As part of my love affair with the city of Toronto (which dates back to my childhood), I’ve spent a significant amount of time listening to Canadian radio, and because of their CanCon rules, that means I’ve likely heard more Canadian rock music than most Americans. One of the consequences of that is that I’ve picked up a certain familiarity with a band that is a national institution north of the 49th (and in Buffalo), but whose mention will typically result in blank stares down here: The Tragically Hip.
These guys started as a bar band in Kingston, ON, but over the course of a 16-album career became an integral part of Canadian pop culture. Part of this is because they’re a very solid band, but the bigger part is that their songs draw deeply upon Canadiana and the Canadian identity. This actually worked against them in the larger rock marketplace — one American industry type listened to the Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap” (one of their more important songs, dealing in part with former Toronto Maple Leaf Bill Barilko) and said the song would require subtitles and footnotes for a U.S. audience.
But the band (and in particular, lyricist/singer Gord Downie) never compromised on these matters, which isolated the band from larger markets, but endeared them to their countryfolk.
Unfortunately, it has become necessary to speak of the band in the past tense, as they performed their final show in their hometown of Kingston last night. In May, Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, but the band elected to do one final cross-country tour. Shows sold out in seconds to minutes, and the tour was both a farewell and a celebration of the band’s place in Canadian music and culture.
I’m going to close with one of my favorite Tragically Hip songs, the hook of which gets stuck in my head with remarkable frequency. Godspeed to Mr. Downie and his bandmates, and thanks for the music — some of us even noticed it down here.