Saturday, August 29, 2020

Feel Free at Any Point to Tell Me Exactly What the Poets are Doing... Centuries Ahead though Years Behind... The Tragically Hip and Landing the Balloon

Like most Canadians, I can tell you exactly where I was on August 20, 2016. The Tragically Hip was a staple of Canadian music for the last three decades, and whether you were an ardent fan of the band or merely the proud owner of a Canadian passport, it was impossible not to know who they were in this part of the world, especially in the summer of 2016. This was the summer of their final tour following the heartbreaking announcement that their singer and front man Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. This is not the kind of diagnosis that I would wish upon my worst enemy, and whether it involves your grandmother or a Canadian icon, has a sobering effect like no other.

It was, in short, complete and utter bullshit.

Personally, I count myself as a fan of The Tragically Hip, so the news hit like a sort of record scratch in the soundtrack of my life. More than a fan, I guess. Gun to my head, if you asked me who my favourite band was, I would be hard pressed not to reply with The Tragically Hip. Certainly, they were the musicians whose library of songs I had put in the time and effort to learn the lyrics of more than any other. They're still the only band other than the Beatles that I could say with any degree of certainty that I could name all of the members off the top of my head. It's their music I tend to turn to most often, whether it's to help calm my nerves during the workday or if I need something to sing in the shower.

I don't know if it's cliche that as a Canadian the pinnacle of my musical tastes would eventually be distilled down and captured by a Canadian band. (Probably no more or less cliche than an American's favourite band also originating in America, but then again that kind of fretting is perhaps even more Canadian than I wish it were.) Maybe there's a common cultural thread that keeps me coming back and hanging on to every soulful word and invigorating guitar lick. Or maybe the universe is just a random, cold, uncaring bitch, and trying to fathom the "why" in how these sorts of connections form is an exercise in futility. 

By the time Gord Downie's illness was announced publicly, he had already been afforded some small modicum of privacy to process the implications - and treatment - with his family, friends, and bandmates. Despite the fact that in this particular situation neither Downie nor the rest of the band owed anybody anything at all, the announcement came; the boys would be embarking on one final farewell tour, a leg of the typical rock n' roll odyssey that is so often denied to those lost to the siren song of that particular musical calling. So it happened that The Tragically Hip - singer and frontman Gord Downie, guitarists Rob Baker and Paul Langlois, bassist Gord Sinclair, and drummer Johnny Fay - set sail into uncharted waters, on a collision course with destiny at the Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston, Ontario, on August 20, 2016.

Along for the ride for the Man Machine Poem tour - in addition to the regular entourage of roadies, agents, and security - were Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier, filmmakers putting together footage for what would eventually be shaped into a documentary called Long Time Running, named for an appropriately mournful and reflective song from The Hip's seminal second album, Road Apples. To compare them to scribes accompanying a band of warriors on their final battle might push a little far into the realm of the melodramatic, but I think that Downie himself was no stranger to those weird lands. 

Anyway, these sorts of military metaphors seem oddly appropriate given the circumstances; there's a reason that we so often refer to a person's battle with cancer. The documentary makes it clear from the outset that Gord Downie faced down the worst the enemy had to offer. The chief among many challenges he would face on the road to prolonging his survival - let alone embarking on a month-long, cross-country tour - was a surgery to excise the brain tumour that also required the removal of a decently large portion of his frontal lobe along with it.

From there, Long Time Running goes on to explore a journey that is the definition of bittersweet. In an early scene documenting the band's first rehearsal together since Downie's life-saving/altering surgery, it's revealed that it has impacted his memories to the point where he can't remember the lyrics to the library of songs that he had written and performed for the last three decades. As he struggles physically to rebuild the physical stamina needed for an undertaking of this magnitude, he also had to relearn the songs that he had spent a lifetime sharing with his fans. There's something so fundamentally tragic about the loss of memory. Fundamentally, however flawed it might be, it's how we define who we are while we live, how we connect to the people around us, and how the ghosts of those we've lost are able to live on.

Underlying all of this is the fact that the underlying purpose isn't a comeback but instead a grim march towards an essential truth about our mortal existence. And yet...

And yet, and yet, and yet.

There's also the other side of the coin. Another fundamental aspect of the human existence. The ability, the necessity, to find victory even in the face of assured defeat. Downie's struggle to get back into fighting shape one last time is inspiring specifically because not only was he doomed, but he knew exactly the extent to which he was doomed. The desire to be able to "go out on your own terms" I think speaks directly to the human condition in a harsh and apathetic universe. Rarely do we get the chance to choose the time and place of our final moments. Usually, the best that we can do is to choose how we face the end when it comes. And sometimes, if we're very lucky, we get the chance to make one final run, to say our goodbyes and leave our mark.

Because as Long Time Running goes through great lengths to show, we're not in this thing alone. The band members are likened at one point to a family, which adds even more weight to the tragedy. Not only is this tour Downie's last ride; it is, by extension, the last ride of The Tragically Hip itself. Originally forming the band when they were still in high school, these five people spent the next three decades creating and sharing their music with crowds of adoring fans, and also sharing their lives with each other in a way that only those in their circle of five could only ever truly understand. There are the families we are born into and the families we form along the way. Both varieties are special in their own way, and each one is individually unique. Though families endure after losing members, of course, they are irrevocably altered. In a very real sense, Rob Baker, Paul Langlois, Gord Sinclair, and Johnny Fay were dealing not just with the death of their bandmate, friend, and brother, but with the end of an era in their own lives, and the loss of something that had defined their identities for the entirety of their adult lives so far. It's simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring as they are each interviewed throughout the film to understand that underlying their responses is this goal of trying to make sense of the shifting ground on which they find themselves.

Through these interviews, we do get the sense of a real family, with all the support and strength and imperfections and tensions that are part of that kind of deal. The band members make reference to the good times and bad, an acknowledgement that only a truly tight-knit group of people can make. I always get suspicious of couples or families who say they never fight. This type of people never ceases to frighten me, because assuming the relationship is more than a few months old, the only kinds of people who can possibly make this claim range from the purely delusional to the truly sociopathic. It's exactly those kinds of trials that define true human relationships. Real people have disagreements. Real people fucking fight. Real people either stand strong or buckle under the pressure. Even famous bands are comprised of real people with real emotions, needs, and faults. Even famous bands lose the ones they love.

Beyond the band itself are also Downie's "extended family," the fans, who were also forced to deal with the loss of someone who had impacted their lives, likely in ways he would never know. Through shots of tearful audience members at this final string of performances, we get a small taste of the overwhelming sense of loss that we feel at losing these supplemental family members. There's a strange, but no less poignant, relationship that celebrity breeds. We feel a real connection to people who (for the most part) we've never met personally or even been within (at most) thirty metres of. And yet, that connection is real. The emotional affect is real. Watching all of these people cry for and alongside this man who'd touched so many lives and brought so many together. It's a scaled up version of the impact each of us has on the people around us, and a reminder that we are all connected through those bonds, sometimes among people who never even meet. These people mourned for Downie - I mourned for Downie - because he'd been, and always would be, a part of our lives; we had surreptitiously invited him inside our homes and our cars, around our campfires, to gatherings of family and friends, and into our lives. Gord Downie had started a conversation, howling his poetry out across the abyss hoping to make a connection; those of us who heard the call gratefully accepted and reciprocated with cries of our own. And for an all-too-brief moment, that Great Silence was pushed back a just a little more as we raised our voices together. For a moment. For a moment.

Watching Long Time Running, I could help but think about Oliver Stone's ode to Jim Morrison in The Doors. Not in terms of Stone's determination to establish a clearly defined American mythology, but more the metaphor of religion in depicting musicians. For those of us who had been lucky enough to see The Tragically Hip perform live, there was something uniquely engaging about Gord Downie. He was both a shaman and a showman, simultaneously hypnotizing audiences with an uncommon ability to marry the poetry of his lyrics with a bizarrely compelling stage presence and filling their imaginations to the brim with stories and images that took the ordinary and mundane and transformed into something worthy of song. Everything from his often-ostentatious costumes to his impromptu boxing matches with his microphone stand was eminently engaging in a way that is not necessarily true of all frontmen.

There's often a difficult tension for the frontman/woman of a band to maintain. They have the responsibility of being the public face of the rest of the band (whether planned or not), but also run the risk of attracting so much of the spotlight that it inevitably forms a wedge between band members that eventually shatters it. Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip seemed to be no exception. As Long Time Running highlights, the band made the early decision to split songwriting credits five ways on every one of their songs, a sort of democratic/diplomatic solution to acknowledge the contributions of each band member and counteract the toxic effects that the disproportionate recognition of individual collaborators can foster. For someone of Downie's particular on-stage talents, this kind of unified approach was undoubtedly a main ingredient of the antidote the band needed to stay together for so long.

Because The Tragically Hip was an exception in an important way. At one point, Rob Baker shares an anecdote about a conversation he had that used the metaphor of a hot air balloon for the trajectory of most bands. By and large, performers that were able to actually achieve liftoff almost invariably wound up crashing in the end, whether through competing egos, drug/alcohol abuse, or any number of other factors. The Tragically Hip ultimately managed to achieve something, if not unique, then incredibly rare in rock 'n roll; they managed to land the balloon safely. In a world where bands and artists tend to either burn out or fade away, these kinds of smooth landings are a rare and valuable commodity. Despite the tragic reasons driving the necessity to bring the endeavour back down to Earth, there's a lot to be said for being able to nail the landing.

And on August 20, 2016, that's exactly what The Tragically Hip did.

Like most Canadians, I can tell you exactly where I was when they gave their final iconic performance at Kingston's K-Rock Centre in front of a live audience of 6,700 with another 25,000 packing the streets outside watching on a large screen. I wasn't in Kingston. Instead, I was camping with my family at Long Point Provincial Park. As can be expected, tickets for all of the tour dates, but especially that last night in Kingston, sold out faster than I could have humanly countered, due in part to amateur scalpers and in part to the professional ones. Any hope I had of actually being able to afford tickets to any of the concerts, especially considering my financial situation at the time, were quickly and thoroughly dashed. There were, of course, countless viewing events and parties, where groups of varying sizes gathered across the country to witness and share this monumental event in Canadian history. There were enough local events that we could have easily gone. But we had already booked the trip months before any of us had heard that Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and that this would be The Tragically Hip's last ride.

So, we went camping. And a strange thing happened. As I was walking back from the bathrooms, I could swear I heard The Tragically Hip playing. I shook my head to clear it, but soon realized it wasn't (just) in my head. Sure enough, as I passed by campsite after campsite, people had their radios tuned in to the final performance. I got back to my family's campsite only to find that our neighbours had actually brought a small, portable TV to watch the entire performance live from the (relative) comfort of their own campsite as the sun set on that final performance of The Tragically Hip. Even out camping away from the beaten trail of civilization, even there I was still a part of that final concert. Even there, I was able to bear witness.

Even there, I was not alone. Never alone.

There was something truly special about that last performance of The Tragically Hip and Gord Downie. It was one of those rare moments of catharsis on a national level. There was a sense of unity, a sense of togetherness, a sense of being part of a common history that is so precious and uncommon, that they demand to be cherished. Not only did impromptu gatherings of families and friends and communities spring up all over the country, but the CBC also announced that they would be airing the entirety of the concert uninterrupted via TV and radio, no matter how long it lasted. At moments like these, concepts like time and advertising money lose any and all meaning and power that they may otherwise possess on a normal day. 

It was fitting, or course, that the final song played at their final concert ever would be Ahead by a Century, not only one their most successful songs, but also one that perfectly encapsulated that uncanny and compelling union of the mournful and the hopeful that defined so much of their music and lyrics. It's a song about reflecting on the past and looking forward towards the future. It's about letting go of negative impulses driven by "revenge and doubt." It's about finding the balance between memories of youth while fostering the kind of wisdom that is ahead of its time. It's about doing all of this while embracing and living in the moment and not taking our time here for granted. It's about all of this, and more.

There is no dress rehearsal for life: we only get this one shot, and we need to make it count. Though he was probably too humble to consider it, I have my suspicions that Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip will be proven to have, indeed, been ahead by a century. 

The Verdict

Long Time Running is a poignant look at the legacy of The Tragically Hip, and a loving tribute to Gord Downie. I want to give this movie a perfect score, but I don't think I ever can, because the ending sucks.
Long Time Running is a 9/10 = Five Canadian Heads Rocking Out in Perfect Unity and Harmony


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