I was prompted to recall these experiences recently, and so I dug up what I wrote about them at the time for a small site. all the links are gone, so here they are for any of you who might find them interesting. in every case, I’d leave a show, get in my car, punch these words into my telephone, and hit send, so the editor had them and whatever photos I took, asap. so, it’s raw but real, at least to me.
A new normal
The Tragically Hip, Budweiser Gardens, London, ON August 8, 2016
“My brain’s not working so good,” Gord Downie said, coming back on-stage after an intermission. The crowd booed, aiming their hostility squarely at the cancer that will never leave him and has left all of us, his fans, shattered.
“Jen’s dad’s name is Greg. I think I called him Doug. He died a little while ago. It’s because of her, that I got these pants,” Downie said, directing us to another shiny new hue that he’d changed into backstage, skinny legs and all.
“Maybe none of this seems important. But it is to me.” And then the crowd roared in appreciation of the little things in life. Greg. Doug. Jen. Shimmering pants. Gord.
The band, the Hip, were loose and occasionally happily lost in each other and the songs they have made together for 30 years. They played them in album suites, with no regard for in-stone sequences or chronology. They just shook loose the ones that made sense today, from Up to Here, Man Machine Poem, In Between Evolution, Phantom Power, Day For Night, Fully Completely, and Road Apples.
None of it seemed formal; the five men and the songs bumped into each other, a bit unexpectedly, and caught up in that warm, clumsy way relations do, after a lot of time has passed by. Or when something has changed.
On your way to see the Hip on this tour, you think about your friend who let you and your other friends know that he got some heartbreakingly bad news. And you think about what it’s gonna be like, when you’re finally in a room together with him and you and the bad news.
And when you see him, he’s the same as ever but he’s labouring, at least a little. He needs to search a bit longer to find the words he wants to say to you but then he does and they’re always perfectly put. He has a way with words, like few other shiny panted men, before him or since.
He has memories of this town, London, that you don’t. He met his wife here and they went and had four kids together. It’s a very special place for him. For whatever reason, you remember that Johnny Cash proposed to June, on-stage in London. She said “Yes.” Maybe something’s up with this town.
When the band first came here decades ago, almost no one (three people once, 14 people another) left their homes to welcome them. But the Hip didn’t scare easy. Every time they came back here, they’d make more and more friends until they needed to arrange get togethers of thousands of people in a ferociously loud arena.
It was so loud tonight. Everyone cheered at any lyrics that doubted death. To the max. How could it ever be louder than that?
And before you know it, everything feels normal. You and this guy and his friends have shared a lifetime together. You know the same combination of codes and they still work. Everything unlocks. He smiles. You smile.
But you’re in a big tub of a rink, while he’s in an ornate theatre, reaching you directly in the rafters/balconies, way up top, or you there, right in in front of him, way down low. You are always in view. Rivers of beer begin to flow and shoes are subsequently soaked, all because of his weirdo librettos.
There’s that sound. It’s not common and never was. It’s Kingston, Ontario, after it chased itself around the world. It’s the sound you hear together and one day, you’ll miss it more than anything.
But not tonight in London. Tonight, everything is normal. And new.
The Tragically Hip, Air Canada Centre, Toronto, ON August 12, 2016
Life is full of bumps. Speed. Fist. Goose.
“Courage! It couldn’t come at a worse! Time!”
“Get Ry Cooder to sing my eulogy!”
“Don’t save a thing for later”
“For a good life, we might just have to weaken”
“It’s been a pleasure doing business with you”
“A love of something fated (Death)”
“Sometimes the faster it gets, the less you need to know”
“And disappointing you’s getting me down!”
Those ones get under your arena-warmed skin but then they surface too. They raise hairs. Did somebody shiver? Somebody else?
The Hip in the Big Smoke. Brings a little something more out of them than maybe some of the other towns do. Something on. The city has that streetcar spark, man. The band’s tapped in. On fire tonight, really and truly. “Blow at High Dough” sounds like an AC/DC scuzz-rocker. Everybody’s moving.
Gord Downie taught me how to dance. My dad would catch me in my room, music fully up, me hurking and jerking in a fit, lost in myself and the music. Fully, completely gone. If that was my boy, I might’ve called the doctor. My dad just shook his head and closed the door. The music was just so loud. My young neck and shoulders seemed so strong.
Gord still dances and gestures like nobody else. Gold suits. Silver suits. Purple suits. An array of feathers in his top hats. He sashays and struts and stirs everyone up. Toothy grins like a shark nose deep in some thick chum. Kicks his hankies up off the floor with his heels together, as though life’s a magic trick. Fred Astaire getting electroshocked in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
I don’t want to cry. On occasion, the crowd will roar louder than a jet engine. They love so much it hurts. Let’s keep it together.
“In a World Possessed by the Human Mind” is new, from Man Machine Poem, but it’s gonna be a timeless and great thing. Picks the room up like a charismatic stranger no one noticed at the party yet. It’s a snazzy glove slipped on as part of an otherwise stellar outfit–the Hip’s crazy catalogue of songs that are so oddly infectious.
It’s so atypical, this band’s success with the tunes they put forth. Men locked in the trunks of cars. Other men, cast aside at sea, left to die by survivors who have to live with that shit forever. So fucking dark. Some of their best pop songs don’t have choruses. They’re just incredible stories. Invisible, technicolor four-minute films. Dunno how they do it.
The words are meticulously chosen and then strung together in singular, memorable ways. There’s a commitment to excellence here that’s unusually high. Nobody will ever talk about it enough.
This one is emotional. The performance is manic and crazed and on point. The looks and smiles for the audience linger longer than usual. Gord can hit any note you dare him to. Try him. There’s genuine joy in the air for something that was built over time, by everyone, all together. That rare oneness in an ice barn. The Hip pull us all in from the fray and we are the same.
Not everyone out there gets it but that’s ok. Everyone here does.
…The Terror of Knowing…
The Tragically Hip, FirstOntario Centre, Hamilton, ON August 16, 2016
The Tragically Hip are having a tremendous amount of fun. It’s clear on their smiling faces.
They’re changing their shows for every city by playing these different album suites, and even if you hear from the same record in Toronto and Hamilton, you won’t necessarily hear the same songs. It means that each night is a loose (oopsie!) celebration rather than a tight recital and it keeps them and us on our toes. Tonight, what’d we get? Fully Completely, Man Machine Poem, World Container, Day For Night, Phantom Power, Trouble at the Henhouse, and Road Apples, I think.
Gord Downie wants to talk.
Most shows, he thanks people verbally while the band is jamming out a song and then, when they go dark and leave, he quietly bows, blows some kisses, salutes the expanse, tips his hat, and then he just stares longingly, absorbing a million of us by himself, on stage. It’s very still and very poignant.
Not in Hamilton though. In Hamilton, he had a bit!
“You made us feel like a hundred bucks. Thank you Hamilton! Thanks to all the gentlemen. Your faces. Your beards. Thanks to all the ladies. Yeah! You helped us become a real band through all the years. There was a patch where we had to do something to the boys; they were just trying to take over, jumping on our stage, and stuff like that. We had to get the girls in, to take over. And I know you don’t mind. You guys alright? Alright. On behalf of the boys, all of us, thank you so much for all the years. And I’m not joking around. We did a gig here to zero people. That’s our record. This is it. That was the best, or, y’know. It was incredible. Sinclair put down his bass guitar and he kept playing and that way, he went to see the manager to make sure we got paid because if we stopped playing, he didn’t have to pay us. Even though we’re playing to zero, nobody. I think it was 325 bucks so thank you. So. Much.”
Gord’s a singer and he writes songs. He’s a poet who’s had his work published in ink on tangible, bound paper. Gord is “theatrical.” Gord is an actor. A world class thespian who can convey feelings with his face and his body. Of late, the “Him? Here? Now? No!” section of “Grace, Too” is getting to everyone. It’s method. The character can’t believe it. Gord can’t believe it. Tears seem to flow. It’s beyond comprehension for everyone watching everyone else who lives in that song.
At our wedding, we had a band that played some of our favourite jams and, of late, I’ve been regretting the fact that I didn’t ask them to learn how to play “In View” so I could sing its sweet, romantic, sunny words to my new wife in front of many of our friends and many of my parents’ friends whom I couldn’t even identify then, let alone now. This is an actual thought that has rattled around my stupid brain recently. I, for some reason, genuinely wish I was heroic enough nine years ago to sing my wife a romantic song somebody else wrote, in public. Delusions of candour.
Johnny Fay plays the Phantom Power suite vaguely like Tommy Ramone on the first two Ramones records; no fills, no frills. It’s not a frenetic display though. He seems like a future hall of famer, playing through the pain. Guitarist Paul Langlois looks very bemused whenever the cue to sing a harmony vocal arrives because his lead singer, Gord, is often somewhere else, on a wander, away from his microphone and his microphone stand. Downie often shrugs at lead guitarist Rob Baker during some songs. “Next time,” his shoulders are saying. “Next time it’ll be where it was supposed to be. I’ll put it there myself.”
There’s a lot of tall grass that gets mowed down in “Poets,” just after Gord peeks through it every now again to see what the poets are doing, for himself. The band play my favourite song that they’ve made so far, “Escape is at Hand for the Travelling Man.” It’s kind of a slight thing but everything about this music speaks to me. It’s a great story about fleeting bonds. It’s very sparse. It’s quite strange and room-y. It’s a space oddity.
Elvis Presley died 39 years ago today but all I can think about is David Bowie and Freddie Mercury and Gord Downie. That last guy is having a ball in front of me. He’s dancing and teasing us a lot tonight. Vamping. During “Courage (for Hugh MacLennan),” he talks like Bowie and Queen about that feeling. Y’know the one? Under pressure?
On another song, “Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” which isn’t played tonight, he quotes the collab again: “Let me out!” And I think about all the notes Gord can hit with his voice. All the power he has at his command when he wants to scream a feel and I think, “Oh. He’s kind of like Freddie Mercury. And David Bowie. Some of this rock he’s a part of is pushing the bounds of the human imagination. And it’s on the radio a fair bit here.”
All these shiny coloured suits are kinda Bowie too. Not some kinda Elvis thing.
Someone tells me Gord has an unreleased solo album in the can. Just outta nowhere, that’s a thing I’m told. Ok. That’s good news if it’s the truth. Let’s see. More to come!
Three burly white dudes threaten to steal my Another Roadside Attraction tour t-shirt that I bought in 1993, when I was 15. They’re laughing about it but each of them paws at it. And me. “Man, we’re gonna take your shirt! Haw haw haw!” They just appear on the steps; they don’t have tickets to this section. Mouthbreathing scofflaws!
They seem like soused, idiot coyotes. I’m genuinely unsettled for five songs. Melodramatic. “Shit, maybe I should take off the shirt before I leave so they can’t spot me outside.” Fight or flight, lizard brain.
When the show’s over, I’m emotional, as I always seem to be on the Man Machine Poem Tour. Gord is saying goodbye, telling us he’s not anti-phone or anything but look, maybe we should home in on the little things, and I think he means that our actual memories are being sacrificed by false, degraded mementos that we gather but never engage with, which is like short changing your life by living it through a piece of fucking shit phone that has a finite and meaningless existence compared to yours.
I think that’s what he’s saying. But I’m racing up the steps, too euphoric and too panicked. And too alone.
It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about.
“Let me out,” I whisper to the metal bar that works the door.
And then I’m outside. With people, on the streets.
The Wishes Pile Up
The Tragically Hip, Canadian Tire Centre, Ottawa, ON August 18, 2016
Having attended millions of concerts, I’ve seen things on the Man Machine Poem Tour that I’ve never seen before.
For instance, I have never, ever witnessed a band sell more merchandise on a tour. The line-ups are colossal. I have waited in them myself. The various shirt styles and various sizes are gobbled up quickly. The web store was selling some of the same wares but recently said “I quit!” It’s intense, all that fabric coming in and going out so fast.
In Ottawa, beside the outdoor merch tent, there is a trailer. Inside the trailer, men and women are making the t-shirts for the merch tent, right on site. It’s like a very small factory. It’s possible that your specific shirt might come out of there, as fresh as a Krispy Kreme doughnut, straight off the line, glaze still hardening. Let it cool.
The people miles ahead of you at the front of the line might do odd things. Normal odd things like forget the PIN number for that credit card and that debit card and that other credit card and I thought we cancelled that card, honey? Or they might deign to try on multiple sizes of the same shirt. On and off and on and off and on until, finally, they’re off.
The merch table on this tour is also a change room with human mirrors. The band, the Hip, cannot make enough of the stuff. And the stuff has to fit just right, no matter how long it takes.
Until tonight, I’ve come up empty-handed, looking for the commemorative white tour poster that refuses to remain in stock. I stood in line once for 30 minutes before a show. Nothing. Tonight, it was 40. I got there two hours early, all for a white poster. It was my white whale, that white poster. But I landed it today. She is finally mine.
One of of our greatest literary minds Larry Davided me.
Joseph Boyden and I have been catching up for a few minutes near the box office, amidst thousands of people waiting to obtain their tickets from will call or else get inside to their seats inside of the actual arena. He’s been to a few shows too. We’re talking about them. We’re aficionados. We know certain things and we know certain people.
“Will you be at the after party tonight?” he says.
“…Ok, well see you around man.”
He’s invited, I am not, and it’s amazing. Joe said the awkward thing to me that I would normally say to someone else.
I have to tell you, I didn’t like it.
The man sitting right beside me at the show is my old friend, the musician, Jim Bryson. Jim is a high quality songwriter and multi-instrumentalist who bears the rare distinction of actually being in the Tragically Hip, playing keyboards, among other things, on their 2009 tour behind We Are the Same. He says being on stage with the Hip was like “standing in front of a jet engine.”
“I spent a certain amount of time around these super beautiful people,” Bryson says, collecting himself during a brief intermission. “To watch it like this is super emotional. In crisis, I get very still, where I have almost a reverse reaction. It’s like I’m searching for emotion.”
On cue, the Hip launch into “Summer’s Killing Us,” singer Gord Downie all in, ripping the head off of the song, as though it wronged him.
During “Gus: The Polar Bear From Central Park,” a dark, infectious thing that I love, Downie ambles around the stage like all of the monkeys and all of the men who make up the chart of evolutionary progress.
They’ve already run through songs from Up to Here and Man Machine Poem. We’re at In Between Evolution, a stellar, underrated record, and we’ll eventually hear selections from Day for Night, Trouble at the Henhouse, Fully Completely, and Phantom Power.
“How you guys doing?” Gord asks before “It Can’t Be Nashville Every Night.” The crowd roars happily.
“What’s your secret?” he counters.
Gord’s in an interesting zone tonight. More unpredictable in his phrasing. He questions his own notes on “Greasy Jungle.” Starts it again. He’ll do something similar for “Wheat Kings” later, searching for the song in real time.
After the “Him? Here? Now? No!” section of “Grace, Too” basically went viral this past week because of its emotional heft at recent shows, he totally omits it tonight. He runs off-stage to change outfits instead. I’m kind of floored. It’s an iconic part of an iconic song. Difficult to neglect it like it’s no thing.
Did he forget?
He’s been so superhuman on this tour, I’ve lost sight of the fact that he’s mortal. That he’s present but working hard to stay in the moment that every song commands. It’s an insensitive realization given the tour’s context, that he’s ill. And yet he mostly seems just fine every night.
Did I forget? His perseverance makes me forget.
“Flamenco.” One of the Hip’s greatest songs. Indisputably smart and lovely.
“Maybe a prostitute could teach you how to take a compliment.”
What a line! He draws it out for 15 long, purposeful seconds. It’s a hazy, film noir kiss-off. In its honour, the big screens go b&w to capture the band, Gord singing it like a young Sinatra after more than a few, while air-smoking cigarettes like Bogie.
“It’s great to be here,” he says before the final song, “Poets.” “In the nation’s capital.” Gord pauses. “I think.”
“First Nations. That’s the nation’s capital.”
Jim Bryson wept during four straight songs. At some point towards the end, Gord Downie said thanks and “Carry on people!” and Jim was gone.
It all hit him so hard. He’s gaining his composure for a phone interview he agreed to do with one of our national newspapers, right after the show. It goes well, Jim says. He’s ok.
I’m ok too. Something about these Hip shows has been spiritually rejuvenating. They’re obvious and elusive, the reasons. I’ve seen things I’ve never seen. I’ve felt things I’ve never felt. Any pettiness within me is shrinking fast. I’m going to leave this tour valuing others more and recognizing the fact that, to them, I’m valuable.
We matter. I matter.
“Oh,” Jim says, “Are you going to the after party tonight?”
The End and The Beginning
The Tragically Hip, K-Rock Centre, Kingston, ON August 20, 2016
This can’t be the end.
You probably saw what happened on TV. The whole thing, right?
As the show ends and the encores loom, a man breaks down in tears. He sits in his seat on the arena floor for the first time all night, cradling his head and vibrating in agony. A cameraman runs over and points his machine at him forever. The man finally collects himself, as the Hip come back out onstage to play longer than they ever have on the Man Machine Poem Tour. It is their hardest show.
Kingston is sunny and breezy and beautiful on this day. On my drive in, a postcard came to life; I see a float plane take off over a boat in the lake.
This is where this band started in 1984. This is their turf.
The streets of downtown Kingston are almost all closed to cars and there are people walking everywhere. All of the pubs, restaurants, and coffee shops are bursting at the seams. I am with Richard and Dave, two of my oldest friends. From childhood. And my dear colleague Sean Michaels, the author and music writer, joins us. We walk the streets, laughing hard at every hilarious joke Sean makes, as the Tragically Hip’s music blasts out of every place with power.
Inside, our seats are so close to the stage. First row in the stands. Most of the ones around us stay empty until just before the show starts when the Hip’s friends and family emerge. My friend spots a familiar and, to me, meaningful face. I approach him.
“Excuse me Mr. Aykroyd?”
“‘My name’s Vish–“
“I just wanted to say I’m a tremendous fan.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“Yeah. Spies Like Us changed my life.”
“Oh, well, my wife here [actress/SLU co-star, Donna Dixon] killed three of my friends!”
“Ha, right. Look, I don’t mean to bother you but would you mi–“
“No,no, none of that. I’m not even supposed to be here! If I draw any attention to myself they’ll kick me out of here!”
“…Uh, ok. Understood. Well, have a nice nigh–“
“They’re gonna kick me out of here!”
In any case, Spies Like Us is hilarious. Dan Aykroyd also helped start Saturday Night Live. Curiously, I don’t mention that show. Just Spies Like Us.
It’s almost showtime. I feel nauseous. The gravity of this show, which might be the band’s last, is hitting me. I need to sit down but I don’t. I stand, dazed, talking to my friends.
It’s all being broadcast live on CBC TV. There are cameras everywhere. This is the smallest arena I’ve seen the band in on this tour but it’s also, the loudest one.
Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is at the band’s hometown show. But the crowd circulates a sign that reads, “Thank You Prime Minister Downie.”
The band play a new song called “Tired as Fuck” on television. Maybe for television. Every accentuated “fuck” is surely causing someone, somewhere some stress.
When it’s done, played pretty much perfectly, Gord Downie suggests we’re in good hands with Trudeau, who he says will help our country resolve its crimes against First Nations people. Reparations. It’s a point he raises again and again. With the whole world watching, it’s a bold challenge to the PM and to us, to make sure it’s done, even if it takes 100 years. He’s right.
The singer wails and howls during many songs, feeling it all, deep within.
Gord has always trusted us to understand. His lyrics and intentions and roaring vocals aren’t easy things. They don’t pussyfoot around. They’re heady and majestic and some of the words live in the far reaches of the dictionary and history books and alternative news sources. But he trusts that we’ll get it.
A Canadian flag is crowd surfing its way around the arena and I’m reminded of what this band stands for to some people. An elusive, fluid cultural identity requires an enigmatic ambassador. We chose ours and it’s from Kingston, Ontario.
That so many citizens have anointed the Hip–the weird, darkly optimistic, loud, loud, loud Hip–as Canada’s band must say something about us. To grossly generalize, we must be pretty demanding and that’s good. Keeps the quality of our art high maybe. Everyone feels engaged with how complex our world really is when we listen to the band.
Over breakfast in Ottawa that morning, my dear, childhood friend, Steven, suggests that bassist Gord Sinclair is the Hip’s secret weapon, which is a truth I hadn’t considered before. I know he’s integral but a secret? I pay closer attention. Steven is right. Sinclair holds the whole thing together. He’s the unassuming bandleader. It only took me 30 years to notice.
The performance has its highs and frightening moments but it’s the best show ever. It’s got some of the band’s greatest songs and some of their gutsiest, most topsy-turvy, and beautifully executed renditions of their work. Certainly features material I haven’t seen over five Ontario shows I’ve attended. It covers the breadth of their status, as radio darlings and cult favourites.
“Grace, Too.” So devastating. Tears and tears and tears. Who can restrain themselves? The spirit of it all in the room is impossible to capture in some ways. It feels like a new feeling.
There is no mention of this being the last show. But something has closed. There’s some resolution to a 32 year-old chapter.
No one knows. I feel like something else can come of all of this. It’s not over. It’s not fan greediness or neediness. I just think working people will work until they can’t work anymore. This band works. Hard. Together.
I feel lucky to be here and the arena’s surreal.
This can’t be the end. It’s not. It’s just not.