Downie’s diagnosis and the latest album
April 2016. Whether or not The Tragically Hip had been informed of Gord Downie’s diagnosis isn’t certain. What’s certain is that the band’s label sensed, as with previous recent releases, that Man Machine Poem would be a challenging record to market. The label was well aware that there’d been a steady decline in sales over the past few years and that even another gold album would be cause for concern.
Which is why they were getting an early start. On April 22, nearly two months ahead of the album’s release date, the first single “In a World Possessed” was released to mixed but largely positive reviews that accentuated the more daring aspects of the song.
As a whole, the Canadian radio market wouldn’t be overly impressed. The song managed a good-but-not-great No. 22 on the Canadian Alternative chart, but didn’t crack the formal Canadian Singles Chart. This would prove to be the highest position, as follow-up singles “Tired as Fuck” and “What Blue” failed to chart.
In the meantime, behind the scenes, The Tragically Hip were wondering how to handle Downie’s illness and present it to the public. And what would they do about the expected tour to follow the album’s release? Knowing that the news would eventually leak out, the band decided to announce Downie’s cancer in a formal press conference on May 25. As it would turn out, going on tour would be a tougher challenge.
The typical Hip show was a strenuous, physically taxing exercise in normal instances. But in Downie’s present state, there were other issues to consider. The operations and chemotherapy procedures had weakened Downie to the point where it was questioned what kind of performance he was capable of over what could typically turn into a three-hour show.
Memory issues were another concern. Downie had admitted in The Globe and Mail that, as recently as six weeks before the start of any proposed tour, he was having trouble remembering the names of The Hip’s albums and that forgetting lyrics at a critical point in a show was a real possibility.
Neurologist Dr. James Perry would reiterate that Downie had been cleared to perform, that medical contingencies would be in place to avoid exhaustion and that the singer would be closely monitored.
In a band statement released May 25, the group stated, “After some 30 years together as The Tragically Hip, thousands of shows and hundreds of tours, we’ve decided to do another one. This feels like the right thing to do for all of us.” For his part, Downie would acknowledge several times in the coming weeks that he wanted this tour to be a celebration that would take people away from the sadness.
Those looking for the reported “final tour” to be a lengthy one would be disappointed. The announced tour would be a total of 15 shows between July 22 and August 20, 2016. All the shows would be in Canada and would include stops in Victoria, Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary, Winnipeg, London, Toronto, Hamilton and finally, a return to their roots with the last show in Kingston. Other particulars of the tour would be announced along the way. There would be no opening act. And while never completely verified, it was reported that, owing to his memory lapses, Downie would be using a teleprompter.
Suddenly, what had been shaping up as just another Hip album and tour had morphed into an unexpected event for the ages, which meant the band and journalists were working overtime to set the record straight with fans. Man Machine Poem was written and recorded well before Downie’s cancer diagnosis, not after. It’s a bit premature to proclaim this as The Hip’s final tour and album with the band cautiously saying that, owing to Downie’s condition, the band would consider recording and touring again. But at the end of the day, it would all boil down to what the fans felt.
Man Machine Poem was released on June 17, 2016. The album immediately shot to No. 1 on the Canadian Albums Chart and landed at a rather dreary No. 178 on the U.S. chart. Critics seemingly bent over backwards to be even-handed in their assessments but, truth be told, the spectre of Downie’s disease was never far from their thoughts. Reviews were generally positive, with the occasional mediocre or negative review given grudging points for bravery in the wake of the disclosure.
Ticket sale controversy
Tickets for the tour almost immediately went on sale with the announcement of the shows and, as it turned out, would cast a pale on the good cheer. Ticket scalpers and resale agencies swooped in and grabbed up all the tickets, which were instantly put up for resale at outlandish prices, well out of reach of The Tragically Hip’s most loyal and least well-off fans.
Fans complained, and several news reports chronicling the unfair laws on the books, allowing agencies to gouge fans, appeared in the media throughout Canada. Eventually, the bad vibes made their way back to the band, who did their best to alleviate the problem by reconfiguring the shape of their performing stage to free up more seats. Unfortunately, those additional seats were quickly scooped up as well.
An exasperated Rob Baker addressed the controversy with The Toronto Sun. “We’re sad and concerned about the situation. We make every effort to make sure it’s fair but much is beyond our control. We want fans rather than just the connected.”
The first stop: Victoria, B.C.
There was a lot of nervous energy and excitement in The Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre on July 22, the first stop on the Man Machine Poem tour. In the sold-out audience, emotions were running wild as fans screamed out the band’s name, reminisced freely about memories of seeing the band for the first time and, yes, broke into spontaneous tears as they dissected Downie and The Hip’s future.
Backstage, it was reportedly all smiles and nervous anticipation. The Tragically Hip were ready to go. It was their time.
Downie came out to thunderous applause, resplendent in his shiny performing finery. The audience responded to his mere presence as a second coming. He was not a saviour, but on this night, an argument could be made. The band reared up behind him in a fiery rock-and-roll blast and The Tragically Hip was off and running.
The two-hour, 26-song retrospective of their career was wired on true passion, giving new life to songs they hadn’t played in years and offering hard and emotion-filled renditions of newer material. It was one long party, with Downie the ringmaster and whirling dervish, giving no indication that he was a man on borrowed time. In fact, Downie’s current life and death struggles were nowhere to be found in the show, with only a quip of “shit happens” tossed off by the singer at one point as even a hint of his real-life challenges.
At the conclusion of the show, The Tragically Hip stood at centre stage, bowing and smiling broadly as they received the accolades. Downie ended the night quite simply when he said, “Goodbye. We love you. Thank you.”
The Vancouver shows that followed were a conglomeration of the tour’s opening show and new sights and sounds. Stories were once again told. People had come from everywhere to experience the band and to share stories of the importance that The Tragically Hip and their music had played out as signposts and cornerstones in their lives. Families spanning several generations hugged and cried. One audience member, old and grey, danced with abandon, rocking out and singing along.
If the band had any rust in the first show, and yes, there were some timing issues and missed lyrics which would occasionally surface throughout the tour and which would be smoothed over with the help of strategically placed teleprompters, they were quickly forgotten and chalked up to being part of the experience.
The band knew their place in Vancouver, flexing considerable muscle throughout the 30-song set as the perfect backdrop for Downie’s manic, passionate performance. And on those occasions when Downie seemed to temporarily lose his way, they were quick to blast out an impromptu bridge or solo to allow Downie to catch his mental breath.
“It smells like dope in here,” the singer yelled early in the show, escaping into the vibe and the crowd. “It’s almost unsettling.”
As each of the Vancouver shows concluded, the band took their expected group bow. Then the band left the stage, leaving Downie alone to soak up the adulation. “Thank you. Thank you. It means a lot.”
Avoiding media distractions throughout the tour
The band was so intent on making the best of what might well be their last tour that they didn’t want any outside distractions getting in the way, especially when it came to the media. Consequently, the band did no interviews and had very little photo access during the tour.
Some in the press complained, but not really that hard. They kind of understood the sanctity and purity that had developed in the band’s world at this moment. And even if they didn’t, The Hip could care less. They were working hard to make this tour perfect and they weren’t going to let prying eyes get in the way.
The Hip appeared to be hitting their stride during their Edmonton shows. The band provided some truly masterful rock moments in the two-hour plus shows and worked hard at making what could be the last time a truly magical night.
Downie, during the first of the shows, seemed keenly aware and, reportedly, cognizant of how his mortality was playing into the show. When not belting out manic and heartfelt lyrics while owning the stage in an electric, dramatic way, Downie would acknowledge the songs with reverence and good cheer. He’d been emotionally on fire all through the tour, but when it came time to call it a night, there seemed to be an extra edge and no small amount of tears.
“Walk to the horizon! Thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Thank you ladies and gentlemen. Behold! The end! The motorcycle gang member! The son of the chameleon! We’ve had a wonderful night here tonight and every night. Love you.”
Winnipeg brought back some ironic memories. Early in The Hip’s career, the group had a tough time catching on in that neck of the woods and, as Downie reminded the sold-out audience that night, they’d been fired at least half a dozen times. But when the crowd responded to that bit of history in a boisterous, negative manner, the singer played peacemaker when he said, “It’s OK. It’s time to forgive and forget.”
Significant in the tour had been The Hip’s insistence on changing up the set list literally every show. Those hoping for all the hits and favourite album cuts were often met with obscurities and whole albums being excluded from the concert. The Winnipeg show would be no exception and led to one frustrated member of the audience to “tweet” about the worst set list ever. But those isolated complaints were more than compensated for by the pure majesty, the good time rock-and-roll vibe and no small amount of humility coming from the band.
The London show was typified by never-ending good cheer: people meeting old and new friends amid Hip tales of first times and long-distance travels to see the band. Obviously, the band was the main attraction, but the real-life energy made for a more than admirable supporting cast. There was also an unbridled urgency as each song unfolded. This could very well be the last time the band appeared live and people were determined to enjoy and embrace every second of it.
The Toronto shows appeared to reach a creative apex. Good times and good music were the order of the day, and it wasn’t just for the fans. Beginning with the first show, there seemed a solidarity, an unspoken comradery in the way the band members stood close together and played their parts. It was a sign that more than 30 years together had forged a closeness that couldn’t be broken apart. To this point in the tour, the notion of Downie being terminally ill had seemed to vanish from the equation.
But there was a moment during the first show that indicated that reality was still
uppermost in their minds. Downie had just completed a manic bit of business and the band was about to launch into a monster jam. But it appeared that Downie wasn’t finished, as he danced over to where Baker was playing and continued to gyrate and scream out some scat vocals.
Suddenly, Baker reached out and tapped Downie on the shoulder. As it would turn out, it was a signal employed when Downie seemed to forget that part of his regimen was to take intermittent breaks during the show to keep his energy up. Downie got the picture and went offstage as the band continued to rock.
Downie was definitely energized during the second Toronto show. At one point, early in the show during a frantic bit of song and dance, he admonished the crowd to get politically and socially active, especially as it pertained to Canadian First Nations rights. “Let’s get some f*cking courage!” he railed. Moments later, he’d bring down the house when he pretended to urinate on drummer Johnny Fay’s kit.
The show was a musical and emotional rite of passage as hugs, kisses, memories and tears formed a literal rainbow over the stage and the band as The Hip continued the tour policy of playing their hearts out. Like previous nights, the show ended with Downie on the stage, soaking up the adulation and taking his bows. His final words this night were cryptic but no less touching.
“And it just disappears. It just disappears. And that’s OK too.”
By the time The Hip got to Hamilton, one began to wonder if it was the same group of diehard fans that had been following the band from show to show. The emotions and memories seemed the same, as did the laughs and cries.
The show was long and inclusive of just about every album in the band’s catalogue. The performance was alternately joyous and poignant. The notion that this could, indeed, be the last Hip tour was very much in the thoughts of the band and those in the sold-out arena. These would be thoughts that were very much in the air when Downie stood alone at the end of the show.
“It was a lot of fun,” he told the cheering crowd. “That is the main idea. None of it will last much longer than the particular phone you’re shooting it on. And that’s OK. It’ll be the little feelings that will pop up here and there.”
The last show in Kingston
Even before the Man Machine Poem tour started, the vibe was definitely on August 20, 2016’s final show in Kingston. The notion of The Tragically Hip literally and spiritually bringing it all full-circle to where the band began reeked of the best possible nostalgia.
Sure, on a certain level, it seemed so corny and, perhaps, a bit cheesy. But, at the end of the day, it was just so damned right and appropriate and had captured the hopes, dreams, support and dedication of the town that just couldn’t be denied. With the show long since sold out and millions across the country hoping for either another or a first chance at seeing the band, the fairy godmother of Hipdom strategically appeared.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), the prime broadcaster of television and radio content in the country, stepped in with an offer too good to resist. The CBC would simulcast, commercial-free, The Tragically Hip’s Kingston concert to all of its major television and radio outlets under the title The Tragically Hip: A National Celebration.
Subsequently, several live-stream viewings ran, including one in Kingston’s Market Square. The city of Kingston finally made the band’s homecoming official when it voted to declare the day of the concert Tragically Hip Day. A reported 11.7 million people would take advantage of the CBC’s generosity.
Crowds began gathering outside the concert hall hours before the show was scheduled to start. Those with the prized tickets mixed and mingled joyously, with a large dose of sentiment in and around the city proper, talking in highly personal and often tearful terms of how their lives had intersected with the band’s over the years and what the impact of a Canadian band carrying the banner for their country meant to them. Among them was the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who’d been a fan of The Hip since high school and, over the years, had formed a strong bond with the band.
For Trudeau, protocol and influence went out the window on that day. He walked the streets of Kingston in a joyous daze, celebrating with fans and being beseeched by media for his feelings on the day and the band. His responses were true and heartfelt. The man who ran the country was a fan for the day.
Indifferent to the growing crowds, the doors opened two hours early and those with tickets walked happily through, alternately delighted and subdued at what they were about to see and hear. Backstage, the band reportedly was reflecting similar thoughts, making small talk and welcoming well-wishers with hugs, smiling and nervous laughter. And, most certainly, acknowledging, inwardly, that the time had certainly come and that Kingston might really be their “last hurrah.”
A stirring rendition of “O Canada,” sung by thousands of fans, welcomed the band to the stage. Then it was on to the last hurrah, a two-hour plus set of nearly 30 songs that, collectively, had meant so much to so many. One didn’t have to stretch to realize that The Hip were trying extra hard for the hometown folks. The band kicked each tune into overdrive with monstrous riffs and runs—just that little bit extra that translated into so much more.
Downie was on fire throughout. His interpretation of songs he’d sung countless times were reaching that much higher, as he was wringing every possible bit of emotion, drama and sentimentality out of them. His demeanour on stage was loose but nonetheless passionate. Downie knew the score. He wasn’t going to give what could be his last shot anything but everything he could muster.
Final words from Downie
Downie stood centre stage, alone, for what may well have been the final time. There were tears in his eyes. “Thank you for a great tour and a great show. I enjoyed the hell out of it. Thank you for keeping me pushing. Thank you for listening, everybody. Thank you for listening, period…
…”Have a nice life.”