I am not a musician and I am not Canadian born, so really I have no right to be adding my voice to the dozens, if not hundreds of articles and blog posts written about Saturday night. But I feel compelled to at least try to explain to my non-Canadian friends what I experienced... and therein lies the problem. There are no words. How do you even begin to describe an event that you know, even in the midst of it, that in years to come Canadians will be asking each other "Where were you on the 20th August 2016?" No, I am not referring to a terrorist attack, a devastating natural disaster, or a political scandal; I am talking about The Tragically Hip's concert. Yes, a single musical performance by a rock and roll band! And when you grasp for words and come up with 'epic',' historic', 'unprecedented... I can almost feel your eyebrows raising and the scepticism in your gaze, especially as many of you may have never even heard of the band!
You see, The Hip (I have been in Canada long enough to have learned that you never say 'tragically' before 'hip' or 'ice' before hockey, unless you enjoy being laughed at!) has for the past 3 decades been Canada's most popular band. In May, they announced the tragic news that their lead singer, Gord Downie (aka 'Canada's Shakespeare'), had terminal brain cancer and this summer, following the release of their latest album, they would tour across Canada ending in their hometown of Kingston (which also happens to be my adopted hometown). Only a lucky few (7000 to be precise) were successful at securing tickets for this final show (it sold out in nano-seconds). Shortly after it was announced that the concert would be broadcast live on National television. Cities, towns, and communities across the country organized public screenings. In Kingston, 35,000 people gathered in Market Square (the very spot where I exchanged my marriage vows), a mere couple blocks away from where the live event was happening. Our mayor declared it to be Tragically Hip Day. We didn't join the masses downtown, preferring instead to share this moment with friends. At 8.30pm the feed from the Olympics was interrupted with the visual of The Hip members embracing backstage, and for 3 hours we watched (with a third of the Canadian population) their farewell performance, unedited and commercial free.
On Sunday, over FaceTime, I tried to explain the magnitude of this event to my sister (who was oblivious and much more concerned about the British medal tally in Rio) but I couldn't do the night justice. I told her to look it up online. There have been many beautifully written and heartfelt prose shared by fans, describing the bands influence on Canadian culture, their musical legacy, and Gord Downie's courage in the face of death. Unanimously they all make reference to The Hip being the soundtrack of the lives of Canadians. Even Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who attended the show, made such a statement. In the preceding months, since the announcement of Downie's diagnosis, I have heard this sentiment repeated again and again by friends .... 'The Hip -the soundtrack of my life'.
Growing up in the UK, The Hip was not the soundtrack of my life. On holiday in 1993, drawn by the large display in Sam The Record Man in Toronto, I bought their Fully Completely album. It was clear that this was what all the cool kids were listening to, and I was 16 and desperately wanted to be cool! But back in my bedroom in the Welsh hills I couldn't even make it through a few songs. The Hip were pure rock and roll and it jarred against my Brit pop sensibilities! From time to time, I'd try again but eventually the CD collected dust at the bottom of the pile. Ten years later, when I moved to Canada there was no escaping The Hip, they were a staple in every playlist on the radio, at parties, in stores. I lamented, and my friends from across the pond supported me by sending me CD's in the mail! Somewhere over the past decade something shifted and on Saturday night, I sang, I danced, I cried with millions of other Canadians but my experience was still different because the Hip were not my soundtrack.
This idea of a musical score or series of songs that complements and parallels your life story has been playing on my mind. I guess I felt a little slighted ... where was my Hip? What is the soundtrack of my life? For most of us, it is not a single artist but a mishmash of songs. It's the opening chords in your first live concert as a teenager; the song you played on repeat as you wept over the loss of your first love; the tune that blasted on the radio on your summer road trip; the anthem that had everyone up dancing as you sang along arm in arm with your friends; the sombre tones at a loved ones funeral; the romantic ballad at your wedding. It is these songs that form your soundtrack.
I challenge you to stop and take a moment to really think about this music that is 'special' to you, and when you do I guarantee that you will be transported back to a specific moment or person in your life. A lump may form in your throat and a shiver may travel up your spine. And now you might start to understand the powerful influence of The Hip on Canadians of my generation. A true soundtrack does not merely support your story but is part of the very fabric of your life. Those songs capture your emotions, define your memories, and shape your perceptions of the world around you. We are indebted to the talented men and women who share their music and create this commentary for us. What an awesome gift that is, a gift that makes life richer.
It is not surprising that for a long time I couldn't understand the appeal of The Hip. I was trying too hard to be cool! They were simply not part of my lived experience, my soundtrack. But despite my ambivalence to the band, my first born is named, in part, after their song Cordelia. I guess this means that they are part of my soundtrack after all. That's the funny thing about soundtracks, you do not select the songs that make the playlist. It's an organic process.
Ultimately, we don't know what comes next for The Hip. The band themselves have never said that this will be their last album or their final show. Regardless, they will continue to set the tone of the soundtracks of the lives of millions of Canadian's for years to come. Of course, the context will be different, but the thing about music is that it transcends time and space.
The hashtag on Saturday read #Canadaisclosed, but in the UK we would have called it a 'lock-in'. This is when a landlord of a British pub allows patrons to stay after closing time, no one else is permitted entry, the party goes on, and those outside the doors are unaware of the great time their missing. On Saturday night there was a National 'lock-in' and Canadian's will be emotionally hung-over for some time!
This post also appeared on the authors personal blog Cool Wet Grass