Gord’s last scream
Tragically Hip frontman asks us all to bear his pain
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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/08/2016 (2301 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
It was the mic drop that did it, and the preceding howl. When Gord Downie released it, letting it erupt from somewhere deep and liquid and primal, a thousand people in the heart of Winnipeg fell nearly silent.
On replay, the end of “Grace, Too” is even more devastating. Watching it live at Old Market Square, it was mostly surreal.
In what is likely the final time Downie will perform the 1994 song in front of his fans, the Tragically Hip frontman grit his teeth and unleashed those screams. Then he jammed his hands under his armpits, and for a moment just… crumpled.
How it happened, for me: I am standing. My arms are wrapped around my partner’s chest. He was dancing, but now he isn’t moving. A breath jams behind my tongue and I realize that I am not breathing.
All around me at The Cube, people are frozen: a spell has been cast that is not magic, and so cannot be broken. No dress rehearsal, right. This is our life.
It felt nearly obscene to watch, and yet we were invited. Everyone wears a face in public, and there are few times we see each other truly naked. So what do you do, when a man stands utterly naked before you? You carry him, or try to. You choose to believe that this is not futile. You choose to believe there is no weight that cannot be borne by millions of people.
That’s what we’re here for. That’s why, after the Hip announced that Downie was dying of glioblastoma, we urged CBC to broadcast their final hometown concert. That’s why we gathered for mass public viewings on Saturday night when it did.
If we cannot save Downie — and by extension, ourselves — from this, then at least we can carry him forward.
So in Vancouver, in Toronto, in pubs and parks and homes across Canada, we walked this last stretch together. At Old Market Square, nearly 1,700 kilometres from Kingston, hundreds jammed around fences and cracked beers to watch it happen. The only other time we party like this is when Canada’s men’s hockey team is playing for an Olympic gold medal.
Everyone likes a winner. It’s a whole different thing when there can be no victory at the final buzzer.
In front of me, there is a toddler with red hair and a Cookie Monster T-shirt. He is more transfixed by his juice than the concert, which doesn’t seem to register. His father cuddles him close. Women crowded nearby ask to take their picture. If he will remember this at all, it will be what his dad tells him years later. Maybe he’ll be curious about the band at the centre.
“What was their best song?” he might ask. Then he’ll bob his head along to something like “Wheat Kings” or “New Orleans Is Sinking” or “Nautical Disaster,” but he probably won’t really get it.
So, have we said it all now? Gotten it out of our systems? Have we, over the course of three months and 15 farewell shows and everything that’s been written, come to grips with what it means to make a final impression? Has our great cultural introspection fully evaporated or are we still fixated on the reflection, like some sort of Canadian Narcissus?
Under the light of the digital screen, against the beat of “Something On,” my thoughts turn to sickness.
This society does not handle sick people well. We don’t know how to hold them. People living with serious illness often speak about this, the way visits drop off and close friends suddenly become distant. On online cancer forums, there are whole topics devoted to this. People trade tips on how to forgive even siblings that vanished when the diagnosis was grim.
In the last weeks of Free Press columnist Lindor Reynolds’s life, a colleague said she’d inquired about me. She knew I’d been sick too, though not in the way that she was, with cancer; she wanted to know if I was doing better. And because I did not know how to handle that information, I never called her. We weren’t close, I reasoned with myself, and I couldn’t help her.
So, I have to live with that now. We live to survive our paradoxes, Gord Downie told us. For a time, anyway.
What is this rot, that gnaws at our webs of connection? Psychologists say it’s the feeling of helplessness that we cannot tolerate, that produces an insurmountable discomfort. Sometimes, I wonder if it isn’t some ancestral instinct, passed down from a distant pre-sapient dawn. Life was crueller and reliably short, but the group had to go on.
We embrace stories of sickness mostly at the beginning or the end, when it is conquered; even celebrity does not halt this erasure. When famous people disclose a diagnosis, we mourn and then turn away until there is resolution. (David Bowie kept his cancer private until his exit; it was his way of refusing to die in the world’s mind while there was life still left in him.)
This discomfort can even squirm linguistic. Some advocates for people with disability or illness use the term “currently abled,” though it has not widely caught on. Perhaps that’s because it’s a clunker on the tongue; I tend to think it hits too hard on the dot. Nobody wants to remember that there go we, but for the grace of luck or DNA or God.
We only rarely place sickness and sick people at the centre of what it means to be living.
On Saturday night, we did it. Across Canada millions are singing, raising their hands towards a man who cannot see them. His hips swivel, he burns bright, his arms stretch wide as if to embrace us. Maybe we cannot articulate what is happening, but we feel it. The reverberation sweeps a nation, then recedes and leaves platitudinal debris about love and connection.
A very sick man stood on stage, lifted a microphone to his face, and commanded us to fully and completely see him.
That was the joy that animated how we gathered: Gord Downie called us, and we answered.
Where we go from here is yet to be charted; on Twitter earlier this month, a fan named Aaron searched for hope. “Nothing would make me happier than (The Hip) dropping a ‘we never said anything about this being the end’ bomb in Kingston,” he wrote.
Rob Baker, the band’s guitarist, replied: “We’ve never said anything about it.”
Oh, what a twist that would be, though after Saturday night we all know it is vanishingly improbable. Downie’s tears soaked a period into the page of a career, not a comma.
Still, to be alive is to exist in the time between, where all things are yet possible. Modern medicine can do great things and besides, we came to watch a rock’n’roll show, and not a funeral.
Twilight fell on Old Market Square, where so many Winnipeggers gathered. In his father’s arms, the toddler with the red hair turned his face to the sky.
A thousand people swayed into motion around him, but the boy simply stared and stretched his hand towards the dark. Through the shroud of grey clouds, only one star was visible. It could have been the North.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.