The secret rules of engaging with The Tragically Hip

The Canadian band, an institution in its homeland, recently completed what may have been its final tour.
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Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip, with bandmates Gord Sinclair and Rob Baker. (Photo: Scott Alexander)

Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip, with bandmates Gord Sinclair and Rob Baker. (Photo: Scott Alexander)

I don’t remember any of the comedy bits from “Saturday Night Live” on March 25, 1995.

But I recall Dan Aykroyd introducing that night’s musical guest, fellow Canadians The Tragically Hip.

For most Americans watching, it was our first exposure to the band, which formed in 1984 in Kingston, Ont. It was hard not to focus on lead singer Gord Downie, with his head shakes, hand gestures and poetic lyrics on songs “Grace, Too” and “Nautical Disaster.”

“I come from downtown/Born ready for you,” he sang on “Grace.” (He later conceded that he misspoke the opening lyric because he was preoccupied with signaling a birthday wish to his nephew.)

I’ve been a fan of “the Hip” ever since that appearance, but especially in the past decade as I’ve methodically worked my way through a discography amassed over 30 years by Downie and bandmates Rob Baker and Paul Langlois on guitars, Gord Sinclair on bass, and Johnny Fay on drums.

A new record was on its way this summer when the stunning news came the morning of May 24: Downie had terminal brain cancer. The band announced that it would mount a cross-Canada summer tour: “This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us.”

Playing in Harrisburg

At the time of the “SNL” gig, the band was promoting its album “Day for Night.” I bought the cassette and, a few years later, it became part of the soundtrack to my late-night drives home to York from Hershey, where I would visit my future wife, Sara.

Even as I became a bigger fan, however, I never saw the Tragically Hip in person. It wasn’t for lack of interest but rather a lack of effort or poor timing or both. I invited a friend to see them in 2008, but it was on Election Night in Philadelphia, and I talked myself out of it.

Through the years, the Tragically Hip played a number of venues in Harrisburg, including Club Met (1994 and 1995) and Whitaker Center (2000). (I cut myself some slack for missing the 2000 show, as that was the year we got married, built a house and awaited the birth of our son, Jack.)

The Wall Street Journal noted that one show in Harrisburg “was so tiny that the Hip considered inviting the attendees onto the tour bus.”

The “Saturday Night Live” appearance may have been the band’s American coming out, but it wasn’t a coronation. The next day, Downie said on Canadian Broadcasting Corp.’s “Q,” the band played “to 42 people” at a club in St. Louis.

Secret handshake

Mention the Tragically Hip to most Americans, and you’ll get blank stares. When I lauded the band’s 2012 album “Now for Plan A” to my music-wise nephew, he said, “I didn’t know they were still around.” I’ve burned CDs of their music for friends and family members, to no avail.

In the aftermath of Downie’s cancer announcement, the headline of a BBC News story declared, “The Tragically Hip: The most Canadian band in the world.”

Unlike other Canadian artists who made in big in the United States, the article noted, the Hip never left its Canadian base.

“What’s more, the Hip mined and reflected Canadian mythology in their lyrics. Songs frequently have references to hockey, geography, history, and culture that are recognisable to Canadians but unknown to outsiders.”

An avid hockey fan, I never knew the story of Bill Barilko until I listened to the Hip’s “Fifty Mission Cap.” If as the BBC said, “the band is like a secret handshake for Canadians,” I feel privileged to be in on the secret.

The Hip’s Aug. 20 concert in Kingston — the final stop on its tour and possibly its last ever — was a national celebration north of the border. CBC televised it live without commercials, prompting Toronto Police to tweet: “Dear World, Please be advised that Canada will be closed tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET.” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in attendance, his jean jacket covering a Hip T-shirt.

At home in my speck of America, we streamed the three-hour concert from CBC’s YouTube channel. Sara was there for part of it, fell asleep, and then went to bed.

But guitar-playing, music-loving Jack stayed there with me for the whole thing. When it was over, he hugged me.

We were bound as father and son. As music lovers. And for those three hours at least, as two fans of the Hip.



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