It is upon us. No dress rehearsal - this is our life. One more show to go. Just over 24 hours away. The band united a nation. First, slowly over the course of years of faithful commitment to the True North, and then again underlining it these past few months since we first heard the news, in one long concert event that has reached across the country and by the end of Saturday night will have gone around the globe. The band has reached an end that took thirty years to arrive at.
It may be true that not every Canadian is a fan of the Hip, but that fact that so very many of us are and that so many of those are snarling mad for them more than make up for those who yawn. So many of us won over throughout the years (I can walk you to the place in my hometown where I heard Small Town Bringdown when it first came out. Yea, I've been here all along.) All our home towns were cryptically being sung of then, and again over and over through the years. They shot a movie once, in my hometown, it's where I saw the Constellations pushing around a weathervane Jesus while stranded at the Unique Motel. Gord Downie managed to speak specifically to and of all of us.
This goodbye has been so unusual – unique even. Bands have broken up before. Musicians have died. Great things have come to an end because of tragedy and illness. But how many times have an artist’s fans been gifted with a farewell like this? How many times have the artists been gifted with it? Bowie – he knew what was coming and he made it art, but none of us knew what it was all about until he was gone. And we never got a chance to say goodbye. Prince – just gone. Even Spirit of the West… while close in essence… they didn’t fill arenas and there was no last great work – the magnitude was not there, and though I did not get to see any of those last shows, it sounds as though off-stage John Mann had already lost much of himself (which is heart-breaking). But in this case, Gord (and the rest of the fellows too, but let’s face it, their tragedy is that after thirty years of being the ‘other guys’ in Gord Downie’s band, they end has really – understandably - been ALL about him facing his final bow) has also been given this gift.
I was fortunate to get to see them on the second night of the tour – the first of the two Vancouver shows. It wasn’t the best concert I’ve ever seen, nor the best Hip concert I’d ever seen (Tie: Canada Day 1992, Thunderbird Stadium or November(ish) 1993 Royal Theatre, Victoria – too hard to call.) but I have no doubt it is the one that I will remember the most. There is a moment – a very long moment – that will probably be the single most memorable concert moment of my life (and hey, I saw U2 right after the Enniskillen bombing). Grace, Too was the last song of the main set and there was a point where Gord stopped and looked out at the crowd where a look came over his face…. It went on for probably half a minute. I think we can safely say that Gord Downie was not known for his emotional honesty. Which is not to say that he was a disingenuous performer exactly, but that his style was (and for one more night, IS) a weird fantasy world of mime performed to dense, sung poetry and surreal monologues. Whether he had entered the persona of a doomed sailor, or an ill-fated pool-cleaner or half of a Canadian Bonnie & Clyde, or any of the thousand other characters from tales he vaguely told in a thousand different concerts, he was rarely showing us what Gord Downie himself felt. But not in this moment. He took in the crowd. Appreciative of them and appreciative of the moment. Appreciative of the place in our country’s history he has been given. A place he built out of a thousand pieces of the obscure Canadiana he appreciated. He wasn’t saying “thank you.” He was just being with us for a moment, knowing that all the tiny pieces like this one – that each we had taken for granted as they past had added up to something bigger and this moment embodied it. His part in our collective history, mirroring the impact of his career. Obviously, I don’t know what he was thinking in that moment – but that’s what I took away. Then the moment passed and the mime returned, hitting balls and throwing javelins into the crowd – shining a microphone-shaped flashlight out into the dark….
The moment in question occurs shortly after 2:45 - but you're going to watch the whole thing, right?
I’m trying hard not to put expectations upon tomorrow’s show. I'll watch the CBC broadcast from Kingston in the Woodward's Atrium - practically home. I’m going because it’s the last. I’m going because it is something that Canadians across the world will be sharing. (For two hours or so, we will collectively quit paying attention to the Olympics. This band means a lot to Canada.) I’m going because I can share it with Jodie and December. (The former isn’t a Hip fan, but understands the importance. The latter doesn’t really even know the Hip yet, but someday I hope she will look back and recognize that the event was significant to me and that she was glad to have shared that.) I do expect they will do the same thing they’ve done across the country where they spend the first half hour playing to each other, all but ignoring the audience – which is a tremendously powerful statement of brotherhood. I expect the crowd will sing along to even the most obscure of tracks. I expect I’ll cry before its over – hell, I’ve been crying intermittently about it being over since May.
And yes, Gord, you were always right. We will miss you. None of this “wait and you’ll see” bullshit. We will. Fully. And Completely.