You could tell that he was struggling.
You could tell that he was off his game.
From the first blown lyric of “Fifty Mission Cap” to a heavy reliance on the TelePrompTers that were hidden strategically across the stage, you could tell that Gord Downie was playing hurt.
But as captain of Team Canada — the guy who made the Prime Minister the second most important person in the room — he dug deep.
It wasn’t always pretty. Gone were the concert-long poetic rants that once showed nimbleness of mind. He probably walked, danced, and strutted a few kilometres less than he once used to during a performance. His body also seemed to lack that fluidity.
But Gord poured every ounce of himself into that last show — into that last tour.
And he didn’t take the easy way out. He and his bandmates, Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois, and Gord Sinclair, treated the night like any other. They didn’t pad the final performance with special guests. They played several cuts from their new — and for most of the audience unheard — final album, as well as a handful of selections that had seen very little radio play. They went out on their own terms.
One of the things that gutted me the most was watching Gord be helped offstage. It was after the second intermission and Johnny Fay took him, first by the hand and then by the elbow, as he led him down the stage stairs. But Gordie toughed it out. He returned for one last set to offer the last of his legendary artistic energy.
No, it wasn’t always pretty. But watching Gord Downie gut it out was nonetheless beautiful. The passion was still there. The words still united us all in one voice. Most of all, though, his performance was honest. It was hard working. And it was humble.
That, I think, is one of the keys to the great Canadian success of The Tragically Hip: they mirror the way we see ourselves, both as individuals and a nation. Honest. Hard-working. Humble.
But also caring.
In his own inimitable way, Gord put pressure on Justin Trudeau to take action on the plight of First Nations people in the North. Hidden in what seemed like praise was a warning – a million Hip fans are now watching. It’s time for action. And for care. For the country to care.
He also spoke of the need for inclusivity. He joked that he wasn’t sure who had finally brought women back to the Hip audience, but that it was oh-so-welcome. It’s 2016. Bro’s need not apply.
Here’s the thing about The Hip: they gave and gave and gave. They spurned global financial success by sticking to their roots – and to the roots of the Nation that they eventually came to represent. They played countless benefits, lending their music and Gord’s voice to countless causes. They took so many artists, bands, and musicians under their wings, offering mentorship, advice, and perhaps most importantly, gigs.
Last night, the Tragically Hip gave and gave and gave some more. Gord Downie, in particular, gave until it hurt — until he ached, both physically and emotionally.
By the time they got to the encores, they were the Tragically Hip of old. Gord’s voice refound those familiar melodies. He hit the notes he couldn’t hit earlier in the evening. He looked less like he was fighting the performance than truly enjoying it. Like a wounded hockey legend, he played through gut-check time and brought pained beauty to his efforts. And then he won it in overtime. The never-before-performed third encore, to be precise.
During those last songs, Gord and his bandmates became what they had always been: the house band for a generation. Damned good rock and rollers.
It was a tough show to watch. It was a glorious show to watch. It was a show we all had to watch.
The likes of which we will never see again.
It was Courage. And Grace Too.
Thank you Gord Downie. Thanks for being a hero and a national treasure. Thanks for one last night.
It is obvious that you love and are loved.
And that you will be missed.