Tales from The Hip
The Tragically Hip played two shows at the Saddledome in 2016 to sold out crowds.
Drunk with New Year's Eve cheer, I ached to hear The Luxury, which I had decreed the best song from their new album, Road Apples.
As The Tragically Hip powered through their set - Blow at High Dough, Twist My Arm, Fight - and my friend danced on the Ottawa Congress Centre stage with Gord Downie, some guy punched me in the face.
In fairness, I did dump a beer over his head, exhausted by all his bumping and pushing as the audience writhed to Canada's coolest band.
The Hip closed with it. The Luxury, I mean, just as the zoo lions started to sober up, and 1992 was upon us.
That was my second Hip concert. I saw them fresh out of high school in Toronto a year or so earlier at that odd revolving stage of the Ontario Place Forum. At the time, Up To Here, or more specifically New Orleans is Sinking, had secured the band as rock 'n roll icons. Canadians knew, or at least I thought I knew, back then that this band would be great. Perhaps even the greatest Canadian band of all time.
And, here we are 25 years later – and, three decades since The Hip beat their way out of the limestone walls of Kingston, Ont. - and Canada is in midst of the country's great goodbye. Downie, diagnosed with a terminal form of brain cancer, announced this spring that there still would be a tour – Canada only - to support their newest - and likely last - release, Man Machine Poem.
Maybe this is a moment only for people precisely of my vintage, but this summer has felt like a collective middle age crisis for the Generation-X crowd - minus the sports cars or affairs. If cancer can steal this brilliant mind, what chance do the rest of us have? Or, were we just lucky enough to grow up with the sweetest spot in Canadian music seemingly poised to come to an end?
One thing is clear: The kids don't get it.
But the outpouring is surprising to no one who was raised on the band. The Hip produced a real-time soundtrack to our lives. Boyfriends, girlfriends, graduations, weddings, babies, divorces and road trips. (My husband was positively giddy when Bobcaygeon randomly came on our Hip playlist during a cottage country drive down the main street of Bobcaygeon.)
Through all of it, The Hip has been there for the ride, often telling Canada's story along the way.
David Milgaard (we always knew that he'd go free.) Tom Thomson (came paddling past.) Bill Barilko (the last goal he ever scored won the Leafs the Cup.) And now, we spend a lot of time quietly wondering about Ry Cooder (to sing my eulogy.)
But mostly we swap tales from The Hip. On that measure I have been incredibly fortunate. I've spent too much time lately mining my personal history. Fact checking with friends via text about which shows we saw and when, as well as pouring through set lists posted online.
When Another Roadside Attraction first pitched its tent in Markham, Ont. in 1993, I squeezed to the front of the mosh pit and lost myself in Locked In The Trunk of a Car. Fully Completely had seemingly cemented legendary status upon the band. We were treated to an early version of Nautical Disaster wedged in the middle of New Orleans in Sinking. The greatest shipwreck song trotted out almost as an aside during the band's monster hit.
A year later, I was at Queen's University law school in Kingston. For three years, my little group of friends would run into band members at the bank, on the street, at Chez Piggy. Some rented apartments that were tangentially connected to the band. Day for Night was on steady rotation. We attended more concerts.
When The Hip appeared on Saturday Night Live in 1995, a coveted spot procured in large measure by fellow townie, Dan Aykroyd, we gathered to watch. We taped it - on VHS cassette - and sung along to Grace, Too and Nautical Disaster. This would be their big break, we thought. They would finally be U2-huge in America. But they weren't.
We were saddened - and heartened - by this. The U.S. already had Springsteen. We have The Hip.
I started working at The Kingston Whig-Standard, where one of my assignments was to cover Edenfest, another multi-day outdoor festival headlined by the kingpins of our hometown. The 1996 concert in Bowmanville, Ont. was marred by tire fires and 20,000 fans rushing the gates, but my most vivid memory remains an interview with the British act, Spacehog. Lead singer Royston Langdon told me he was mostly excited to see The Hip. "I hear they are like the Led Zeppelin of Canada," he said.
By 1999, I was back in Toronto. Phantom Power owned the charts. My roommates heard a radio contest for Hip tickets: Show up at a certain location and donate some clothes in exchange for golden tickets to the show. They raced over and peeled the shirts off their backs.
That night we took in the first concert held at the Air Canada Centre. History being made at the new home of the Leafs. We had floor seats. At one point I swear I was leaning on the stage. Sweat was dripping off Gord.
In the summer of 2002, I landed at LAX with a group of Canucks bound for a pair of California weddings. As we drove down Sunset Boulevard headed for our hotel, we cruised past the House of Blues and gazed up at the sign.
"Tonight: The Tragically Hip. $20."
The bar was crammed with every Canadian in greater Los Angeles. Maple leaf flags dotted the dance floor. In Violet Light had just been released weeks earlier, yet, everyone in the house belted out the words to every song.
I was by the stage. A bouncer turned to me and asked, "Who are these guys?"
"They are like the Led Zeppelin of Canada," I told him.
"They're really good," he added.
Last year, a friend here in Calgary said he had Groupon tickets to see The Hip at the Saddledome. I didn't want to "ruin" that intimate - and unexpected - House of Blues show with an upper bowl discount seat in a hockey arena for a redux of the Fully Completely tour. I saw that show the first time around.
But I went and happily sang along - feeling both young and old - and briefly regretting that I donated the tour shirt I bought two decades before to Goodwill. My affection for The Hip wasn’t somehow sullied.
I felt that again as I took my seat, and then to my feet, for the Aug. 1 farewell show back at the Saddledome. I outsmarted the bots and I landed a seat in the seventh row.
It was a pure rock show, but also cathartic. A moment. A Canadian moment. For some of us, perhaps even better than seeing a Canadian team take the Stanley Cup in a Game 7 win.
It wasn't until So Hard Done By that my eyes welled and the memories started to flood. I wasn't the only one crying as the tour has rolled across the nation bound for a finale in Kingston on Aug. 20. Name a tune - Fiddler's Green, Wheat Kings, Courage – and there were tears. Lyrics so prophetic, they've become meaningful memes. It's a good life if you don't weaken.
After the second Calgary show, a friend borrowed a line from the Live Between Us album, tweeting, "We are all richer for having seen them tonight."
Fabulously rich, I might add.