'Enthusiasm Conquers All': a road trip for the Tragically Hip

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The Tragically Hip
The Tragically Hip (Gordon Hawkins)

Update: Oct. 18, 2017 It's a very sad day to wake up to the news of the passing of Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. But I'm also filled with so much gratitude and thanks for the music and the man. Getting to spend time with Gord over the years whenever The Hip would appear in whatever town I lived in was always a joy. I remember great times in St. Louis in '95 (Gord signed a glossy band photo with "enthusiasm conquers all" — a phrase that still rattles around my brain nearly daily); dinners shared in Philly (like the time Gord couldn't get over the name of my hometown, Downers Grove, Ill., and kept saying, "I'm Downers, and this is my Grove"; and that time half the Flyers showed up, and that other time when Gord walked to my house from Philly's Theatre of Living Arts (the TLA) and we played guitar and hung out till bus call at 2 a.m.; and the time in Minneapolis when the Tragically Hip played The Current's Coffee Break on the Road, and Jill Riley nearly drove us off the highway; and later that night, my friend Derek McCallum bonded with Gord at 2 a.m., as both are father to four daughters.

But no memory is more etched in my consciousness than the courage Gord Downie showed a nation as he headed out on that final cross-Canada tour after his diagnosis, which inspired me and my friends Kerry Gray, Lori Blumenthal and Gary Schoenwetter to road-trip to Winnipeg to see the Tragically Hip once more — a weekend that lives in our hearts forever, where we saw the band play an emotional and powerful show, and we also bonded over poutine and record shopping, Mongolian beef and Tim Hortons, connected with Stephen Carroll and Chris Walla, and were able to introduce Gord to Kerry, who both shared a brain-cancer diagnosis, comparing scars and surgeries. Gord was gracious in the post-show hang, laughing with us, kissing each of us, and thanking us (thanking us?!?) for being there, then and forever. Thank you, Gord. For all.

And now with my friend Kerry's passing in March and Gord's this week, cancer has taken another beautiful life too early. We are left with sadness that there will not be more new experiences and memories created, but so thankful for all we shared. Fireworks, emulating heaven. Courage, it couldn't come at a worse time. Thanks, Gord, for coming along when you did, for inspiring millions, and for being a friend to us all. Miss you already.

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The first part of this feature was written before the road trip; click here to jump ahead to Jim's post-trip recap and thoughts.

"Enthusiasm Conquers All" was scribbled in sharpie on the 8x10 glossy, handed back to me by Gord Downie, lead singer of the Tragically Hip. It was 1995, and the Tragically Hip were in St. Louis, Mo., playing a venue the size of the 7th Street Entry, a far cry from the hockey arenas they fill in their native Canada. I'd been a fan of the band since the early '90s, playing their music on the radio at WEQX, one of America's original alternative radio stations, located in the tiny skiing town of Manchester, Vermont (think WEQX = The Current + Northern Exposure), another border state, and one of the first places in the U.S. where the Hip gained a toehold. While nine of their 13 albums have reached No. 1 in Canada, the Tragically Hip never broke through in the States. They got close — they played SNL in '95, they toured the U.S. opening for Plant and Page, and they found pockets of support, often in northern cities like Buffalo, Chicago, Detroit, Minneapolis. But like a lot of the bands I've loved in my lifetime in music (The Jam, Love, Big Star, and dozens more), they never quite achieved massive popularity — although they should have. And if you got into them, you became a fan. For life.

And now, it's about life. And death. And living. And music — with its power to connect and bring us together like nothing else.

Back in May, The Tragically Hip announced that lead singer Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. No one knows how long he has left to live, though in a way, that's true for us all. So the Hip, who have always been about communicating community through their music, are doing the thing they do best this summer — putting out a record and going on the road. As difficult as this news is for fans of the band, imagine being in the band, or being Gord, and setting out on this tour. The tour is hitting those big hockey arenas across Canada right now, with the closest show to the Twin Cities happening Friday, Aug. 5, at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg. The last show on the tour, from the band's hometown of Kingston, Ontario, is slated for live broadcast on the CBC on August 20.

MTS Centre in Winnipeg. CREDIT: Mike Grandmaison
MTS Centre in Winnipeg. (Mike Grandmaison)
And that's why on Friday morning, I'm driving the seven or so hours into Manitoba to see the Hip one more time. And I'm not going alone. I've got three friends coming here from around the country, all Tragically Hip disciples. We haven't all been in the same room together since 1993. Lori Blumenthal is a woman I interned for in college when she was at IRS Records, who then went on to work at the Tragically Hip's U.S. record label in the '90s, London Sire. Lori eventually left the music business and moved to Portland, Ore., but has stayed friends with the Hip over the years. Now she works at Powell's, the coolest bookstore in America, and is a professional pet walker, while insisting that Portlandia is only a 98-percent accurate portrayal of life in the Rose City. Gary Schoenwetter was fresh out of college when we hired him at WEQX, but he learned fast and wound up a Vice President of Business Affairs at satellite broadcaster Sirius/XM. The small staff of six at WEQX were so tight that several lived together, and one of Gary's roommates was our morning guy, Kerry Gray. Kerry left Vermont, and since then, radio has taken him to Hawaii, Denver, Buffalo, and twice across the border into Canada, where he assimilated into the land of Molson and Tim Horton's. For the past two years, Kerry has been doing radio in Red Wing and living in Minnesota, though the past few months not by choice: On his way to a new job in Florida, he found himself being shaken awake by a police officer, having passed out after a single-car accident in Tennessee. Taken to a hospital there, he was stunned to learn the reason for his passing out: brain cancer. Multiple tumors in his head and through his body. With hundreds of friends, peers and listeners chipping in, the between-jobs and uninsured Kerry got back to Minnesota, and thanks to MNsure, has been undergoing treatment at Mayo. If you could kick cancer's ass with a quip and joke, Kerry would do it. And right now, he is. He's been cleared to travel, and there's no way we're missing this show.

So what is it about the Tragically Hip that motivates people to get on planes and fly across the continent to see them?

As Gary says, "I saw Prince a zillion times … but missed seeing him in the final year or two of his life and now he's gone. I can't let that happen again with The Hip, who, while a completely different live act than Prince, are just as memorable and powerful on stage."

I know it's hard to explain to folks who don't know the Hip's music, but Gord Downie is one of the great frontmen, not just in Canada but in all of rock history. His songs are seldom linear, yet convey more emotion than those of a million lesser bands. There are references to all kinds of topics — hockey players, ice storms, shipwrecks, dreams, murder mysteries … but really, the songs are about all of us, burning with an intensity and fascination to dig into the human condition. In performance, Downie flails about the stage, scanning the audience for connection with a smirk and grin, sometimes spontaneously composing, seeming to mutter stories to himself under his breath while the band rocks furiously behind. You come back the next year and that mid-song rant has been repurposed into a new song.

Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. CREDIT: Nate Ryan
Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip. (MPR photo/Nate Ryan)
Meanwhile, Gord is always searching and striving, looking out at an audience breathlessly hoping for more. Meanwhile, the band are on fire — a comparison would be to imagine Michael Stipe singing for Pearl Jam. There is power and mystery in the music; couple that with a near-universal deep love among fans, and you have the making for shows that are communal and cathartic, for both the band and the audience.

And that audience is huge in Canada. The fact that the Tragically Hip didn't make it big here in the States has turned into a badge of pride for Canadians — it's a national treasure they haven't had to share, it can be their own. Walk into any NHL locker room in the past two decades and you were likely to hear the Hip. And now with the news of Gord's cancer this year, it puts the already close-knit Canadian music community into existential crisis: After nearly 30 years, what happens when the Hip break up? How do we say goodbye? One way is a new fan site called RaiseOneForGord.com, which is asking fans to offer video toasts to Gord and taking donations for the Sunnybrook Foundation, which is working to fight cancer in his name.

As I prep for this trip, I'm really looking forward to re-connecting with old friends over shared music, but I'm wondering about my friend Kerry (who is also turning 50 this weekend), and what it's like for him this week, having lived in Canada for many years, and now living with a similar diagnosis as Gord. So I asked him.

"This impending epic journey and the emotional value it has on me is beyond description," Kerry says. "It may be a Hunter S. Thompson experience, but I have the opposite of fear and loathing. The only thing I would fear or definitely regret for the rest of my life would be to pass up an opportunity to see The Hip on the last day of my 40s. Like hockey, you don't have to be from Canada to love them. I've been preaching the gospel of the Hip for 30 years, and every person has thanked me. No — thank you for not going through life being convinced that the only music in Canada is Nickelback, Drake and the Justin Bieber. On Victoria Day this year, the Prime Minister described Gord Downie as 'the soundtrack to our nation.' I know President Obama gave props to Prince when he died a month earlier; but can you imagine him officially bestowing Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen with that honor? Lyrics to Hip songs are on the Canadian Constitution test. I've never taken a U.S. Citizenship test, but I'm pretty sure 'Tramps like us, baby we were born to run' is not on there. There are three languages in Canada: English, French and Gord. This weekend, we're speaking Gord and it's gonna be amazing."

So we're driving up this Friday. We'll be posting updates on Facebook and Twitter, with the hashtag #893hiptrip. Feel free to follow along. Enthusiasm Conquers All.


Coda: A snow globe for The Tragically Hip

With nothing but grace and gratitude, for seven minutes, alone on the stage, Gord Downie of the Tragically Hip took it in, and gave it back. The love of so many, and one. It was the end of the main set by the band, and as the lights went up over the MTS Centre, the other members left the stage to Gord, who slowly moved around the stage, acknowledging the audience section by section, while the standing ovation surged, cheers mixing with tears. It was one of the most moving things I've ever seen, and impossible to imagine what it must be like for him.

I'm still processing all that happened driving up to Winnipeg with my friends Lori, Kerry and Gary to see one of the final shows by The Tragically Hip. In some ways, it's the opposite of David Bowie — where he was private about his declining health — Gord and the band shared Gord's brain cancer diagnosis with the public and Canadian rock fans are getting the chance to say goodbye.

It's impossible not to think about Gord, and all the guys in the band, as they deal with the end of their career in an unprecedented way. They are burying their lead singer, their band, their career — playing these songs for the last time with Gord themselves. That has to be so hard. They are determined, proud. They continue to play their asses off, as they always have, and to support Gord — to work around his condition, to morph the sets to his needs as the cancer advances.

Gord is putting on a brave face, but he is tired. He is using monitors to remember lyrics. He is here and spirited, but also heading somewhere else. Maybe he always has been. With that grace and gratitude.

At the Winnipeg show there were so many voices: 16,000 fans and the five in the band. Yet the band was great in Winnipeg, vital and full of passion, Gord resplendent with shiny suits and his unique stage persona, leading us on a two-hour journey through their catalogue. Just like after Prince's passing, so many songs and lyrics took on a deeper meaning. The Tragically Hip opened the show tightly packed together on the big stage, as if in a small rehearsal room, their 30 years of brotherhood on display. And seeing them in Canada was incredible, every seat sold and every fan standing and singing along to every song, yet whenever I found myself getting lost in the music, I would snap back to the reality that this would be the last time I'd ever see this band play live.

We were welcomed — by the Canadian fans we met, by the band members, and by Gord Downie himself, who dedicated their song "Membership" to my friend Lori from the stage. I think Lori summed up our trip best: "While this weekend was crazy fun, it was also about saying goodbye to a treasured friend," she says. "I met Gord Downie a long time ago, and we were fast friends. A year of road work and radio interviews, coffee and great conversations was enough to power us through the nearly 20 years since I left the music business. We stayed friends all throughout. Now he is dying, and I went to Winnipeg to tell him how much I loved him one last time. I am heartbroken beyond measure that this man will not be walking the world with us, but it was a great gift to give him one last hug."

Years ago, Gord told Lori that we should fill snow globes with our favorite memories, and put them on a mental shelf where we can revisit them. The four of us who came to witness have not been together as a group since 1993, but have always been fond of each other, even when separated. Our odyssey included a 400-mile drive each way, a giant prairie chicken, Mongolian food in Fargo, a border interrogation, a rush to the venue, post-show connections with long-time friends from Kingston to Norway to Winnipeg, late night poutine, a morning swim, birthday record shopping, a return drive across the wide expanse, and nights of laughter and music, spinning vinyl in my basement.

Record Shopping in Winnipeg. CREDIT: Jim McGuinn
Record shopping in Winnipeg, L to R: Lori Blumenthal, Kerry Gray, Jim McGuinn and Gary Schoenwetter. (courtesy Jim McGuinn)

It was awesome that my friend Kerry got to meet Gord after the show, where the two compared scars. Gord was charming as ever, wearing a First Avenue baseball cap, talking about Conrad and the times the band played there. He thanked us for driving up for the show, and for believing in them. It was hard to say goodbye.

This week, Kerry is going in for another Gamma Knife surgery on his cancer and will be starting on the new "Jimmy Carter" drug. Meanwhile, Gord and the Hip roll on, counting down the days and the shows until August 20, when they will step onstage for the last time in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, for a concert that will be broadcast nationally on the CBC. Our trip to Winnipeg was an epic weekend, filling that snow globe with the good, the bad, the heavy and sad, the musical and joyous. I know I'm going to be thinking about it all over the next few weeks. I'm thankful to the band for the shows and songs over the years. They ended the gig in Winnipeg with "Ahead by a Century," and a perfect reminder for us all: "No dress rehearsal / This is our life."

Update, Aug. 17:
Nearly every major Canadian city is having celebrations inside and out, where fans will congregate to watch the last show together. St. Paul, Minn., will be one of the few American cities where there is an official screening of the Hip's final concert on Saturday, Aug. 20, as the Amsterdam Bar and Hall is hosting a screening that night, beginning at 7:30 Central.

Additionally, the CBC is going to make the content accessible in the U.S. and around the world, so you can watch from anywhere at cbcmusic.ca/thehip.

Update, Aug. 20:
Jim McGuinn is quoted in this Globe and Mail article about the Tragically Hip, "One Nation Under Gord," by Marsha Lederman.

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    Winnipeg skyline with the Manitoba Legislative Building at left. (Dan Harper)

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