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so hip it hurts

there aren't too many artists who stand out as being iconically canadian. it's too easy to mistake us for some other people, mostly americans, who are, let's be honest, pretty similar in a lot of ways. [this is the bit where i apologise for avril lavigne, justin bieber and drake.] the guess who/ bachman turner overdrive held sway over an earlier generation, and musicians and those who appreciate technical proficiency will speak of rush like they are gods, but last night the country said goodbye to perhaps the most canadian of canadian bands, the tragically hip.

for those of you not familiar with that name, the hip emerged in the mid-to-late eighties, among a slew of canadian bands [54-40, the northern pikes, the pursuit of happiness, the grapes of wrath] that balanced on the line between mainstream and alternative rock. all of them played accessible guitar-based music with none of the bombast of seventies dinosaurs, but equally with no hint of the drug-fueled anger that would explode in the early nineties. crtc regulations required broadcasters to air a minimum of 30% canadian content during music programming, which meant that it wasn't as difficult for these bands to reach the same audiences that listened to madonna or the rolling stones as it might have been in other countries. that sounds like i'm implying that they didn't have the talent to cut it without the support, which isn't exactly true. i think it was true for some of them and there was a certain bland sameness to those acts, with their headier-than-normal-pop lyrics, glum expressions and defiantly ordinary looks. most of them were popular for a time, but then faded from view, aside from the odd reunion show. except the tragically hip.

while musically, they might have slotted into the same space as their compatriots, they showed an uncanny ability to come up with hits, things that would get stuck in your head, even if all you heard was a snippet of a guitar hook or a chorus drifting out of a car window. it probably didn't hurt that they bore a certain resemblance to one r.e.m., with a more bluesy bent, a resemblance that was most noticeable in the voices of front men michael stipe and gord downie.

earlier this year, downie revealed that he had been diagnosed with a deadly form of brain cancer; doctors had tried what they could, but had ultimately discovered that they could do nothing. downie knew that death was coming for him sooner rather than later, but instead of bowing out and spending his last days in quiet and as much comfort as medicine could give him, downie decided to hit the road for a few dates in canada, culminating in a performance in their home town of kingston ontario. you could almost feel the lump forming in the national throat even thinking about it.

last night, the tragically hip took the stage for the final time. our national broadcaster, the cbc, simulcast the show everywhere in the country, free of any advertising, on television, online and on public screens in many cities. the new yorker, the washington post and the guardian all covered it [although the french montreal press did not, and the only screening here was in the traditionally english enclave of notre-dame-de-grĂ¢ce] and for a few hours, it did rather seem like the country ground to a halt.

i hadn't intended to watch, although i did intend to glance in to see what was happening. i was prepared for the fact that he would be frail and a little unnerving to see, in the way that people close to death often are for those of us who haven't been there yet. i was prepared for the fact that he wouldn't have quite the same power behind his distinctive voice as he once did. and i was prepared for the fact that there would be a sad spectre hanging over the entire night, no matter how positive the band tried to appear.

what i was not prepared for was my own reaction. within seconds, water was getting squished out of me every time i blinked, like i'd been transformed into some kind of neglected kitchen sponge. this was a shock because i haven't been a crier in many years, so for me, even feeling the sting of tears in my eyes was abnormal. but it was a shock mostly because i don't even like the tragically hip. even when they first appeared, they were the sort of thing that i could take or leave. i knew their hits, especially the ones from earlier in their career, but nothing they'd done had ever really moved me. yet there i was, dribbling out my eye-holes [as a canadian, i lack both the american capacity to embrace my emotions and let them all out, or the british one to repress them entirely], with no idea why.

rationally, i know that, having a partner/ husband who has become increasingly sick and disabled over the last several years has given me an incredible respect for those who insist on fighting their genetic lot with everything they have. i have some idea of the strength that kind of fight takes, just enough to feel overwhelmed by the thought of how much strength it would take to do it and know in advance that you were going to lose. downie's snappy sartorial choices could not hide the fact that chemotherapy had left him a virtual skeleton and robbed him of his hair, and his left temple had a dent, like someone had scooped part of his skull out with a melon-baller, a souvenir from unsuccessful surgery. presented with that kind of willpower, no one can help but ask themselves: could i do the same? and the fact is that we're all hoping we never have to answer the question.

and as the show progressed and downie got somehow stronger as he performed, the writer part of me felt a shaken as well. i'd always known that downie was a strong lyricist. it's hard to get respected for your lyric-writing in canada, because the bar was set by leonard cohen. and when you're playing popular music, people have a tendency to hear lyrics without really processing them. this was the first time i'd ever heard so many of their songs together, and i was a little ashamed that i'd never realised what a very good writer he was.

but that still didn't explain why i so immediately got upset, and while i continued this undignified drizzle of tears all night- beyond the end of the show and into a tremendously inconvenient bout of insomnia.

in a lot of ways, the tragically hip are the ultimate canadian band: they have enough muscle in their sound to satisfy fans of classic rock [of which canada has more per capita, i'll wager, than anywhere else on earth], but enough restraint and cerebral content to appeal to fans raised on a steady diet of cynicism and irony. [that would be me and most of my friends.] a still younger generation has grown up hearing their music as the soundtrack of their parents youth, the backdrop to the awkward conversation about how it's ok to smoke pot because mom and dad originally met because of someone passing around a joint at a tragically hip show.

america's soul lies with prince, the brilliant over-achiever, the mix of urbanity and soul, the insistence on maintaining control in order to realise some impossibly great dream, ultimately doomed to implosion. and no one could capture modern england like david bowie, mercurial, achingly and effortlessly cool, detached while using his last moments to craft a legacy to give to his family of followers.

but canada is the tragically hip, or more accurately, gord downie: the unassuming star whose career was based on a longtime partnership, the one who perseveres rather than shoots up like a firework. we're not a superstar culture; in fact, canadians tend to be deeply suspicious, even contemptuous, of those who obviously want fame or attention. we are, like downie, people who sound grounded and welcoming enough to be able to draw in disparate groups and make them feel comfortable, but there is poetry inside us.

what i realised, or what i imagined i realised as i was desperately courting sleep, is that that idea of canadian-ness was something that had been bobbing around in the background for decades, content to be out of sight. but seeing its personification on stage, saying goodbye in the most canadian way i could think of, by inviting all his friends to a big party, i could tell that there was something that made me feel connected to this band whose work had always left me cold.

i'm not someone who is full of patriotism or passion for my country. that doesn't mean i'm not proud when we do things right, or that i don't feel privileged to live here, because i do [especially when one of my american friends tells me about having to go to the doctor]. but, if i see someone setting a canadian flag on fire, my reaction is to wonder why they want to do so, not to condemn them and run them out of the country. i have a tattoo of a welsh dragon on my right leg, and will be adding a scottish emblem on my left. i don't think i'll ever get a maple leaf.

seeing gord downie last night, though, i could suddenly feel everything in me that is canadian, and apparently those feelings had nowhere to go but out my eyes [and maybe out my nose a little bit]. i don't know when or even if that part of me will rise to the surface again; that tough little nugget descended from people who said "sure, we'll just stay here on the frozen bit, you guys take florida" and have been toughing it out ever since. but now i know it's there, and i'm quietly, canadian-ly happy to know that it is. 

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