Real-Life Road Apples

Road Apples
The album that drew me in

I jumped with joy when a package arrived today. But I didn’t jump very high, because my heart is heavy.

Gordon Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip and quite easily one of the most influential backdrops in my life, was diagnosed in December with terminal brain cancer. They are putting on one final tour, and the second-last stop is in Ottawa on August 18th (the final stop is in their home town of Kingston, Ontario, on August 20th).

The Hip has been my favorite artist since I remember being able to have a favorite artist. Plenty of acts have rotated through second place at different times in my life: Sloan, Matthew Sweet, Matthew Good, Pink Floyd, New Order, and Joel Plaskett Emergency, to name a few. But none has ever supplanted #1.

So, the package that arrived today:

Hip Tix

The scalping has been incredible; tickets were swallowed up by automatic scalping machines within minutes for both public releases, and also for the early release to American Express Platinum (which didn’t work out for me either). In fact the ludicrous levels of scalping, which has calmed down a bit now, has led to a lot of conversation (see this, this, and this), and surprisingly not all are painting scalping in an entirely bad light (see this). I do think it is sad that profits are now standing in the way, and a true fan can no longer get to see the bands they want to see by camping out and waiting in line for tickets. Instead they have the impossible task of getting in to TicketMaster before the machines do, and I have several friends who want to go see this tour, but can’t – they didn’t beat the machines, and they don’t have the money to pay the scalpers.

In any case, I was happy to cough up a premium to have one more chance to see Gordon perform live, pay some final respects, and spend some quality time with my good friend Matt Jacques and his family, who live in Gatineau.

I’ve seen The Hip at least a dozen times live. Gordon is well-known for his fantastic storytelling and entertaining theatrics, often arguing with his microphone stand, paying tribute to hockey, or performing military re-enactments.

Gord Shooting

Most of my fondest memories are from live shows:

  • The first time I saw them in concert was in the early 1990s at North Bay’s own Memorial Gardens. This was the third concert I had ever attended, after Kim Mitchell and The Northern Pikes. I can still hear a young Gordon bellowing out Little Bones and New Orleans is Sinking.
  • One of my favorite shows was Another Roadside Attraction with Luan, JC, and countless thousands of others at Cayuga Speedway in Hagersville, Ontario (birthplace of Neil Peart!). It took some time, but before The Hip took the stage, we had squeezed our way to the front row, screaming and sweating. I recall spending days reveling in the bruise on my belly from being relentlessly pushed up against the rail by the thousands of people behind us. I also recall how crazy the crowd got when Gordon yelled “Down at the speedway!” during Blow at High Dough.
  • Scot Angus and I drove to New Hampshire in 1998 to see the Phantom Power tour at The Hampton Beach Casino. I still remember when he swapped out “Bobby Orr” for “Eddie Shore” in Fireworks, and I vividly recall that this particular performance singlehandedly made Bobcaygeon my favorite song of all time.
  • I’ve seen them in Boston at Bill’s Bar and The House of Blues, both times with mere dozens of fans, which is a dramatically different kind of show than those at places like Cayuga Speedway.
  • Nicole and I had our second date seeing Joel Plaskett open up for The Hip at the Hammerstein Ballroom in Manhattan. This too was a small, intimate event, and I remember waiting for the show to start, sitting on the floor, sipping rum and Cokes with my one and only.

(As an aside, that New York show with Nicole was the first time I had even heard of Joel Plaskett; Gordon had thanked “Joel Plaskett Emergency” right before the encore in the live recording of Little Bones in That Night in Toronto, and all that time I had dismissed it, thinking he must have been thanking some private paramedics working the show. Which, of course, isn’t really how it works in Canada. Anyway, Joel recently wrote a heartfelt tribute song for Gordon, entitled “Just Because.”)

My fondest memory involving The Hip, however, didn’t really involve the band directly. In 2010, Nicole and I got married in Negril, Jamaica, and we of course had hired a local reggae band, Front Page, to perform on our big day. Secretly, Nicole had been in contact with the band, and had them learn Bobcaygeon. Imagine my surprise when the song starts up during the party – it took me a few seconds to recognize it, but they did a fantastic job.

We’ve been to the little town of Bobcaygeon a few times, on summer road trips back to North Bay. 1,000 people strong, it is definitely out of the way, but worth it. There is a great lock on the Trent-Severn Waterway right downtown, and a chip stand across the street, so you can grab some poutine and watch the boat traffic from the adjacent park (great if you have kids!). This is an enjoyable detour we would have never taken had it not been for the song. I do regret not making it to Big Music Fest in 2011.

I am excited to see the show, but I know it’s going to be difficult, too. Lots of mixed emotions – thankfulness for the memories and the inspiration all these years, the joy and exhilaration of hearing that music live one last time, and sorrow for the road he’s being dragged down. Amongst the sadness, goodbyes, and his final bow, there is a bit of solace in that he isn’t being taken away from us by surprise, like so many others. As Joel said in his tribute, “Gord, you rock Eternally.”

Godspeed, Mr. Downie. Godspeed.

Gordon Downie