No Dress Rehearsal

Given that it was a rock concert, it is remarkable that there were moments when you could have heard a pin drop.

On Saturday evening, 1/3 of Canadians were transfixed in front of a stage or a screen as they watched one of those pivotal moments in history. For Canadians my age, being present for this event was almost a given, whether or not you had ever been a fan; these were moments not to be missed.

What is left to be written about The Tragically Hip playing the final show of what will very likely be their final tour? I hesitated to write this, knowing my words would only be new drops of water in what is already a tidal wave of commentaries written and said about The Hip, but I decided to write about it anyhow because of what they – and Gord Downie, lead singer now battling brain cancer – have meant to me.

In the 1980’s I was living in Toronto. As people in their twenties in big cities often are, I was part of the music scene during that era, every weekend seeing a different night club and a different band. Everyone had their “home” club – mine was The Cameron House, a seedy hotel-turned-apartment building on Queen Street that housed a deeply sketchy and completely bewitching pub. That was the start and finish point of every weekend night (and admittedly some week nights too, back in the days when going to work mildly hungover was something I could handle). From there my ragtag group of music fan friends and I would venture to other clubs, like standards such as Lee’s Palace, the Horseshoe Tavern and the Brunswick, and the other clubs that would spring up quickly and disappear almost as fast (one notable in my memory is a basement club that was once a soup kitchen for those down on their luck, and so carried the moniker “The Soup Kitchen” even when it became a briefly-lived music venue).

I think it was at the Horseshoe where I saw The Hip the first time. They had a strong following even then, but hadn’t yet found the fame and success which came their way very soon after. I must admit that while I liked them, I was a not a “super fan”, not one of those who went to every show; I was following other bands around, like The Grievous Angels (who knew Chuck Angus of the Angels would go on the become Charlie Angus, MP?) and other bands that never really found much beyond local fame. To be honest, at The Cameron House the sense was that those who became too popular or too famous were somehow breaking the code of cool, which dictated “cool” was to be struggling and the underdog fighting for success. If you then achieved success, it destroyed your cool – such a vicious circle, really, but all part of the cynicism and skepticism of the era.

But back then everyone knew who The Hip was, and every one had been to see them at least once. Some became ardent fans, and some didn’t, but most followed their rise to some degree.

Saturday night, though, was probably the first time I had actually seen them in concert since that night at the Horseshoe Tavern. I had of course been listening to The Hip ever since, but had never felt compelled to see them live. This Saturday, though, I sat in front of my big screen TV along with millions of others and was transfixed.

In the past couple of years, Canadian musicians who are my chronological peers have been hit hard. John Mann, lead singer of Spirit of the West, struck down by early-onset dementia, and now Gord Downie hit with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer known for its aggressive nature. Couple this with the loss of iconic international figures such as David Bowie and Prince, and suddenly people in my age demographic begin to feel rather vulnerable, as we are no longer the cool kids at the happening clubs but rather full-fledged adults who are seeing others similar in numbers of trips around the sun being hit with the effects of age.

I suspect every person of my age demographic knows lyrics to some of The Hip songs, if not most of them, whether we would call ourselves fans or not. Their music was the background at every weekend BBQ and house party for decades; it’s as Canadian as hockey and excessive apologies. And likely every one of us had a favourite song and line, just as I do.

For me, that song is “Ahead by a Century”, and the lyric is this:

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Maybe it’s just me, but when Gord sang this on Saturday night, probably for the very last time in front of not only a crowd of adoring fans but also a nation sitting silent in front of screens across the country, I felt like he sang it with new meaning and new poignancy.

This is a man who has had a powerful reminder that life is finite and precious, and that we never know when it might end. This is no dress rehearsal.

This is our life.

And he sang it to all of us, aging once-upon-a-time-club-scene-sters like me and young adults like my daughter. It was a wake-up call to everyone, to grab hold of this life and shake it ferociously, to live every single day as if it could be your last…

Because one day it will be.

Mortality comes for all of us. For some it comes sooner, and for some it comes later, but each of us will one day face the end of our time. On Saturday evening, every single person who watched The Hip in concert saw a man who was forced to come to terms with his own mortality because of a disease beyond his control. Perhaps that is why when he sang this lyric it had new impact; perhaps that is why this time when he sang it I cried, never before having done so over the past few decades.

Whether you are a Hip fan or not, what was on display on a stage in Kingston on Saturday evening was grace and dignity and courage – and a reminder. It was a clarion call to stop living your life as if you get a second chance, and as if the next time around you will have a chance to live it better. This year in Canadian music has been a tremendous reminder of that.

There are no second chances, my friend. Decades ago when I stood in the Horseshoe Tavern on Queen Street, the thought of mortality didn’t even occur to me – but now I know this is…

No dress rehearsal.

This is our life.

Thank you for reminding us, Gord. It has been a pleasure doing business with you.

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