The Tragically Hip say goodbye tonight

Why so many Canadians will tune in for the band's final show, televised live on CBC
The Tragically Hip The final show of The Tragically Hip's Man Machine Poem tour will be televised nationally across Canada on CBC. (© Paul Mckinnon |

Quick quiz: Who is the biggest musical artist from Canada? The Weeknd? Justin Bieber? Drake? Big names, no doubt. But it's hard to imagine any of them getting a national send-off at the end of their careers quite like what another Canadian act is receiving tonight.

The Tragically Hip.

When the CBC broadcasts the group's final concert this evening, live from their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, people are estimating that the number of Canadians watching could rival that of a gold medal Olympic hockey game. There are over 200 confirmed viewing parties across the country, many of them in theatres, cinemas, and public parks that can each hold over 1,000 people. That's a lot of interested people, people. And then there are the magazines and news shows and websites (even this one!) who have been spending weeks discussing the band and this tour.

If you're someone who didn't grow up in the glow of The Hip's prime years (somewhere between 1989 and 1998), it's easy to be a little mystified at all of this attention. Why this band?

How we say goodbye

To begin, there is little avoiding this fact: Back in May, the band announced that lead singer Gord Downie has terminal (or untreatable) brain cancer. Sadly, he is not likely to be alive for too much longer. Even though the band hasn't said so exactly, everyone is treating this summer tour as The Hip's, and Downie's, public goodbye. In a situation like this, celebrating the life and art of a performer is reason enough for many people to come together. And like all popular rock bands on a farewell tour, there is a sense of "it's now or never" about the whole thing.

But even so, most retiring rock bands don't get their final show broadcast live on TV. It takes a special artist to capture an entire country's attention like this.

For many, Gord Downie is that special artist.

The national poet

For years, people have tried to explain the popularity of Downie and his band in Canada, especially since they were never very successful outside the country. Why has he stood out? He has always been an amazing performer to watch. The Tragically Hip's live shows were full of "What's he going to do next?" moments as Downie playfully improvised words. Sometimes he told whole stories in the middle of a song (one of their most famous tunes, 1994's "Nautical Disaster", started off as one of those magical made-up moments on stage).

But probably the simplest explanation is this: Gord Downie is a gifted poet who eagerly wrote and sang about Canadian culture. For a lot of Canadians, he was the person who introduced them to all kinds of facts and trivia about their homeland. He sang about hockey players, authors and painters, explorers and innocent men wrongfully sent to prison. He sang about the prairies and small towns, lakes and big cities.

Above all, he did it in a way that was both mysterious and direct. It was more than just a history lesson. Gord Downie would reveal something to his listeners, while giving them something even deeper to wonder about at the same time. Which is what a good poet should do.

People like that are rare. That's why so many Canadians (maybe you're one of them) will make sure that they're watching when Downie and The Tragically Hip take one last bow in the town where they first started playing together, 32 years ago in 1984.

Because he's still here. And they want to make sure he knows that they'll miss him.

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