We live in a society where seemingly everyone believes him or herself to be so utterly fascinating, and worthy of everyone else’s full attention – this as opposed to all the other loathsome poseurs believing themselves to be utterly fascinating and worthy of everyone else’s full attention – that everyone should know all that can be known about him or herself. This reigns especially true in the entertainment/pop culture/social media world. We are exposed to incessant self-exposure, some voluntarily provided and some semi-forcibly extracted by gossip hellhounds such as TMZ. Quite a few years back, a British documentary focusing on the 1980s, in a rather gimmicky fashion theming itself as a historical examination of events long ago regardless of their being contemporary, had this to say about Madonna: “She couldn’t sing, she couldn’t dance, and she couldn’t act. All she could do was be.” A bit harsh, but given how she has made a decades-long career out of self-focused personality cult as much as any artistic achievement, not far from the truth.
This has not always been the case, particularly in pop music. The 1960s and 1970s were a heyday of artists doing whatever they deemed necessary to cloak themselves in mystery and mystique, this aura serving as a major component if not all of their promotional outreach. Some of this was attention-seeking kitsch, embodied by left-field zaniness such as Question Mark and The Mysterions. Subsequent efforts were far more reality-based. Led Zeppelin almost never released singles. Steely Dan refused to do interviews, and were so intent on maintaining their recording studio-bound anonymous wizards image that for a time their record company handed out blank photographs in lieu of the traditional promo head shot. Christian rock founding father Larry Norman avoided almost all interview requests and seldom acknowledged, let alone publicly commented on, the many controversies that surrounded most all aspects of his life and work. While successive generations artists have occasionally tried to build a similar wall around themselves, the omnipresence of social media has made keeping yourself to yourself well nigh possible. With one very noticeable, and most likely final, exception.
Gord Downie, lead singer of Canadian textural heartland rockers The Tragically Hip, has avoided letting his audience draw near during the band’s twenty-five year plus career. He has played close to the vest offstage, saying little about his private life. For his band he pens lyrics laced with cultural, historical, and contemporary Canadian references while far more often that not binding them together with a quirky stream of consciousness vibe leaving the audience trying to keep up as much as enjoying the poetry. On stage Downie gives the distinct impression of someone playing a character based on whatever he is singing at that moment; a benevolent yet sly storyteller living within the story rather than personally living through his or her music. This is the skilled wordsmith’s marker; the ability to envelop listeners in a tale well told without placing him or herself as anything other than the story’s conduit.
The Tragically Hip are nearly universally revered by Canadian rock fans, this adulation spanning multiple generations. While other Canadian artists have enjoyed far greater popularity in the Uniter States and around the world, starting with The Guess Who and going forward to Rush, with Triumph and Loverboy enjoying lesser but still not inconsiderable success during their respective heydays, it is the Hip that has cemented itself as the Canadian band for Canadians. This made the band’s shock announcement earlier this year that Downie was suffering from terminal brain cancer all the more devastating; headline news from Vancouver to Nova Scotia and all points in-between. It also made the announcement that since Downie was still able to perform the band would mount a presumably final tour this summer bittersweet, with tickets going for five figures on the scalper market.
The band concluded its tour this past Saturday in its home town of Kingston at the local hockey arena, located at 1 Tragically Hip Way, named this in 2012. The concert was broadcast live on CBC, with an estimated audience of one-third the television sets in all of Canada tuned in for what presumably will be the band’s final performance. To say emotions were running high would be the an understatement of massive proportions.
How would Downie and the band respond to such a moment? For its part the band was sublime, filled with seamless energy as it gave classic songs, plus contemporary tunes from its June of this year release Man Machine Poem, a satisfying workout. Downie was understandably in lesser form, forcibly oversinging through much of the set resulting in multiple painfully out of tune moments; only near the end did he sufficiently control himself to where pitch was no longer an issue.
Absent was the storytelling banter during songs that had been Downie’s live stock in trade. Instead, there was Downie the visual performer, audience interaction via looks and gestures dovetailing into the song rather than typical rock star adulation-seeking fare. In presumably his artistic final act before personally entering eternity, Downie maintained his polite barrier, hiding behind virtual greasepaint. Even during the end of “Grace, Too,” when Downie repeatedly screamed “why,” it was impossible to tell if he was reacting against his impending death or remaining in the song’s character.
After three wrenching encores it was over. A country’s poet hero had said his goodbye not by saying goodbye, but rather through telling stories and leaving it guessing one final time. Whether we see Downie and/or The Tragically Hip in any fashion again remains to be seen, but for one night he and the band had received a farewell of unconditional love. For once, the recipient of this eulogy was on hand to know just how loved they are.