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Shine on You Brilliant Diamond (you poet, you 'Himalaya of the mind')

October 21, 2017

 

On Wednesday, I woke up to the startling announcement that Gord Downie, lead singer of The Tragically Hip had died the previous night after a nearly two-year battle with brain cancer. Though his condition was terminal, and his physical and cognitive decline was obvious during his performances on The Hip's final tour during the summer of '16, Gord's passing still hit his devoted fans like a painful punch to the gut. Gord was much more than the lead singer of my favorite band. He was a lyricist and poet of uncommon talent, a frontman extraordinaire who performed with wild abandon and commanded fans' attention with his gesticulations and tangential stream-of-consciousness rants, a fierce environmental activist, in particular promoting clean water and preventing the pollution of the Great Lakes, a role he embraced as a lifelong resident of Kingston, Ont. along the northern coast of Lake Ontario, and a compassionate supporter of Canada's indigenous people, raising awareness of the indignities they suffered as their children were often taken from their tribal homes and families and forced to undergo institution-alized education at government-run boarding schools. Music critics and journalists, who are better writers than I, have waxed poetically on the massive impact of Gord Downie, including Jeff Miers of The Buffalo News. Anyone reading this can look up on Google testimonials to Gord or search YouTube for news reports on Canadian TV. Instead what I am going to do in this space is chronicle my personal experiences with The Hip.

 

But first, I want to address the Indie Author Day event last Saturday. There may be a few people who I met last week who are reading my blog for the first time. I received notice from Facebook that my website received three new views this week. If in fact anybody who was at the Indie Author Day event bought my book through my website, I thank you graciously. However, I must also state that I was extremely disappointed by the event itself. Despite a great deal of time and effort writing and printing out posters promoting my book and taping the posters in high-traffic locations at my alma maters, Canisius College, U.B. medical school and School of Public Health, as well as on lamp posts all along the Elmwood and Hertel strips, and writing three blog posts mentioning the event, which were shared on Facebook and Twitter, not a single person I knew or had seen any of the posters bothered to show up, and not a single copy of my book was sold. Yes, not a single family member bothered to come or refer an acquaintance to the event though it was a big deal to me- my first public appearance as an author, despite my sister also sharing my blog posts on her timeline because she has more Facebook friends than I. It wasn't all bad because I did discuss my book with a dozen or so people over the four hours of the event, some of whom said they would check out my website and were interested in purchasing the book, but did not have the money on them to buy it that day. If anyone does purchase a copy due to seeing me at the library, that is great and I hope you enjoy the book. But that does not help me one bit cover the cost of the 20 paperback copies I purchased through my publisher to have on hand to sell at the event. I felt very depressed and much like a fool for spending over $160 to buy all those copies, only to have the lug the entire batch back to my car, which by the way made my chronic lower back ache worse than usual. In conclusion, the Buffalo Indie Author Day event just was not worth the effort and financial expense- and to think I eagerly waited a whole year to be selected to participate in the event just multiplies my disappointment.

 

Back to Gord Downie. I was first exposed to The Tragically Hip in the summer of 1993, when I visited my cousin Scott G in Edmonton just before his wedding (I was the Best Man and attended the bachelor party in his hometown before coming back to Buffalo, where the wedding took place since most of his relatives lived there). While drinking a beer at a bar with Scott and his soon-to-be brother-in-law Gino, The Hip's "Courage" blasted from the speakers. I immediately liked the sound of this ultra-Canadian band and it furtively sneaked its way into a prominent place in my memory bank. A year later, The Hip released their fourth album, Day For Night. The first single off this compilation was "Fire in the Hole," which received radio airplay on Buffalo stations. Again I liked the song, but still was not a convert yet. However, that changed the moment I heard "Grace, Too," Day For Night's opening track. Beginning with a simple drumbeat, then joined by a slithery, melodic bass figure before the guitars kicked in and finally Gord's plaintive wail "You said I'm fabulously rich" (which in concert, he often altered: "You said I'm tragically hip!") the song had my full attention. By the end, when Rob Baker's soaring guitar solo and Gord's near-maniacal, repeated screams of "Yeah!" came to an abrupt termination, I was hooked. That first hearing of "Grace, Too" literally induced goose bumps all over my body and I knew then that I had to get Day For Night ASAP. I played the shit out of that album throughout 1995 and soon discovered that the entire work was a masterpiece. To this day I consider DFN The Hip's best album (though Hip fans always disagree on their favorite).

 

The following year, The Hip released Trouble at the Henhouse, which featured such classic songs as "Gift Shop," "Ahead by a Century," and "Don't Wake Daddy." I can still vividly remember hanging out at my other cousin Scott's (who lives in Buffalo unlike my cousin Scott in Edmonton) friend Frank's house, who along with his two housemates were huge Hip fans. The abode was located in the City of Tonawanda, directly across from Isleview Park along the shore of the Niagara River. The attic was converted into a furnished game room, with a large screen TV, huge stereo system, pool table and foosball table. We spent many a great night blasting The Hip's music while drinking beers and playing epic foos-ball contests (although the absolute highlight would come three years later when we watched the Buffalo Sabres' clinching win over Toronto in Game 5 of the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals and giddily celebrated their first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals in 24 years- unfortunately they notoriously lost to Dallas in the Finals on a controversial goal by Brett Hull in the 3rd overtime of Game 6 and have not been back to the Finals since). Late that year I attended my first Hip concert at the old Memorial Auditorium in down-town Buffalo with my friend Sean (with whom two years earlier I had experienced the marvel of Woodstock '94). That first Hip show is just a blur- first off, I had too much to drink and don't remember much, but also at the time I was not familiar with The Hip's first three albums so they played several songs I did not know.

 

The following summer, I saw my second Hip show at Darien Lake Amusement Park's outdoor amphitheater. By then I had moved to Erie, PA to begin my family medicine residency. I got out of the hospital at 5 pm and made the two-hour plus drive to Darien Lake just in time to meet my friend Sean before The Hip came on stage. I had bought their third album "Fully, Completely" in the spring and now knew more of their songs. The show turned out fantastic- the weather was perfect, I had just the right buzz from a couple beers, and the band tore it up. I can distinctly recall during "At the Hundredth Meridian" when Gord spat out the line "Ferris wheel is rusting/Off in the distance" as the amusement park's Ferris wheel ride could be seen spinning off stage left, I thought to myself, "What a perfect night." Though I had to make the return drive back to Erie, got home around 2 am and had to awake just four hours later for my work shift, the trip was definitely worth it. I had fallen hard for the magic of Hip performances, and from that day forward, I pledged to attend any Hip concert possible.

 

In July 1998, The Hip released their sixth album Phantom Power and I wound up seeing them live four times on that tour. First, I along with my cousin Scott, Frank, and a couple other guys traveled to a three-day outdoor festival called Grape Jam in a rural area near Erie, PA. Just two months earlier I had left the family medicine residency in Erie due to the extraordinary stress and sleep deprivation that is chronicled in detail in my book The Lost Son: A Rock 'n' Roll Road to Redemption. Before The Hip took the stage I actually ran into my faculty adviser from the hospital where I worked. He asked how I was doing since he knew how depressed I had been when I left Erie. I was not feeling much better from a mood standpoint but at least all the suffocating stress of residency was gone. He was attending the festival without knowing anything about The Hip. I told him that they are a fantastic band that are huge in their native Canada, but are virtually unknown in the U.S. outside the border cities of Buffalo and Detroit. Before The Hip began their set, we parted and I was able to move up much closer to the stage than I had for my earlier encounters. For most of the show I was stationed within 20 feet of guitarist Rob Baker, who took his usual position on far stage left, with bassist Gord Sinclair to his right, Gord Downie front and center, guitarist Paul Langlois on stage right and drummer Johnny Fay anchoring the rear. I was surrounded by many Canadian fans who made the trip down from The Great White North and enthusiastically sang along while proudly waving their Maple Leaf flags. It was a typical Hip show until the very end. When the band left the stage prior to the encore, I made a bee line for the port a potties to relieve myself. I was in the john when the band broke into "Fire in the Hole" but before I left the stall, the music abruptly ended and The Hip walked off stage. When I found Scott and the boys, they told me that Gord had repeatedly instructed the crowd up front to stop pressing against the fence that separated the fans from the stage. But the crowd did not comply and suddenly part of the fence collapsed and several fans spilled over. Gord was furious at the unnecessary scene and immediately cut off their performance. So much for the encore.

 

The other three concerts I saw on that tour came at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY near the Pennsylvania border, where they played inside The Reilly Center, the home gym of the Bonnies basketball team (and a good 90 minute drive from Buffalo); then-Marine Midland Arena in downtown Buffalo (now called KeyBank Center); and lastly, at the Agora Theater in Cleveland, Ohio. For that last show, I drove by myself for the eight-hour round trip. I left early so that I could make a pit stop in the suburb of Chagrin Falls, the inspiration for the Phantom Power song of the same name. The Hip were in fine form, but what I remember most about that show, was the atmosphere. Unlike in my previous Hip concerts that were full of devoted fans, the crowd in Cleveland just did not seem all that familiar with the band's material and thus, the vibe was too blase. It was not The Hip's fault, but that show just did not have the same excitement I had become accustomed to experiencing at their shows. That was the last time I saw them outside Western New York, where they were always welcomed like conquering heroes.

 

From that point on Hip shows do kind of blur together because I went on to see them 18 times in all. So I'll just mention a few more of the most memorable concerts. The 2007 show at Artpark was certainly memorable but for the wrong reason. My mother had passed away tragically in March that year after losing a five-month battle with lung cancer. My father, sister and I were devastated by this shocking event. For the first three months following my mom's death, we were all profoundly grieving. During this time, The Hip's June tour stop at Artpark, in support of their then-most recent album World Container was the only thing I had to look forward to. My father and I drove to good old Frank's house, and along with Scott and a few other guys, had a pregame party on the back yard patio, eating pizza, drinking beer, and of course, blasting The Hip. In my grief for the loss of my mother and uber-excitement for the show, I was in the mood for some serious drinking that evening. However, I overdid it. After downing three beers (Molson Canadian, of course) at Frank's house, I tried a bottle of Twisted Tea. I had never drank this vodka-infused iced tea concoction before. It went down so smoothly, that I drank two more bottles of the stuff during the drive to Lewiston (my father, who was attending his first Hip show, was asked to pilot the van so the rest of us could drink, and he agreed to the task). By the time we arrived in Lewiston, I was hammered. Bursting with excite-ment and totally tipsy from the wicked brew, I started to run uphill on Center Street where we parked, and promptly tripped and fell along the shoulder of the road. From that point on, I walked briskly but under control until we arrived at Artpark. I think I had another beer at the venue, though I certainly did not need it. Then The Hip came on and I remember the first three songs, then the rest of the concert was nothing but a black-out. My father told me later that I kept bumping into the guy in the row in front of me, and he had to step in to pull me back and prevent any altercation. I certainly did not mean any malice, I was just lost in the music, swaying and singing to my heart's content, oblivious to everyone and everything around me, while for one night forgetting all about the tremendous pain and void left by my mother's passing.

 

The following year, The Hip took up residence at Artpark, playing four shows in five nights. The same cast of characters attended one of the concerts during this amazing stretch, but this time I had learned my lesson. I steered clear of any high-alcohol mixed drinks, and made sure to go easy on the beer because this time I wanted to not just enjoy the moment, but actually remember the show. And I succeeded, fully and completely relishing the chance for a do-over at the same venue as the previous year, but this time under control and with an enjoyable buzz.

 

In the summer of 2011, The Hip played an awesome outdoor show at Canalside, a strip of green space tucked between KeyBank Center to the east and the Buffalo River to the west and adjacent to the reconstituted Commercial Slip, the historical terminus of the Erie Canal, the very point where Lake Erie was connected to the Hudson River in 1825 and forever changed Buffalo, New York City and the country. The canal served as the commercial gateway linking the agricultural Midwest with the Atlantic Coast, spurring Buffalo to become the largest inland port in the country during the 19th and early 20th centuries, and engendering New York City as the financial capital of the U.S. At that time Canalside was in its infancy as a concert venue and urban gathering space. The Hip's performance that night was a revelation, a civic celebration of the highest order. Not only was that particular concert one of the best Hip shows I have seen, but the perfect, sunny, warm evening weather, and the gorgeous scenery with the Skyway overhead, many recreational boats docked along the boardwalk, and the patriotic presence of the hulking USS Little Rock and USS The Sullivans anchored just west of the Commercial Slip, carried a strong sense of legitimacy to the proceedings, as if Buffalo, which had fallen on hard economic times over the past half-century like other Rust Belt cities, had suddenly arrived in its post-modern renaissance. Gord was in a very good mood that night and remarked repeatedly about what a fantastic venue Canalside had become.

 

The following summer, in support of their latest album Now For Plan A, The Hip was booked to play at Buffalo's Outer Harbor, on the site of the long-bulldozed former bar and restaurant The Pier. The stage was set up along a large, grassy area just a hundred yards or so from Lake Erie. My father and I arrived early to park and tailgate with some beer and Hip CDs blasting on my car stereo. Scott and some friends were coming a bit later and we planned on meeting up inside the venue. However, it was pretty chaotic near the stage, and being located in an open field, there were no landmarks to point to set up a rendezvous. As The Hip took the stage, ominous black clouds hung over the lake. The band opened with a new song, "At Transformation" and then segued into my favorite "Grace, Too" but I was frantically looking for Scott and thus, could not enjoy it. Then during the third song, the sky opened and the rain came down in sheets all over the unprotected lakeside venue. The band abruptly stopped and left the stage to wait out the ferocious storm. The grass field quickly became a thick, gooey mud pit. It almost felt like walking in fresh-poured cement. After about 20 minutes, Gord and Paul Langlois came back onstage alone. With Paul on acoustic guitar, they played two or three songs before another terrifying wave of rain and lightning rushed in from the lake. The band's equipment had been destroyed by the unrelenting precipitation, the show was abruptly canceled, and the crowd was instructed to leave immediately. Despite already being soaked, my father and I at least were fortunate to find a shuttle bus to climb aboard and attain shelter from the monsoon. With the entire crowd dispersed at once, and only one road out of the concert venue, it took close to an hour to inch through traffic and arrive back at my car. The only good thing about the whole situation was that The Hip vowed to return ASAP to make up the concert. They kept their word as just a month later, The Hip rearranged their tour schedule to come back to the very same venue at the Outer Harbor and play a full concert for their devoted fans and music lovers. And this time, even though it did rain slightly, nothing like the torrential downpour that canceled the previous show, the band was able to complete their performance and my father, Scott and I were able to experience it together.

 

The last time I saw The Hip was at KeyBank Center in 2015. The band did not have a new album to support. Instead they decided to do something different- celebrate one of their best albums, 1992's Fully, Completely by playing the entire album in its entirety. Ironically, the concert took place on the very same evening as the NHL's draft lottery. Scott, his wife Michelle, and I met before the concert at Buffalo Iron Works, a bar and concert space a block away from KeyBank Center. The bar was stuffed wall-to-wall with Hip/hockey fans (though most were Sabres fans, of course there were plenty of Maple Leaf fans as well, as Canadian fans always streamed across the border for Hip shows in Buffalo). Unfortunately, Edmonton won the draft lottery and the right to select Connor McDavid first overall, while the Sabres were left with the second pick, which was used to draft Jack Eichel. The bar quickly emptied out after the lottery was completed and we made the short commute to the arena. I sat by myself as Scott and Michelle's tickets were in a different section. The Hip began the concert by playing Fully, Completely in order, and it felt very strange. It is one of my favorite albums so it was cool to hear every song performed live, but it was so unusual for a Hip show precisely because the band was well known for changing their set list every night. Typically they would play anywhere from 5-8 songs from their most recent album, then they would always include about seven of their most popular hits that fans came to expect be almost mandatory, but that left room for a varying selection of songs from their abundant repertoire, including a few rarely performed gems. The perpetually changing setlist, which the band always posted on their website after concerts so that fans could compare shows in different cities, was what made each Hip performance so fresh and exciting. No two Hip shows were ever exactly alike. But then listening to them perform Fully, Completely in its entirety was both exciting since you knew exactly what song was next, but also sort of weird for the same reason, as it took the surprise of the opening chords of the next song, which was a huge part of the fun of each Hip concert, out of the equation. But fear not music lovers- after the band completed the album, they then played a mix of hits from other compilations of their brilliant career.

 

Then came the shocking announcement in the spring of 2016 that Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. He had been suffering from seizures and other neurological symptoms, prompting him to seek medical care. Unfortunately, doctors found an incurable, malignant brain tumor. Gord did undergo surgery to remove most of the tumor and underwent chemotherapy, but it only bought him so more time. Not wanting to go gently into that good night and surrender meekly to his grave disease, Gord and his bandmates set out on one final tour of Canada. At first, I and many other Hip fans in the Buffalo area hoped that they would stop in our hometown, but it was not to be. The Hip limited their tour to their native country. Scott, Michelle and I did attend a gathering in Larkin Square to see The Hip perform their final concert in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, which was broadcast live on CBC. It was very much a bittersweet event. So many Hip fans came out to experience one final performance by our beloved band, yet still we clung to the hope that this would not be THE final concert- that at some point The Hip might be able to play a few more shows in 2017, if Gord's medical condition allowed. In the subsequent months, Gord released a solo album called Secret Path, a sparse and melancholy musical compilation that tells the true story of Chanie Wenjack, a native Canadian boy who was whisked away from his family, forced to attend a government-run boarding school 400 miles away from his home, who tried to return to his family by walking along railroad tracks not knowing just how far he had to travel, then perished in the wilderness, alone on October 22, 1966. For raising awareness about the plight of indigenous Canadians, his tireless environmental activism, and his tremendous body of work with The Hip, Gord was honored by the Canadian govern-ment with the prestigious Order of Canada award. It was also announced just prior to his death that Gord had recorded a final double album of 23 songs titled Introduce Yerself that will be released posthumously on October 27, and a documentary film of the Hip's final tour called Long Time Running premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, and will be shown in select movie theaters for a limited run soon (the band's website, www.thehip.com, indicated the film will be shown at Buffalo's North Park Theater the week of Nov. 3rd to the 9th and I surely will be there for one of the performances). If you have never seen The Hip in concert, you missed out on a transcendental experience, but it is never too late to enjoy their music, and Long Time Running will no doubt provide a glimpse at what made Gord Downie and The Tragically Hip- Canadian Rock Hall of Fame members, but always underappreciated in the States with few exceptions- an all-time great band. They will be sorely missed. RIP Gord and thanks for all the fabulously rich memories.        

   

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