In the dying days of The Tragically Hip, Ben Kaplan discovers what happens when personal and public grief converge.
I never even liked The Tragically Hip. I’m a New Yorker, so I didn’t grow up listening to them at the cottage, my dad has no idea who they are, and, for most of my life, Gord Downie didn’t mean anything to me except as some kind of symbol of my adopted homeland, like Tim Hortons, Wayne Gretzky, or Niagara Falls. But my wife, Julie, she loves the Hip. She always has. Living with her in Toronto and covering music up here for a decade, I slowly started to understand. This band is personal, and haunting, and real. When they announced their cross-country tour this summer, just after announcing that Gord Downie has glioblastoma, the worst form of terminal brain cancer, I broke along with everyone else. It hits hard, to lose someone.
On February 5, 2013, Julie’s sister Maria died from multiple sclerosis at 38, and to get my wife out of the house, on Valentine’s Day, we saw The Tragically Hip. It worked, kind of — the show took her mind off it, maybe, and gave us a release valve: an excuse to smoke and kiss and cry and sing. So when this tour starts, I’m appreciative. I buy tickets. Downie has had rounds of chemo and radiation — he’s on what should be his deathbed — but he will not wallow. Instead, he plays his shows in a metallic leather suit and a Jaws T-shirt, regal, impish, and tight. It’s not a Greatest Hits set, exactly, and there’s no monologue that explains the situation: someone you love is dying onstage.
A version of this story appears in the November 2016 issue of Sharp, on newsstands now.
After losing Maria, Julie has one sister named Jayne and she’s a 43-year-old high school vice principal. In March, Jayne was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the same fucking thing as Gord. Julie won’t come with me to the show because she can’t listen to the music. Jayne and I talked about seeing a concert, but she can no longer take her three-year-old out for ice cream.
So on a beautiful night in late summer, I’m alone at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre, and I’m drinking, mostly Jameson and tall boys. It’s what I imagine the Grey Cup feels like in the stands. People wear homemade T-shirts and chant. "Courage (For Hugh MacLennan)" from Fully Completely (1992) starts the set and Downie, 52, wears a purple top hat with a feather. I see more than one couple hold hands. During "What Blue" from Man Machine Poem, the band’s just-released fourteenth record, Downie has his hands over his head and his eyes closed. "I can tell he looks sick," says a nurse I meet in the stands. "His face is dry and he looks tired." The nurse is 56, been a nurse for 30 years. “He still sounds great,” she says.
Jayne is a Sunday school teacher in addition to being a vice principal, and she’s smart, fast, and likes the guy who plays Captain America. She has twin 16-year-old boys. She’s the oldest of my wife’s sisters and probably the most solid. It’s eerie how much the three girls look alike. Glioblastoma has struck her cruelly. It started with memory loss and proceeded to tumours and has left her in a state of terror.
Seeing Jayne in her room at St. Mike’s Hospital on the Saturday before The Tragically Hip’s Tuesday night show is to enter a realm of indie film grief. How do I comfort my wife here? Jayne’s kids? My mother-in-law, a doctor, who has been through this twice now in the past three years? I keep gas in the car and the house stocked with food.
Because there’s nothing else, I catch the next Tragically Hip show at the First Ontario Centre in Hamilton. It feels like a magic hockey rink. This Tragically Hip tour is Terry Fox with alcohol and poetry.
The band opens with "At the Hundredth Meridian" and Downie, still wearing what The Huffington Post calls his Fuck Cancer Suit, is encircled by his band at the front of his stage. He drops his microphone, attempts to retrieve it and it falls over again and again. It’s theatre — a chance to bear witness to a noble fight. Jayne was diagnosed in the springtime. It’s now summer and she can’t speak. Gord was diagnosed in December. Glioblastoma ranges in aggression, but it always ends the same way.
"Everyone’s leaning towards an obituary," Kevin Drew writes me in an email. "You and I both know that Gord and your sister are still alive. Embrace the music and the band." I’ve become friends with Kevin over the years. Not best friends. He’s who he is, the frontman of Broken Social Scene, and I’m just me, but he’s helped me with a few of my stories and, because he produced Man Machine Poem and Secret Path, Downie’s record coming out this fall, I ask him what to make of this situation, what Julie has come to call The Craziest Crazies. "This is a reminder to live a strong life,” he goes on. “For everyone.”
"Grace, Too" is from the band’s 1994 album Day for Night, and it’s the song they played on Saturday Night Live when they could’ve broken through in New York. Back in Hamilton, Downie delivers the last line in tears. The woman next to me lost her brother to cancer. He loved The Tragically Hip. “How did I end up here?” she says, and Downie has his hands over his head. I want to text my wife, but there’s nothing to say. So I don’t.
"Open your eyes, my dear. Open your eyes," Julie tells Jayne on the palliative care floor of St. Mike’s the day after the show. Jayne opens her eyes, just for a second, and when she does, she grabs Julie’s hand and nods. What’s Gord doing this morning? Is his will drawn? How about experimental medicine? Will he travel to Mexico or to Duke? How much of his four kids’ inheritance is he willing to spend? I see what awaits The Tragically Hip frontman: family by his bedside; logistics; hour by hour, trying to stave off cold feet. Days without sunlight, without food, without sleep. People walking in and out. Then a countdown. Palliative care means You Will Not Go Home.
As Jayne’s family cycles through the room, Julie is thinking about Gord, too. She writes him a letter, which we later give Kevin to give to him. Then she goes on Facebook and screams:
"Gord Downie has brought about brain cancer awareness and for that I am thankful. And he is an extraordinary musician. But my sister doesn't get a stadium of love and appreciation. And she should. And she would. Because anyone who ever knew her — as a high-school VP, dedicated mom to 3 boys, Sunday school teacher, world traveller, sci-fi nerd, amazing sister, devoted wife, dutiful daughter or as the kindest, prettiest, most brilliant person you've ever met — knows she was gold. And she deserved so much more."
Jayne dies August 19, Friday morning, and her school hangs its flags at half-mast.
Gord is wearing white sparkles when he opens his show Saturday night in Kingston, looking like the most beautiful man in the world. This is the band’s last show, ever. It’s being aired across the country, at City Hall in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Moncton’s Capitol Theatre, Victoria Park in Charlottetown, the Muskoka Drive-In in Gravenhurst. Justin Trudeau is at the Kingston concert and the Gord Downie Fund for Cancer Research has raised over $1 million. All told, a third of Canada is tuning in, and I’m at the only place in Toronto I can think to be: the dingy Horseshoe Tavern on Queen West.
The Horseshoe, immortalized in their song "Bobcaygeon" ("That night in Toronto / with its checkerboard floors"), is so packed in front of the TV screen that I can feel the cigarettes in the pocket of the guy beside me. Here, fans are younger than the crowds at the shows. We’re 600 deep and thirsty — fathers and sons, hash joints and tears. Kristy Radford is 37 and she’s sitting alone in a windowsill with two Canadian tall cans and her eyes closed, listening to "My Music at Work." "I first saw the Hip with my mom, but my mom couldn’t come tonight — she’s with her friend, reeling from cancer," Radford says. "I told her, ‘Come, bring your friend.’ But she couldn’t. I had to. I didn’t want to be alone."
Dr. James Perry, Downie’s touring physician, said in an interview that the singer facing a death sentence is having the time of his life. Onstage, the show is Johnny Cash at Folsom. Nirvana Unplugged. We get yer favourites — "Nautical Disaster," "Blow at High Dough," "Poets." And Downie, he’s stripped down in a white V-neck and Fuck Cancer pants and finally, after two hours, it’s the end of "Grace, Too," and it comes out pouring: Downie nods, sneers, screams, and leans back into the guitar solo, shouts and wipes a tear but he can’t hold it — weeps of rage.
Kristy Radford gives me a sip of her beer and when The Tragically Hip play "Locked in the Trunk of a Car," she says, "I feel like a teenager again." The music gives all of us a safe place to stand. Michelle Smith is the bartender. She shows me her mastectomy scars. "My sister died yesterday," I tell her, and Michelle, she’s crying, too. "I lost my mom," she says. She’s met Gord and says he’s solid. "I don’t understand why this beautiful man is afflicted."
I wish my wife would walk through the door, but she still can’t listen to the music. I don’t want to be alone and I don’t want to be with people I know and I need some release. Tonight, that's what Gord Downie is here for. We sing along weeping and there's no one to judge you. We pass drinks and joints, and a stranger, this guy in Birkenstocks with long curly hair, sees me with my fists clenched and throws an arm on my shoulder.
I think about Jayne, about Maria, about death, but also about life. That we are alive and Julie, Jayne's widow, me – everyone who has suffered – must go on with the living. And we can. We have to honour our dumb stupid luck that we're still here. I go to the bar an get another Canadian and shout, at Michelle the bartender and at Gord and at no one in particular, "Thank you."