Another Tragically Hip Fan Memory: “An Encounter with Gord”

[With the last show on the Man Machine Poem tour happening tonight, the memories are flowing fast and strong. Here’s an example from Ashley. – AC]

The Tragically Hip. One of my all-time favourite bands. A band that I had casually listened to in Elementary and High School. A band I fell in love with in my University Canadian Studies class; being formally introduced to their song ‘Wheat Kings’ over the loud speakers in our auditorium classroom as our teacher started a lecture on Canadian culture. He encouraged us to listen closely to each lyric, and write down as many Canadian references as we could.

The echoing sound of loon calls brought my pen to paper. Such an iconic sound for so many Canadians. A peaceful and calming summer sound often accompanying the crackle of campfire and the laughs of friends.

Then the lyrics. Prairies. Prime Ministers. CBC. Wheat Kings. It felt like this band was speaking my language. I felt a sense of peace and belonging in their music. Little did our teacher know, he wasn’t just introducing his next lecture, he was also inspiring a new and true Tragically Hip fan.

As time wore on, my love for the band grew. Their music became the soundtrack of my life. Blaring out of car speakers on road trips, or playing softly around those crackling campfires. It blared over intermissions at the rink, and was a constant staple in hockey dressing rooms. Even as I write this, it sounds so cliché. As, it’s common knowledge that The Tragically Hip are Canada’s band and that their music is a constant accompaniment of Canadian pastimes.

I’ve seen the band many times. And have created many great memories around their shows. One memory, in particular, I’d like to share with you….

The Tragically Hip were releasing a new record: Now For Plan A. And I heard they were playing multiple free shows at a small venue in Kensington Market. In order to get in, you had to show up early and wait in line for a wristband. I rushed to the venue, arriving around two hours before the doors were set to open. I nervously stared at the amount of people lined up in front of me. Meticulously counting them, speculating on the venue’s capacity, and wondering if I’d actually make it in.

The line slowly started to move forward, and people shuffled towards the doors with a sense of anxious glee. I was beside myself with fear that I wouldn’t get a wristband. But, sure enough, security slapped one on my wrist and I was in. There was a catch, however. I had to work at 4:00 pm that night in another part of the city.

The show was set to start. The boys entered through the front doors. My excitement was uncontrollable. I wondered how many songs I’d be able to catch before I had to duck out to my job. How close would I get to the stage? Would I hear Nautical Disaster? Or Bobcaygeon? They could have played Happy Birthday and I would have been grinning from ear to ear like an idiot. My anticipation built.

Suddenly, the show was stalled. CBC wanted an interview with Gord Downie, and whisked him away to another room. I watched the clock intently as it ticked past 3:00 pm. And then, without even hearing a single song, I had to leave. Tears started welling up in my eyes as I slowly pulled off the wristband I so anxiously waited for, and stepped back out onto the street. I missed the whole concert. Every single song.

After missing out on The Tragically Hip’s intimate show, I felt an innate need to make up for my thwarted opportunity. When I heard the band was being inducted into the The Edge Rock of Fame, I decided to go to the induction ceremony to show support for the band, and with hopes they might perform a song or two.

It was cold and rainy that day. I questioned more than once, as I was walking to Sugar Beach, if I should have just stayed home. I approached The Edge building and about three dozen people were milling about. (One of which was swigging from a full bottle of red wine.) I felt the same anxious glee as I had in line at the show in Kensington Market. Except this time, I had no where to be but there.

The guys looked laid back as they sat on tall stools facing the crowd; wearing coats to stave off the fall chill. Smiling at the crowd and politely answering questions posed by host “Bookie”. When they cut to commercial breaks, the band, without hesitation, approached the crowd to talk, take pictures, and sign autographs. While I got a chance to interact with many band members (who were extremely generous with their time and very kind), I never got a chance to chat with Gord Downie. As, he was graciously conversing with other fans. Every commercial break, I hoped that he’d move in my direction, but it just never happened.

As the interview and presentation approached its eventual conclusion, I started to feel a sense of panic again. Like when I’d watched the clock tick down on my premature exit from the Kensington show. I had to do something, or say something. I just didn’t want to miss my chance to talk to my favourite singer song-writer. To end up disappointed again.

As the interview wrapped up, a security guard started gesturing for them to head inside. As the band started waving to fans and making their exit, my heart sank. Then I thought of a plan. I had noticed that when Gord was signing autographs, he was using a four colour Bic pen. The same type of pen that I carry everywhere I go. I frantically searched my bag for the pen, pushing aside a sea of receipts and keys and change until I found it. I thrust my pen up and yelled “Hey, Gord!” He turned around suddenly, and saw my four colour Bic. And, without hesitation, started heading in my direction.

The security guard still trying to usher him away from the crowd and into the building. But, he couldn’t be swayed. He strode right over, as I handed over my pen. He stared at it humorously and smiled. I don’t fully remember what I said to Gord in that moment. Something about how cool it was that we carry the same pen. And then I abashedly started talking his ear off about ‘whatever’.

The whole time, Gord was signing the back of the only thing I had available: an Edge 102 bumper sticker. He was taking a while scrawling out his message, and I excitedly waited to read his words.

As I picked up the bumper sticker and read his note, I couldn’t help but smile and feel overwhelmed with gratefulness and gratitude. He had inscribed a tiny and beautiful piece of poetry for me: “Your beauty is superceded only by your choice of pens – Gord.” To have been able to have the opportunity to not only talk to Gord, but also to have gotten such a lovely message from him like that, made my heart swell.

I realized afterwards, as I was leaving Sugar Beach, that he had accidentally taken my pen. It didn’t matter much to me, but it did to him. As I was walking away, admiring my new memento, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the security guard. He handed over my pen, and as I looked back towards The Edge studio, Gord was standing there waving; making sure that my pen was returned safely. I thanked him with a wave, and he smiled back politely.

Despite the fact that the interview had concluded. Despite the insistence of the security guard that he head back inside. Despite the fact that it was cold and rainy and miserable outside. Gord was willing to continue conversing with, and signing autographs for, the crowd. And, to return a piece of missing property to a random, nobody fan. It truly is a testament to his thoughtful and giving character. To the amazing person that he is.

As Gord continues his fight against cancer, he can know that there is a legion of fans all rooting for him. A legion of fans who has been heartened by his kindness in some way. Fans who appreciate his gracious and giving spirit. Who have been moved by his incredible lyrics and voice. Fans who view The Tragically Hip as not just a band, but a Canadian institution. What a legacy he’s built.

Gord Downie, and the Tragically Hip, exemplify everything we value as Canadians. A sense of humbleness. A sense of subdued pride. Kindness and generosity. They tell our stories and share our culture. They reflect back at us everything we appreciate and adore about this country. If ever there was a quintessential Canadian icon and symbol, Downie fits the bill. Just look to him to see what Canada stands for, and what all of humanity should strive to be.

And it’s all on video here.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 30+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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