I have had no interest in The Tragically Hip’s Farewell Tour unfolding this summer. I didn’t tune in to the final concert in Kingston the other week, despite the aggressive messaging which kept floating out telling us that “we have a duty to celebrate.” I have felt little more than a mild annoyance about all of the coverage surrounding lead singer Gord Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer.
This isn’t because I don’t care about the music of The Hip. Like most Canadians in a certain age bracket, the songs of “Canada’s Band” evoke a flood of memories, mostly of the people who were important to me. Their nineties albums, Day for Night and Trouble at the Henhouse, make me think of my eleventh grade best friend Brandy and my Grade 12 boyfriend Shawn, respectively. Brandy convinced me to order Day for Night through the Columbia CD club I had joined (could anything be more specific to the 90s than a CD mail order club?), and then poured over the lyrics of various songs with me for hours in my parents’ basement, pointing out her favourite lines of throwaway poetry. I can never listen to our favourite “Nautical Disaster” without hearing those same lyrics jump out at me and bring a smile to my lips. Shawn and I bought Trouble at the Henhouse together and would record the songs onto the mixed tapes we made for the forty-five-minute drive between his small town and mine, which we each must have made a million times. “Bobcageon” makes me think of my university girlfriends and our annual fall cottage weekend (“Thinking of you,” Carolyn texted us all from the Farewell Tour when the band played that song). It evokes sunny days and cool nights, large ice cream cones and sticky Chelsea buns, the ease of long-time friendship, the various boyfriends and then husbands that were discussed or who joined us over the years, the important announcements that were made—news of marriages and break-ups, cancer and pregnancies, new jobs and moves, buying homes and raising kids.
It is also not the case that I am uncompassionate toward Gord Downie’s diagnosis. We have just lived through terminal cancer in our own family. I can relate to the road that lies ahead for him. I admire the courage it takes for him to keep living.
Rather, my disinterest and annoyance about Hip Hype this summer has been more about scale and perspective. It doesn’t feel like one person’s illness—even if they are famous—should be so newsworthy. It’s the age-old media frustration that gets touted out whenever we slip into too much focus on celebrity: with all of the tragedy and disaster going on in our world,this is what we’re talking about? Gord Downie is going to die and it is time to say goodbye. But of course, he could live for many years with terminal cancer. And I could die unexpectedly tomorrow. Human mortality isn’t actually news, and it is naïve to suggest it is. The fevered adulation that erupts around celebrity death always feels tragic in and of itself: why does it take dying to make us say why someone matters to us or how much we love them? In the final analysis, I guess I am just exhausted. I don’t have the emotional energy this summer for jumping on what has felt like a bandwagon of mass sentimentality.
Something shifted for me, though. I have been indulging these last few weeks in a favourite summer pastime and catching up on CBC podcasts of some of my top radio programs. I listened with emotional distance to three months worth of reflection on the topic of The Hip’s legacy. It was one line from one commentator that finally softened me. Stephen Marsche noted on the arts and culture program Q that Downie was not doing interviews, that in the face of his illness, the only reflection he was offering was his music. “There is nothing left to do but sing,” he said.
There is nothing left to do but sing. My hard edge of annoyance and disinterest was not as true as Steven Marche’s insight. In fact, Marche had put his finger on the truest thing about our lives. It is that same truth that we proclaim in Christian funerals, right at the end in the words of Commendation: Even at the grave, we make our song. Hallelujah. I have led countless funerals in the course of my ordained life, and that one phrase always stops me up short, catches my breath, causes my eyes to prick with tears. We live and we die, and in that space of life that is granted to us, God gives us the chance to lift our voices in praise, to shape our fragile experience into something beautiful, to share, to share in making something together, to share in the giving and receiving of the song we have each been given.
Canada is not united in a common expression of faith. We don’t talk about God and religion in the mass media or in the public square. We can wax nostalgic for the days when this was different and frown at how pop culture has replaced religion as the glue holding our social fabric together. We can, like I have done all summer, turn our noses up at the cult of celebrity and the time that we waste on caring inappropriate amounts about the wrong things. But I have had to admit that I missed something, I missed something that is right and good, something of what it is to be human first and foremost: we are dust and to dust we will return, and while we have breath, we can make music. That human thing is the starting point for our art and our culture. And, our Christian faith proclaims, it is also the starting point for the God who continually reaches out to us, inviting us to more than just our flimsy individual lives – to seek and know God, to love and serve one another.
It is right that Canadians should pause together to reflect on, and give thanks for, something that we have received. Sometimes we should be disarmed, we should stop what we are doing and let our emotions run unchecked. Our hard edges should occasionally be collectively softened. We should be glad and inspired by the witness of one who stares death in the face and realizes there is nothing left to do but sing.