Naturally, I had to listen to The Hip while writing this piece.
But as soon as ‘Ahead by a Century’ hit my headphones, goosebumps formed on my arms and I found myself trying not to cry in a busy coffee shop. The song, like so many from the iconic Canadian band, defined a youthful summer for me.
It was 1996. Twenty years later (yikes), and the song remains a playlist staple.
For those of us who grew up without laptops and iPads, the music of The Tragically Hip transports us to a simpler, freer time of summer camp crushes, first loves, road trips and jam sessions in front of a campfire. Let’s be honest: it doesn’t get any more ‘nostalgic Canadian’ than a group of people signing along to classics like “Wheat Kings,” “Courage,” or “Ahead By a Century” around a fire or on a dock.
Since their formation in 1984, The Hip has provided us with some of the most celebrated music of any Canadian rock band. Not only do they have a defining role in Canadian culture, they will go down in history as one of the most inspirational homegrown bands of all time.
The country collectively mourned with the May 24 announcement that The Hip’s lead singer, the legendary Gord Downie, had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer at the age of 52. The shocking news, along with Friday’s mad rush for tickets to the band’s farewell tour, got me thinking about The Hip’s influence.
Sure, Drake has no shortage of references to ‘The Six” in his work, but The Tragically Hip’s music is filled with references that celebrate the country in its entirety and are rooted in the Canadian experience. “You write about what you know, and I love this country. I love my idea of this country,” Downie once said.
Rather than foregoing their roots in favour of appeal and fame South of the Border, The Hip filled their music with all things Canadian.
The band made the Ontario cottage community Bobcaygeon famous with their 1998 song of the same name. The Hip performed the Juno-winning hit single for the first time in the village as part of the Big Music Fest in 2011. Ontario’s stunning, quintessentially Canadian Algonquin Park is referenced in “The Bear,” and the band highlights the beauty of the prairies and the iconic CBC in “Wheat Kings.” The hit “38 Years Old” references the iconic Canadian Mountie, while the song “50 Mission Cap” is about Bill Barilko, a Toronto Maple Leafs player who scored the winning goal in the Stanley Cup Final against the Montreal Canadiens in 1951. There’s also “The Hard Canadian,” with a name that speaks for itself.
It’s not just the Canadian experiences that are highlighted in much of The Hip’s music. The band has also used their songs as a platform to remind us of important injustices that have gone down in our country. “Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” for example, references the murder of Quebec minister Pierre Laporte, who was kidnapped and killed by the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) amid the October Crisis of 1970. “Wheat Kings” tells the story of the wrongful rape and murder conviction of David Milgaard in Saskatoon.
Upon Downie’s cancer revelation, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted, “Gord Downie is a true original who has been writing Canada’s soundtrack for more than 30 years.”
Jonathan Torrens, who plays J-Roc on “Trailer Park Boys,” also Tweeted about his sadness at the news. “No band in our history has embraced/defined #canadianity more than The Hip. Gutted by this news. Gord IS Canada.”
They were among the thousands of social media users who weighed in on the tragedy. Fans took to the platform to express their devastation, admiration, and words of hope for Downie, many accompanied by the hashtag #courage. The band’s mass appeal is reflected simply by the diversity of these social media commentators.
Indeed, for decades the band has been Canada’s most celebrated. They’ve received 14 Juno awards and nine of their albums have reached No. 1 in Canada. Most of their songs became staples on Canadian radio stations and they were the first band to perform at the Air Canada Centre. The Tragically Hip was the inspiration behind many young Canadians to pick up the guitar themselves – at least, the ones I grew up with. The band got together at a Kingston high school in 1984 before catapulting to success in the decade that followed; a concept that inspired young musicians to form their own bands and dream big.
It’s not just the musical genius that’s inspiring. Downie is heavily involved in environmental movements, and is a Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, remaining passionate about water rights.
Of course, one of the band’s most inspiring initiatives has yet to happen. This summer’s Man Machine Poem tour (the album will be released on June 17) marks what will likely be the band’s last. Any travelling musician will tell you how draining being on tour can be – and Downie is doing it with terminal cancer. If that’s not inspiration, I don’t know what is. It’s almost on par with Terry Fox, in my opinion. The proceeds from the tour will go towards charity, benefitting the Sunnybrook Foundation.
Many of us will miss the final tour of the beloved band thanks to the software of resale sites and greedy scalpers. It’s such a tragedy that actual fans are unable to get their hands on the tickets. The stadiums won’t fill with some of the band’s longtime, diehard fans who idolized the group and saved up their allowance to buy a concert ticket back in the day, but those who can afford the tickets, which now cost thousands of dollars.
Gord Downie’s eventual passing will mark a true loss to Canada. I had the opportunity to meet him two years ago when I was introduced to him at a music festival. It doesn’t happen often, but I found myself speechless in a starstruck gaze and relieved to discover the genuineness that I’d so often heard about.
As the country will see this summer, Downie will once again prove that there’s “no dress rehearsal, this is our life.”