One year gone: remembering Gord Downie through the Hip’s last gig

By Steve Newton

The following is an excerpt from my beer-table book, Gord Downie, published February 2018 by Sterling Books, New York.

The tour’s final show at Kingston’s Rogers K-Rock Centre was the one everyone was talking about. It was broadcast live on the tube by the CBC, with no commercial breaks, and watched by 11.7 million people, or roughly one-third of all Canadians. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who’d grown up listening to the band, showed up wearing a black t-shirt with “The Tragically Hip” emblazoned across the front in white lettering.

The show started with a peek backstage as the Hip prepared to go on. Wearing a moto-style jacket and pants, both made of silver lamé , and a grey 1940s fedora with a black-and-white hatband and feathers, Downie–who’d been dressing in that flamboyant fashion the entire tour–kissed each of his bandmates on the lips and hugged them, and that intimacy carried over to when they took the stage positioned closely together, within eyeshot of each other, as opposed to how bands are normally spread out in concert. The quintet launched right into “Fifty Mission Cap”, and “The National Celebration” was on. At first Downie’s performance resembled that of a flashy matador, except instead of provoking an angry bull he was teasing an arena full of hard-core fans.

The Hip played eight songs before the first intermission, half of them from the Man Machine Poem album, including “Tired as Fuck”, during which Downie wore the white Jaws T-shirt he’d recently become known for. After that song he acknowledged the PM’s attendance with a short speech that emphasized Downie’s growing concerns about the historic mistreatment of Canada’s Indigenous People and the road to reconciliation.

“Prime Minister Trudeau’s got me,” he said. “His work with First Nations, he’s got everybody. He’s gonna take us where we need to go… [it’s going to] take us a hundred years to figure out what the hell went on up there. But it isn’t cool. And everybody knows that. It’s really, really bad. But we’re gonna figure it out. You’re gonna figure it out,” he stressed, pointing to the crowd.

After the break Downie returned in a metallic magenta outfit–this time topped by a black fedora with brown feathers–which he would trade eight songs later for an eye-popping silver holographic suit and a white fedora adorned with a peacock feather. After an exhilirating performance of “Fireworks”–is there any other kind?–the band left Downie alone on the stage. He soaked up the chants of “Gordie! Gordie! Gordie!” before recalling how the band had started in Kingston, playing their first show to thirteen people, and their second show to twenty-eight. “And then the next Kingston show after that we had six,” he cracked. “This is my favourite gag to do.”

“We played here a thousand times,” he continued. “Played all the rooms. Really glad about being here in Kingston. We could play the university, and we could play for the bikers. And our idea was just that everybody was invited, everybody’s involved. And, tried to write that way, and tried to think that way.”

After adding that he “really enjoyed the hell out of” the last tour, Downie announced: “We’re gonna go into the back, and we’re gonna act like we’ve left, and you’re gonna cheer, and we’re gonna come out and play.”

That was our Gordie, right there.

And play they did.

“I think they want another song Paul,” Downie quipped to rhythm ace Langlois when the Hip reappeared for the first of the night’s three encore mini-sets. Langlois responded by cranking out the opening riff of “New Orleans is Sinking” on his tobacco sunburst Les Paul, while Downie took the occasion to pretend his mike was a fishing rod and mimed reeling one in before throwing off some of his signature “I’m staggering…no, I’m dancing” moves. Two songs later the concert hit one of many high points when the band launched into the proven barnburner “Blow at High Dough”. After “Blow,” Downie thanked the crowd and the crew before delivering another passionate statement.

“The prime minister, he’s going to be looking good for about twelve more years,” he declared, “I don’t know if they let you go beyond that. But he’ll do it. We’re in good hands, folks, real good hands. He cares about the people way up north, that we were trained our entire lives to ignore. Trained our entire lives to hear not a word of what’s goin’ on up there. But what’s goin’ on up there ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been. So it’s not on the improve, and we’re gonna get it fixed. But we got the guy to do it, to start, to help.” Standing in the crowd, an attentive Trudeau acknowledged the compliment with a slight nod and a mouthed “thank you.”

“Thank you everybody,” Downie then said, “thanks for listening to that. Thanks for listening period, alright. Have a nice life.”

The band left the stage again, returning to kick off the second encore with “Nautical Disaster”, which–in case you missed it the last time I said it–is my all-time fave Hip song. Then came “Scared”, with its appropriately heavy last line. At that time, Downie held up his left hand with the thumb out and for several seconds scanned the crowd with it, like a director framing a scene. “He’s hoping he can remember that when he needs it,” my wife said, starting to cry. I got a little choked up myself upon hearing that interpretation.

But nothing could quite prepare you for the outflowing of raw emotion when Downie started screaming and howling unintelligible words. He dropped the mike and, breaking down, leaned forward and hugged himself for a few seconds before seemingly snapping out of it, the look of torment leaving his face as he grabbed the mike, straightened up, and replaced it in its stand.

That was our Gordie, again.

After the simmering “Grace, Too”, the band left the stage once again, only to return for the third and final encore. A now fully composed Downie remarked “Okay, we are officially in uncharted waters. We never do third ones. So let’s see what happens.”

What happened was Baker started into the familiar, foreboding intro to “Locked in the Trunk of a Car”, and seconds later the band transformed into that raging, guitar-gnashing beast its fans adore so much. Two songs later the Tragically Hip finished its last concert, but Gord Downie’s story was far from over.

@ Steve Newton 2018

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