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The Tragically Hip, the band all of Canada is obsessed with, explained

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip performing at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto as part of the band's Man Machine Poem tour.
Marcus Oleniuk/Toronto Star via Getty Images

If you're not Canadian, you may have looked at your Twitter feed this past weekend and wondered, "Wait, what's the Tragically Hip?"

On Instagram, you may have seen photos of a sweaty, leaping man in a feathered fedora and a rotating wardrobe of neck scarves and lamé tracksuits, swaying onstage with a microphone before a packed stadium of thousands.

Gord wishing us all "a nice life" simple words meaning so much coming from him! Tragic & beautiful...#TheHip #ingordwetrust

A photo posted by Chantal Vaillancourt (@chantal_vaillancourt) on

A photo of Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie, by the Toronto Star's David Bastedo, that was widely reposted on Instagram.

On Snapchat, you may have caught 10-second riffs of blaring guitar or sweet-sounding ballads with unfamiliar words (what is a Bobcaygeon? Where can I find a weathervane Jesus?).

And on Facebook, you might have seen it all pouring forth in a stream of near-religious appreciation for someone named Gord, along with memories of university besties or keggers gone by or nights on the dock in Muskoka chairs nursing a Molson or a Labatt — much of it accompanied by the hashtag #InGordWeTrust, appended with a tiny emoji of the Canadian flag.

Welcome, Americans! In this way, you are coming to know the Tragically Hip, Canada's most beloved homegrown band and a radio staple for three solid decades. The group has had massive and sustained success in the Great White North but never crossed over. Until now.

The closest American analog to the Tragically Hip is Bruce Springsteen

The Tragically Hip during one of their final concerts.
Darrin Cappe

"Gord" is Gord Downie, the lead singer of the Tragically Hip with the most Canadian of names (see also: Lightfoot or Korman or Howe). He started the band in the mid-’80s with four of his high school friends — guitarists Paul Langlois and Rob Baker, bassist Gord Sinclair, and drummer Johnny Fay. They got their start in Kingston, Ontario, 265 kilometers east of Toronto (or 164 miles, but we're speaking Canadian here) and moved up from neighborhood bars to southern Ontario clubs to the Toronto music scene, becoming regulars at the legendary Horseshoe Tavern.

They signed with MCA and dropped their eponymously titled first album in 1987 — and then just kept going with a steady flow of albums, singles, and concerts, for more than 30 years. Their sound is guitar-based, bluesy in places and ballad-y in others, stuffed to the beaver teeth with Canadiana and sung with Downie's trademark growls, howls, yelps, and yells ... except when it’s stripped down to just the essentials, the better to break your heart.

The Hip — as they are known, fondly and for syllable-saving purposes — are a Canadian institution. They've made 13 studio albums (14 if you include the first EP), with nine of them charting at No. 1, plus live albums and box sets and a best-of and the like, with an estimated 8 million copies sold. Downie has been called "Canada's poet laureate" and "Canada's troubadour," and the Hip called "Canada's band."

The closest analog in the US is someone like Bruce Springsteen, who sings about real people living real lives, or David Bowie, who grew up with his listeners. The common denominator is gravitas and a killer catalog.

The Hip’s is also a righteous catalog. The lyrics don't exclude. They don't center men over women. They don't pander. (That’s true even of the ones that almost do — "Scared" is as emo as it gets, until you listen to the lyrics, which are vaguely threatening in places, with strong World War II allusions, but I'd still melt for it on a mixtape today.) There are no gratuitous la-la-las, no boppy earworm hooks.

My favorite of their songs, "Wheat Kings," opens with the call of the loon, before unfolding as a devastating takedown of the criminal justice system and a country complacent with a man wrongfully imprisoned: "Twenty years for nothing, well, that's nothing new / No one's interested in something you didn't do." The Hip aren’t here to take up space. There is no song without a point.

In May 2016, Gord Downie announced that he’d been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. The Tragically Hip had already mapped out their tour for their latest album, Man Machine Poem, and with the blessing of Downie's oncologist, they decided the show would go on. It became a farewell tour, and its farewell concert was on Saturday night.

The band has been a Canadian staple for more than 30 years

Gord Downie accepts The Tragically Hip’s Juno as the newest inductees into Canada's Music Hall of Fame on April 2, 2005 in Winnipeg, Canada.
Gord Downie accepts the Tragically Hip’s Juno as the newest inductees into Canada's Music Hall of Fame on April 2, 2005, in Winnipeg.
Photo by Donald Weber/Getty Images

I can't remember when I first heard about the Tragically Hip, and that is the point. They seeped into my life from the background, via the radio and summer camp guitar maestros and songs slipped onto mixtapes by boys looking to close the deal. By the time I arrived at the University of Western Ontario in the fall of 1991, they were headlining our frosh concert, with an opening act by the Barenaked Ladies. (There is a generation of Canadians who, if they went to university, they saw the Hip.)

The albums Fully Completely, Day for Night, and Trouble at the Henhouse came out during my college years at Western and then at law school at the University of Toronto. Along with the band’s previous albums Up to Here and Road Apples, they provided the soundtrack to the bars we went to and the parties we threw, winter house parties and summer day drinking on patios.

I remember sweaty guys moshing to "New Orleans Is Sinking" and "Blow at High Dough," and how easy it was to put a bunch of Hip albums in the multi-CD player and just hit shuffle, during study sessions or hang sessions or makeout sessions. The Hip were always there, in the background.

They were front and center too, of course — headliners who filled concert halls and won multiple Juno Awards (Canada's equivalent to the Grammys). They were even immortalized on a postage stamp.

They were icons who played iconic concerts, like "Stars for SARS" in 2003 (remember SARS? Canada does) and the Y2K concert on December 31, 1999, when everyone was bracing for who knew what as the millennium turned. (God, we were innocent back then.)

But the Hip’s music was always the story. There were no backstage dramas or tabloid scandals; no reinventions with a flourish, no tell-alls. None of the members were pinups, or even celebrities, really.

But Gord Downie's voice — that we knew.

Gord Downie’s cancer diagnosis forced the Hip — and their fans — to think about how to say goodbye

The thought of losing Downie’s voice was a shock. The news of his terminal cancer jolted Canadians out of complacent, static appreciation into full-throated adulation. My friend Darrin Cappe, a Hip aficionado and self-appointed historian, dug up and remastered rare video of the band singing "Grace, Too" and "Nautical Disaster" on Saturday Night Live in 1995, and it flew around Facebook, amassing 1.1 million views. (Using their SNL debut to sing about the sinking of a WWII battleship — that was so the Hip.)

Tickets for the farewell concert sold out faster than you can say "Hamilton" (the Broadway musical, or the southern Ontario steel town — home of Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and the Tiger Cats — where another recent Hip concert also sold out). Tributes and think pieces poured out. Canada's national public broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), announced that it would stream the final concert worldwide, without commercials.

Across Canada, watch parties were organized. (Outside Canada, too — the Canadian expat community is so healthy that Canadian comic Rick Mercer speculates it was one of the reasons the Hip never crossed over to the States: Every time a concert was announced, it would sell out thanks to the Canucks, leaving Americans no chance to experience the Hip, tragically. I can concur that I once saw the Hip in New York at a tiny venue with throngs of other Canadians. To be fair, they did play Central Park SummerStage, though of course that was on Canada Day.)

By Saturday, we were all ready. The tour reviews were in (ecstatic), the celebrity guest established (Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau), Olympics coverage politely preempted (there was a Hip watch party in Rio, too). The Toronto Police tweeted, "Dear World, Please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30 p.m ET." Another meme circulated, pointedly: "Please note, Canada will be closed Aug. 20 2016 for a private function."

In so many ways, the Hip were everything to everyone

Prior to the final concert, I posted on Facebook asking friends to name their favorite Hip song, bringing Canucks out of the woodwork in one of those long, nostalgic threads that remind you why you still bother with Facebook.

While there were multiple votes for my own favorite, "Wheat Kings" (open it in another tab and just listen, I'll wait) and "Bobcaygeon" (newly relevant during this US presidential election season with the line "And their voices rang / With that Aryan twang"), legions of Hip fans argued strenuously for their favorites.

Writer Sharilyn Johnson posted that "Three Pistols" was her favorite because it reminded her of class breaks with her walkman at the University of Winnipeg. "Most of their songs are some form of that story," she wrote. "They just followed me through life. That's why I loved them."

On Twitter, Trudeau declared that the Hip provided "Canada's soundtrack for more than 30 years" — and he'd know, because they were the formative 30 years for Trudeau and his generation. Which also happens to be my generation.

One of Trudeau's members of Parliament is Arif Virani, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship. But I know him as my law school friend, and as the Hip nostalgia washed over me I kept seeing him in my mind, sweaty and head-banging to "At the Hundredth Meridian." The image was enduring, so even though he's a fancy government official now, I reached out to see if he’d comment on the Hip for this story.

It turns out I was onto something; "At the Hundredth Meridian" came up when he shared a memory of his best friend from university.

"My single most significant memory is of my friend Ard from undergrad at McGill and his ability to rhyme off word for word Gord Downie's soliloquy in ‘At the Hundredth Meridian’ ('If I die of vanity, promise me, promise me / If they bury me some place I don't want to be...")," he wrote to me by email.

"Ard went missing in 1997 and has never been seen since. This summer I've been listening to the Hip's entire anthology and thinking a lot about Ard, as I know were he still with us, he would have done anything to see Gord Downie's farewell tour because he was such a huge fan."

I didn't know that about Arif. I was angling for a quote about social justice and the Hip's message, to be honest. But after I received that email, I listened to that song and choked up.

My generation is in our mid-40s, and by this time most of us have outlived more than a few beloveds. Music is something that brings them back to us, and also reminds us that life is short, and without guarantees. That wasn't just an underlying theme of this concert — it was the reason it was happening.

Arif probably can't swear in print, so I'll do it for him, with one more line from "At the Hundredth Meridian": I remember every single fucking thing I know.

The Hip’s final concert was an emotional nostalgia trip and an ode to living in the present, all at once

If you're reading this, you're either a die-hard Canadian Hip fan reliving the moment or an American who I hope will get the chance to watch it at some point (the replay isn’t currently available online).

I watched the live stream from my bedroom in New York as my toddler did me a solid by actually going to sleep before 8:30 pm. On Instagram I followed the #InGordWeTrust hashtag to St. John's, Newfoundland, and Whistler and Squamish and into the living room of a young couple watching with their two kids. (This sounds creepy. It wasn't creepy. These are my people.) As exuberant comments scrolled beside the live stream, I marveled that it was the first time I was happy to see comments on a YouTube video.

The set list from last night's incredible show in Kingston. #ManMachinePoemTour

A photo posted by The Tragically Hip (@thetragicallyhip) on

The set list was itself a thing of brilliance. Having dispatched early with "Courage" and "Wheat Kings," the Hip eased into some of their lesser-played later stuff ("Toronto #4," "Lake Fever") and settled in for a packed, nearly three-hour ride.

"The set list was about as perfect as one could be for a band this big with so many hits," said Cappe, who has been to more than 45 Hip concerts in the US and Canada and attended four shows on the final tour. "It has been a gift for hardcore fans as they played so many songs they don't normally play."

Cappe saw the band play 58 songs over the four shows he saw, some of which he had rarely seen performed live, if ever. "It felt like they really wanted to play what Gord loved most," he said

(Note that the set list for the final show also included "Fiddler's Green," a song written for Downie's sister after the loss of her young son to a heart condition. The Hip famously couldn't bear to play it at live shows for more than a decade because it was too emotional.)

The eyes of Canada and the world were on Downie, and he knew it — and used it. Not once but twice he praised Trudeau for his Truth and Reconciliation Commission and his vow to right the wrongs committed against the aboriginal people of Canada, giving him a clear mandate, on the record.

"He cares about the people up north, who we were trained our entire lives to ignore," Downie said, baldly invoking Canada's national shame when he knew everyone was watching.

By this time it was more than two hours and one encore into the show, and when Gord thanked the crowd for listening and said, sincerely, "Have a nice life," it felt like that could be it. But of course genius set lists require that hearts be toyed with just a little more, so back the Hip came with "Nautical Disaster," followed by the opening chords of "Scared," which will slay me any day of the week and I guarantee is one of Canada's top earnest makeout songs.

I didn't catch Gord fumble many lyrics, but he stumbled and couldn't seem to say, "Can I get out of this thing with me and you," and really, who would want him to? Halfway through the next song, "Grace, Too" he dropped the mic and broke down, holding himself briefly as he shook with emotion. Then he pulled himself together, picked up the mic, put it neatly back on the mic stand, and left the stage.

There's choking up while sitting alone in a darkened room watching a live stream, and then there is full-out sobbing. I was alone, but not really.

There was a third and final encore and, at the last, "Ahead by a Century" — the final song Gord Downie would perform during this tour, during this concert, and possibly forever. "No dress rehearsal," he sang, as the crowd sang back. "This is our life."

It was three hours of glorious togetherness, of bittersweet nostalgia, of the mental muscle memory of remembering who you once were and who was with you then. It was for fans and superfans, and for the kids who got to watch their parents get so excited about sharing in a national experience. It was belonging, and music, and pride in your roots and your homeland, even when that pride means pushing your homeland to do better.

It was about saying thank you and farewell, but maybe not goodbye, because, well, you never know.

After 30 years, we're not done with the Tragically Hip.

If we're lucky, the Tragically Hip isn’t done with us.

Let's just see what tomorrow brings.

Corrections: An earlier version of this story stated that the Tragically Hip song "Nautical Disaster" is about the Allied WWII raid on Dieppe. The song is about the sinking of the German battleship the Bismarck during WWII. Also, the 2003 concert the Hip played to fundraise for SARS assistance was called "Stars for SARS," not "SARSstock."

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