As has been well documented here and elsewhere over the last several months, it's been a tough year for rock n' roll and mortality. Seems like every time we turn around, there's horrible news about beloved rock luminaries. If Bowie and Prince and Lemmy weren't enough to crush my goddamn spirit, the news in May of Gord Downie's terminal brain cancer really did a number on me. Not so much because I haven't experienced death before--that's certainly not the case--but because Downie and the Tragically Hip have meant a lot to me over the years. But his decision to do one last tour, which wrapped up last night in the Hip's hometown of Kingston, Ontario, was heartening for all of us, not the least of which the folks who are dealing with the trials and tribulations that come with a cancer diagnosis.
Earlier this week, I saw the great LA punk act X play at Brighton Music Hall with all four original members--quite the feat considering guitarist Billy Zoom had been diagnosed with bladder cancer last year. But the 68-year-old Zoom was declared cancer-free by the end of 2015, although he still has been undergoing chemotherapy and possibly surgery to prevent a recurrence. The band played a rollicking set to a sold-out room, and Zoom sounded as good as ever, despite remaining seated on a stool for most of the set. He still had his trademark grin going as he played, and even got up to play sax on a few songs. Given that nobody expected him to be back on the road again not so long ago, it was a triumphant night.
Last night, I watched the Hip's final show, which was livestreamed by the CBC and looked pretty damn great. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance, and there were live viewings held at bars and restaurants and homes all across the country. The band played for nearly three hours, with 30 songs and three encores. Downie was in fine form--his vocals were a bit ragged at times and he occasionally stumbled over lyrics despite having teleprompters on stage, but it didn't matter. Given that the guy's had a craniotomy and chemotherapy in the last several months, not to mention has had to absorb the enormity of having a short amount of time left on this earth, it's fucking amazing he was able to function at all, let alone do what he does. There were 15 shows on this Canada-only tour and they were snapped up in seconds. If they had been able to venture down here, I would have been there. But I was happy to be one of the thousands watching from home.
It was a stirring and emotional performance. The Hip played old favorites from their early bluesier records, underrated deep tracks from 2000's Music @ Work, a few from their excellent new album Man Machine Poem and a few gut-wrenchers. "Fiddler's Green" from 1991's Road Apples was written for Downie's nephew, who died at the age of 5; the band didn't play it for a decade or so because it was too tough for him to take. Playing it last night was especially poignant.
And then there was "Grace, Too," which has always been a rallying cry for the band since its release on 1994's Day for Night. Last night, Downie appeared to really be struggling with his emotions during the final section, tearing up before dropping the mic and then quickly getting it together again. "Scared" from the same album was another stunner, especially with its closing line: "I've got to go, it's been a pleasure doing business with you."
Downie wasn't as talkative as he was in the past, but he peppered the breaks with the occasional shout-out to Trudeau, comments about the band's history in Kingston and thanks to the fans for their support over the years. He made no mention of his condition or the future, he just kept singing and jumping around in his classic sweaty, herky-jerky, Gordo style. The final song of the night was the acoustic "Ahead by a Century," the 1996 song that has been a staple of their live shows and the gateway for many younger fans into the band. "No dress rehearsal, this is our lives." As the band left the stage for the final time, the CBC cameras panned around to catch many weeping fans in the building; no doubt this was the case with the folks watching the stream around the world as well.
Much as Bowie left his fans with the final gift of the magnificent Blackstar album, Downie gave this gift to the Hip's fandom, dragging his cancer-ravaged body through one last tour, one final farewell. There's no telling how long he actually has, but we do know that there's no coming back from glioblastoma, the tumor Downie has in his temporal lobe. I've read reports that he has a solo album already recorded that could see the light of day. The Hip and Downie have made no statements about whether last night was their last official act as a band. If it was, then what a way to go. And if it's not--if somehow Downie is able to continue to work or is able to survive--who can complain about more from the Tragically Hip? (Well, someone probably would, but fuck them.) Downie and the Hip don't owe anybody anything. All I can say is thanks.
[UPDATE: Holy shit, somebody uploaded the whole goddamn show. Sweet!]
Tragically Hip - A National Celebration from bobcageon on Vimeo.