a country celebrated a poet who defied cancer a whole summer long, in one great national tour de force.

Stephen Marche pointed out in The New Yorker that, “Canada’s heroes are consumed by their country”. That made me think about Margaret Atwood’s “Death by Landscape”, a short story where a girl disappears into the wilderness on a canoe trip and a Group of Seven painting threatens to invade a condo in Toronto with its un-tameable wildness.

That recollection, of course, made me think of “Fifty Mission Cap”, and how a hockey player who jumped through the air to score a goal

“…disappeared that summer,
he was on a fishing trip.
The last goal he ever scored
won the Leafs the cup.
They didn’t win another until 1962,
the year he was discovered.”

Canada is a land with geography that kills and swallows us up; Al Purdy called it “the country of our defeat”. So it’s pretty remarkable that a country the size of Canada is small enough and tight enough that we were all at the same concert last night.

And we were, all here glued to our TVs, and the words of The Hip seemed fitting again:

“Late breaking story on the CBC
A nation whispers, ‘We always knew that he’d go free’
They add, ‘You can’t be fond of living in the past
Cause if you are then there’s no way that you’re going to last’
Wheat kings and pretty things
Let’s just see what tomorrow brings…”

Gord—with grit and “grace, too”—capped it all off with a challenge for tomorrow to the son of “our parents’ prime minister” with a call to action to finally reconcile with Indigenous Canadians. Like Terry Fox battling cancer across the country on his Marathon of Hope, Gord too was using his time left to fight for something greater than himself.

And I thought of Al Purdy once more, and his words brought it all home:

“…the lighting alters
here and now changes
to then and you can see
how a bald man stood
sturdily indignant
and spat on the floor
and stamped away so hard the flour
dust floated out from his clothes
like a white ghostly nimbus
around the red scorn
and the mill closed down”

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