It has been said that in Western culture, death is the last remaining taboo. In a society that openly discusses sex, politics, and religion— topics that were once avoided at the dinner table at all costs— death and dying have somehow managed to remain untouchable, cringeworthy, and often completely ignored topics. Those who are comfortable talking about death are usual labelled “dark”, “morbid”, and “weird.” Needless to say, we in North America are not fans of admitting our own mortality, and the inevitability of each and every one of us meeting our life’s end. But is this general cultural aversion to death something that should be accepted? And if not, how can the space for dialogue be created? Though these questions are complex, perhaps they can be answered, in part, by looking at one of this summer’s most sensational events: The Tragically Hip’s Man Machine Poem Tour.
In a society that openly discusses sex, politics, and religion… why can’t we discuss death and dying?
The Tragically Hip (or, as they are fondly called, The Hip) is a Canadian rock band from the small city of Kingston, Ontario. First formed in 1984, The Hip have since released a whopping fourteen studio albums— nine of which reached Number 1 on Canadian charts. This five piece rock group— consisting of Gord Downie on vocals, Paul Langois and Rob Baker on guitar, Gord Sinclair on bass, and Johnny Fay on drums— never managed to reach a serious level of fame outside of Canada, in spite of becoming a homegrown favourite amongst Canadians (though they did play SNL once). Throughout The Hip’s multi-decade musical career, they won numerous Canadian music awards, including fourteen Juno Awards.
As a well-loved band among Canadians, the announcement on May 24, 2016 of lead singer, Gord Downie’s, terminal brain cancer diagnosis came as a shock to fans. At the age of 52, Downie’s glioblastoma, discovered in the winter of 2015, was immediately diagnosed as aggressive and incurable. Canadians everywhere were devastated by the news, and an onslaught of public demonstrations of support and solidarity poured in. If The Hip’s place in the hearts of Canadians wasn’t apparent before, it was made clear with Downie’s diagnosis.
The audience said goodbye to a musician who is, in a sense, dead and alive all at once.
What might have quickly receded into the background of the public imagination was made monumental with the announcement that The Hip would go on tour following the release of their last studio album, Man Machine Poem, on June 17, 2016. The Hip were to tour their home country, giving them one last opportunity as a band to commune with their fans through their music. The tour was comprised of a total of 15 shows, starting in Victoria, B.C. and ending in Kingston, Ontario. The final show was broadcast live by the CBC for free, with 11.7 million Canadians tuning in (that meant 1 in 3 Canadians watched the show!). The tour itself only seemed to build momentum after every stop, spreading the hype across Canada like a wildfire. The Hip were all that anyone seemed to be able to talk about for weeks. Suddenly, loving The Hip became a trademark of being a Canadian, and following their final tour was synonymous with national duty. Even Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, attended their final show in Kingston, declaring that The Hip are, “an essential part of who [Canadians] are.”
Tickets for the tour sold out almost immediately after the announcement of Gord’s diagnosis. Though The Hip were careful to avoid language of farewell in their online announcement of the tour, many felt the reason behind the tour was so obvious that it needed no explanation: Gord is dying, and The Hip were touring to say goodbye. This sentiment was solidified each set, as they culminated with a few minutes of Gord standing alone onstage waving goodbye to the crowd, offering a uniquely intimate moment for the audience to say goodbye to the musician who they know they will lose so soon; a musician who is, in a sense, dead and alive all at once.
It was a tour made up of 15 wakes, where the dead was actually able to celebrate with the living.
But what does this whole fanfare say to us? About death? Life? Or, more specifically, living with the certainty of death? The Man Machine Poem tour was much more than a tour of musical performances: it was a tour made up of 15 wakes, where the dead was actually able to celebrate with the living. The mourners and the mourned are brought together in a unique celebration, forcing the living to face the dead. What makes this so remarkable is that it seems that such an event could hardly have occurred if the circumstances hadn’t been just as they were. It took a national hero, and the communal power of music to break down the social disposition of fearing death just enough to acknowledge it. More than acknowledge it even: to look at death directly, acknowledge its presence, and to celebrate life right in its face.
If there is a lesson to be learned from The Hip’s final tour, and from Gord Downie’s admirable demonstration of his own strength and will, perhaps it is that there is nothing to fear in admitting our own mortality. Let’s not let this lesson fade away in the public memory (as so many important lessons often do in today’s age of constant entertainment and distraction), as it is perhaps one of the only lessons that truly applies to each and every one of us— whether we want it to, or not.
Cover photo: Scott Alexander / WikiCommons