“You don’t have anything by the Tragically Hip?” he asked, followed by that short spurt of air through his nose that I knew to be thinly-veiled disdain.
“The Tragically Hip?” I’d heard of the band, but I couldn’t say that I’d ever heard anything by them. It was 1997 in rural New York, and I was into the Indigo Girls, and Offspring, and Stone Temple Pilots. The college radio station, where I was a DJ, had introduced me to a few new things, like Better Than Ezra and 8 oz. Joe. But not the Hip.
My new boyfriend, three years my senior, grew up a few miles south of the Canadian border in Vermont. He loved hockey, he loved the Tragically Hip, and he reminded me daily that Canada was just all-around better than the US. I’d been to Canada once or twice, and I didn’t understand what the fuss was about. How was it better? But he insisted. He wanted to be Canadian. He felt he was, just by being in such close proximity to its border.
“They are the best band in the world.”
I shrugged and watched him continue to flip through my vast collection of CDs.
It would be a few years before I met the love of my life, who actually lived in Canada for several years and introduced me to its wonders. I grew to love it the way my old boyfriend had, and felt most at home in Kingston, Ontario, not far from where my great-grandparents had a farm on the shore of Lake Ontario. Kingston has given birth to so many Canadian greats: Sarah Harmer, the Arrogant Worms, and, most famously, the Tragically Hip. It has such a rich musical history, and maybe that’s one of the things I sensed as the city and the country wove its way deeper into my soul.
I can’t say that I’ve been a Hip fan since the 80s, like many. But I remember when the street in front of the K-Rock Centre became Tragically Hip Way in 2012. I remember seeing Gord Downie perform with the Sadies at the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic that year. I remember listening to “Now For Plan A” for the first time, and falling in love with the songs. I remember being disappointed that we couldn’t go see the Hip play Kingston in support of that album, and doubly disappointed when I learned Sarah Harmer came out to sing a few songs with them. I remember watching Gord Downie’s dance moves on shaky YouTube concert videos, and how the songs hooked themselves in my brain and wouldn’t let go. They were my workout soundtrack, my workplace soundtrack, the songs I sang as I cooked dinner for my family. I caught myself singing “The Lookahead” while in the kitchen just last week.
I came to understand that to love Canada meant loving the Hip too. Sure, the band has its detractors. But the Hip are Canada — they are its voice, its poetry, its essence. They are places, moments, memories. They are so deeply intertwined with the Canadian culture and landscape that you cannot separate the two. And as Canada mourns the news of Gord Downie’s terminal cancer, I mourn too.
This time, I won’t miss out. I had planned to go see the Julie Ruin with friends on August 20th — I adore Kathleen Hanna — but when the Tragically Hip announced their final tour this morning, I had to change my plans. The Hip will play their very last show that day, in their hometown, my beloved Kingston. I know that it will be tough to get tickets; I even went so far as to get an American Express card just so I can make a go at the presale. I want to be there and experience the Hip for both my first and last time. And even if I can’t get tickets, I’ll be in Kingston. After the crowd spills out of the arena, I’ll be standing on Tragically Hip Way with my Northern brothers and sisters, and together, we’ll look up and watch the constellations reveal themselves one star at a time.