You teach your children some fashion sense
And they fashion some of their own
- Gordon Downie

Friday, July 29, 2016

Mr. Hutchings, What's a Metropolis Noir?

When I need to process significant events in my life, I write. Yesterday, my family attended a Tragically Hip concert in Edmonton. I need to write about it, and here's why.

I first heard The Tragically Hip on an Edmonton radio station in 1990. After my first half year at the U of A, I was working at a toy factory, assembling educational toys. My coworkers were hard working, interesting people. For most of the day, I worked beside a fellow named Dieter, who smoked a lot of weed and loved music. When 38 Years Old finished playing, he looked at me and said simply, "That is a f***ing poignant song." He was rough around the edges and I'm certain that Dieter regretted many of his life choices, but he knew his music.

I couldn't help but agree with him. The fictional tale of a real-life event struck a chord with me. That fall, I hoped to attend the Hip's show at Dinwoodie Lounge, but it didn't pan out. When I learned that they would be playing Edmonton's Convention Center in the summer of 1991, I knew they were a band I had to see live. Last night, I saw them in person for the last time and I'm filled with emotion. I hope this blog helps me figure out why the news of Gord Downie's cancer and the Hip's farewell tour has hit me so hard.

The Hip are to music as hockey is to sport. You need to be Canadian to completely "get" them. In one of my older blogs, Great Canadian Gordons I wrote

Their music is laced with references to Canadian culture. Hockey themes abound, most notably "Fireworks" celebration of the 1972 Summit Series, the disappearance of Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Bill Barilko in "Fifty Mission Cap" and a dirge about being a goaltender in "The Lonely End of the Rink". Their lyrics celebrate notable Canadians like Bobby Orr, Pierre Trudeau and David Milgaard. Distinctly Canadian terms like toonie, CBC, prime minister and the "crown" pepper their lyrics. Even Donald S. Cherry makes an appearance as a chicken delivery man in the video for "The Darkest One".

The Hip's songs tend to mention Canadian places. Niagara Falls, Bobcaygeon, Toronton, Kingston, Cape Spear, Clayoquot Sound, Sault Ste Marie, Northumberland Strait, Churchill, Thompson, Lake Memphragog, Isle Aux Morts. I'm not completely sure, but I have a feeling that "The Paris of the Prairies" mentioned in "Wheat Kings" may be Saskatoon. I am certain that many essays and perhaps Master's theses have been written about the Hip's connection to Canada through music. Beyond the stage, Downie and the band have had cameos in uniquely Canadian television shows like Corner Gas and Trailer Park Boys.

For me, though, the quintessential Gordon Downie moment is the role he plays in Michael McGowan's film, One Week. The film is profoundly Canadian as it follows its protagonist, who has terminal cancer, on a motorcycle pilgrimage from Toronto to Tofino. Downie has a brief role as a man who meets the doomed Tyler and shares his experience of battling cancer. When I think of Canadian icons, people who have helped develop my generation's Canadian identity, I think of people like Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. When it comes to people who reaffirmed my love of all things Canadian, I cannot think of a more iconic figure than Gordon Downie.

On a personal level, Downie's illness hits me hard. Like most of us, I've lost loved ones to cancer. Like Gordon Downie, I'm a father. The Hip have been a huge part of most of my adult life. It makes me incredibly sad to know that I've seen them live in concert for the last time. Fortunately, I got to enjoy yesterday's show with the people I love the most - my wife and two sons. I hope that a small part of my passion for The Hip lives on in my boys. To quote Don't Wake Daddy, 

We teach our children some fashion sense/And they fashion some of their own

The title of this post is a reference to a line from Greasy Jungle, and an unforgettable question a student asked me. As a beginning teacher, I used the Hip in class whenever possible. From trying to interpret New Orleans is Sinking in English to Drama tableau projects with 38 Years Old as the soundtrack to Wheat Kings in Social Studies, my love for the Hip extended to my students. For a few years, my home room was the Drama room and you could usually hear The Tragically Hip playing on the CD player. One day after school, a student asked me what "metropolis noir" meant. I've never forgotten the question, and I clearly remember seeing Ryan at Tragically Hip concerts years later. It makes me smile to know that a few of my students latched on to the important lessons I hoped they would find in The Hip's music.

When I really think about it, I'm sad for Gord, his family, and his closest friends. Last night's concert and the band's reaction since his illness went public demonstrates the depth of the band's friendship. And that, I think, is the root of my deep emotional connection to the Tragically Hip, their music, and their live shows.

I have so many incredible memories of seeing this band play. My first Hip show was July 26, 1991 at the Edmonton Convention Centre. Since then, I've seen them at Clark Stadium, Edmonton Agricom, Camrose, Northlands Coliseum, Edmonton Jubilee, the Centrium, Saddledome, and The Whiskey in Calgary. When I think back to each show, I definitely remember the overall event and how watching them play filled me with joy. I remember a few specific Gord Downie rants and moves. I've evolved personally. In the early years, pre-Hip warm up meant a lot of beer. The last time I saw them in Red Deer, we had third row seats. Instead of planning the pre and post-concert party, I had to think carefully about wearing good shoes because I would be standing for the whole show.

More than anything, though, I remember the people I attended the shows with, listened to CD's, and discussed their music with. Brad, Brenn, Brian, Dave, Deneen, Grant, Ian, Jeff, Jeremy, Jim, Kevin, Pete, Rochelle, Ryan, Sandra, Sharon, Steve, Todd, Wayne...the list goes on.

My wife has been with me the most. She is the first to admit that she didn't really appreciate the Hip until she saw them live. Every time I hear It's a Good Life If You Don't Weaken, I think of her and the first time we heard it live. My best friend, Jeremy, has been with me for many shows. Last night, we talked before the show and fired Hip lines back and forth throughout. Jeremy was with me for the 1991 Convention Center show, so memorable, fuelled by lots of beer and a few unexpected complimentary drinks. We've seen them in Red Deer, Edmonton, Calgary and Camrose. Like my friends Dave and Wayne, we can trade Hip quotes for hours. And here's the great thing about the Tragically Hip. I guarantee that there are thousands of Canadians who have a story just like mine.

Last night, my emotions were unbridled, and I was not alone. My final Hip show was full of shouting, clapping, dancing, and singing out loud without a care in the world. My good friend Brian is hosting a back yard Hip party on August 20 when the CBC broadcasts their final show from Kingston.

I can't wait, but I don't want it to end. To close, I will borrow the opening line from Live Between Us.

Thank you. We are all richer for having seen you.


  1. Yes, there are some things we just have to write about. Well said about the Hip. They've done things that will live on. "Tragically," I never got the Hip experience. Ifter this I will listen to them. Hey, it's been too long since you posted on this blog.

    1. Thanks, Keith! Their music is full of fantastic historical references - start with songs like Wheat Kings and Nautical Disaster.