Skip to main content

That Night in Toronto

/By / Aug 23, 2016

On August 10th I saw my favourite band probably for the last time. I spent that afternoon going down a Gord Downie wormhole. It started with a link to an interview that Strombo had tweeted. Then another one. Then, already at YouTube, I came upon Gord on Q and, though finding it difficult initially to stomach Jian Ghomeshi, I watched that for an hour. Gord was different in each interview. In one, he wore a bowler and spectacles and came across like a country gentleman. In another he seemed somewhat downcast and a little fidgety. A little dark. On Q he was thoughtful, calm, and serene. He described the feeling of being a different man at various times of his life. Of his first solo album, Coke Machine Glow, he said somewhat wistfully, “I don’t know who that guy is. I don’t know that man.” In all of these interviews, Gord was funny, humble, charming, self-effacing, poetic, and inescapably Canadian.

He talked about being nervous before every show. He talked about how that feeling starts the morning he wakes up on a show day and doesn’t leave until he hits the stage. He talked about the pain and shame and self-immolation he lives with for days after a show if he feels like he’s blown it, if he sang flat, if he screwed up lyrics or wasn’t committed to every moment. This surprised me. I’ve never really thought of Gord as human but rather like some supercharged, electrifying poet shaman. I’ve been under his spell too many times to count.

When asked about his signature improvised rants, he said that mostly they came out of “not knowing what to do with my hands while the band would jam in D.” Who among us who has performed on stage or screen doesn’t know that feeling?!! “What the fuck am I doing with my hands?” When the rants became a thing, an expectation from the audience, he felt the need to find something else. “Nobody wants to be the last one to turn out the lights on a shopworn idea.” It was revelatory to hear him talk about his craft, as his electrifying stage presence always seemed to me to come from a very spontaneous place. In fact, his signature dance moves came very purposefully out of a desire to find another way to express himself as an artist, and mostly another way not to think about what he was doing with his hands. I noticed when he was talking to Strombo that he had a BIC pen in his hand. One of those multicoloured ones where you click on it for the colour you want. In his other hand, his trademark handkerchief. Something to do with his hands while George interviewed him, no doubt.

I remembered seeing those things in his hands when I met him. Sat next to him. Heart pounding. Watching every inch of him but trying not to be seen. I have a terrible memory for events and details but I can tell you on the day I met Gord Downie he wore cutoff jean shorts, work boots, and a black tank top. His trademark handkerchief was blue. He had a little notebook with him. Man, does he write songs and poems in that thing??!! It’s right there! Would he notice if I snatched it for a quick perusal?

I’ve met a number of pretty famous people over the years and have never really been starstruck. Not so with Gord. Maybe it’s because my relationship to him (not WITH, but TO) has been so intimate for so long that actually meeting him just freaked me out. I was doing a reading of a screenplay that Rick Roberts wrote. We all assembled at Fiona Reid’s condo. I knew Gord was coming and, barely paying lip service to whatever small talk occupied my mouth, I was mostly focused on the door, awaiting his arrival. The door opened and he came in. Sweaty, bike helmet in hand. (He rides a bike! He’s just like us!) He was taller than I expected. And he was just plain… chill. I was desperate to not seem like an idiot.

I had acquired over the previous couple of years, by pure coincidence (unless you believe in the law of attraction), a number of people in common with Gord. A cousin of mine had married The Hip’s publisher. A woman who worked on their management team moved next door to me. And my friend and agent Pam Winter started representing Gord as an actor. Surely all of this meant that eventually we would be great pals. I feel like when I met him I stammered out some of these relationships to forge a connection, but to be honest I have no clue what I said. I was simply fucking starstruck. He was just in his body. That long, lean calm intensity. On the inside he was probably terrified. He was looking to do more acting and was in a room of seasoned pros. He was far and away the most famous person there, but he was pushing himself out of his comfort zone. I admired that tremendously. I actually got to sit next to him and act with him. I have no recollection of what my part was (sorry Rick) but I remember Gord. He was bold, specific, original, and hilarious.

So. I don’t know what I said when I met him, but I know what I didn’t say. I didn’t express my gratitude for the music and the poetry. I should have said, “Gord, your music has meant so much to me for so long and I just want to say that I’m grateful for having it in my life. So… Thanks.”

Tragically Hip

photo by Ari Cohen

In early August, along with twenty thousand other people, I got that chance.

Behind me in the will-call line was a guy who’d seen The Hip sixty-eight times. He’d followed them around the world and wrote a book about it. I only caught his first name—Josh—because right after he walked up, Atom Egoyan joined the line with his son. Josh immediately introduced himself and said he was a fan. I, on the other hand, just stood there. I’d never met Atom and instead of jumping in and introducing myself to both of them, I just sort of eavesdropped and occasionally interjected. Part of my actor brain was screaming at me to schmooze with Atom, to mention all the people we knew in common, but it felt like we were about to participate in something sacred and I didn’t want to fart in church. Somehow I had the wisdom and restraint to simply participate in that moment, as an anonymous Hip fan.

Atom told the story of using “Courage” in The Sweet Hereafter. I don’t recall this sequence but I gathered Sarah Polley sang a cover version of it. Atom said it was kind of the centrepiece of the movie and how only after shooting the entire sequence did he learn that he couldn’t use a cover version of the song, only the original. It almost ended in disaster but in the end, he was able to persuade the publishers to let Sarah’s cover version remain in the film. Courage. Probably the song that’s been referenced most on this tour.

We went our separate ways to retrieve our tickets, which had been extremely hard to come by. I had been able to secure two for the opening Toronto date through a personal connection. We had gotten there with plenty of time to spare, but the will call line was bedlam and when I arrived at the window, my tickets weren’t there. Horrifying. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, they found them, printed them, and we made it into the venue. My date, Ron Jenkins, braved the enormous merchandise line while I sprinted to my seat, arriving with only a moment to spare. A moment for reflection.

Tragically Hip

photo by Ari Cohen

I was nervous for Gord. The way I’ve been in the past watching a close friend or a partner or a child of mine perform. I wanted desperately for him to be great. Not for me (well, maybe a little) but for him. I know that he is a consummate professional and that he had some trouble on the tour with lines. There are teleprompters all over the stage.

If you’ve been living under a rock, this tour was somewhat hastily thrown together after Gord was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer in December. I was pretty shattered by this news. The first line of The Hip’s new album, Man Machine Poem, is, “I’m a man. I do what I can.” Not a superhero after all. Just a man. As vulnerable and frail as the rest of us.

Lights go down. Crowd goes wild. Gord comes out dressed like a badass tin man Liberace. Shiny silver suit, black boots, purple fedora with a peacock feather. He was luminous.

He seemed a little shaky to me out of the gates. A little worn and drawn. Not quite inside of it. Moved a little slowly. Somewhat dazed. In very fine voice, but a little less confident. I thought maybe he was nervous. He seemed to lean heavily on the teleprompters for songs he’s been singing for years. Still and all, he was electrifying. Of course he was. But he was not himself, clearly. There were quite a few breaks between songs and I wondered if perhaps Gord was unsure of where he was some of the time.

I hate writing this.

Maybe I’m dead wrong.

Maybe I’m using the name of Gord in vain.

It WAS a great show. There were lots of rewards for diehard fans. But some hard moments too. “At The Hundredth Meridian” goes: “I remember Buffalo and I remember Tokyo, it would seem to me, I remember every single fucking thing I know.” Gord switched the names of the cities and then sang a mashup of Buffalo and Tokyo. There were a few of these moments and I got a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach with each one.

He had told Strombo the story of the night they played Saturday Night Live, where they were performing “Grace, Too.” Gord had promised his nephew he would make the peace sign to say happy eleventh birthday when the camera first came on him. Dan Aykroyd, a fellow Kingston native, introduces them: “The Tragically Hip!” Gord, so focused on giving his nephew the happy birthday sign, echoes Ackroyd and sings the wrong lyric: instead of “He said I’m fabulously rich…” he sang, “He said I’m Tragically Hip.” He recounted in the interview how in that moment he’d been totally lost and couldn’t remember the next line, because the first line started the story. The narrative. He is, after all a storyteller. It’s a totally imperceptible glitch when you watch the clip on TV.

This arena has giant screens and sometimes you see Gord in close up.

Tragically Hip

photo by Ari Cohen

On Q, Gord talked a bit about acting. He said, “You know acting is… it’s lifting the four-hundred-pound feather, right? It’s a feather, how heavy can it beeeeeheee,” he grunts. “And then the close up is even heavier so it’s… acting very tough.” A brilliant observation about acting: lifting a four-hundred-pound feather. I love that image. I thought about that as I watched him in close up on the monitor. Had there been no giant monitor, maybe I wouldn’t have had these feelings. But we’d also miss much of that wicked mischievousness, crucial to his performance palate. And I was grateful for those moments. Nowhere to hide, for better or worse. But some of the time I just felt so fucking sad. A reluctant witness. He just looked not quite there to me. A little lost.

This isn’t nerves. Or it certainly isn’t just nerves. This is different. This is brain cancer. I lost my sister last year to breast cancer that had metastasized over fourteen years, and eventually she had brain tumours and, in the end, full blown dementia. If Gord has even one iota of that, how the fuck is he is he doing this at all…?!!!

Gord is coy, mischievous. Within his total commitment to a moment is contained a kind of ironic self-effacement of that same commitment. In one moment he’s just kicking the shit out of a phrase, bending the walls of a lyric, screaming his head off into the mic. Then, a wink and smile. A dismissive shrug. A way of saying, I mean everything I say but don’t take it too seriously, I’m dressed like Liberace, for fuck’s sake. He was slower. But never inauthentic. At one point he sort of staggered to the microphone, slowly, hunched over. It was a remarkable moment. He knows this audience. He knows we’re all wondering how he’s doing. In front of twenty thousand people he’s just playing from where he is. In this moment. Or… he’s toying with us. The consummate showman. I suspect some of the time he was just simply faking it to get through. But that’s part of it. That’s part of what we do.

There were moments of transcendence. Many of them. His voice was so strong and clear. Nuanced and just blazing with passion. A killer version of “Gift Shop,” much of it sung up the octave like a gospel singer rattling the church rafters. In “Bobcaygeon”: “That Night in Toronto”!!! Crowd goes wild. We are here. In this moment. And of course so many lyrics took on much greater significance: “Til the men they couldn’t hang stepped to the mic and sang and their voices rang with an Aryan twang….” Gord held the last note and spun it around, up and down hitting notes I’ve never heard him hit on that lyric. In “Hard Done By,” one of my all-time favourites and a real reward for diehard fans: “One day you’ll just up and quit and that’ll be it, just then the stripper stopped on a coughing fit, saying ‘I’m sorry, I can’t go on with this.’” Gord allowing us all to see perhaps his awareness that the end is near? Sharing that understanding with us? A crushing version of “At the Hundredth Meridian,” with Gord bellowing a cappella: “lower me slowly and sadly and properly, GET RY COODER TO SING MY EULOGY!!!”

I bumped into actor and director Steve McCarthy right after the show. Steve is a fantastic musician in his own right—frontman of the Elastocitizens—as well as a talented actor and director. That night, he was like a wide-eyed schoolboy. Steve had stood in line for ages trying to get in and was finally able to snag a ticket forty-five minutes after the show had started. He told me he would have happily paid full price just for the encore. Just to be there. Just to see Gord, very likely for the last time. Above all to be able to thank him.

Tragically Hip

photo by Ari Cohen

That’s exactly how I had felt. And I screamed, sang, danced, cried. Even bought the T-shirt. Before the first encore, the band left the stage and Gord took solo curtain calls. I guarantee you that has never happened In The Hip’s thirty-year career. I wouldn’t presume that Gord is egoless or is a reluctant frontman, but I can guarantee you he thinks of himself as part of the band. No more vital than any of its other parts. He’s one of the boys, no doubt. In all three interviews, he talked about those relationships. His friendships with the band. I thought about my own boys. How my pal Tim McCarthy astonished me by knowing all the words to Hundredth Meridian (and every other song) when we saw The Hip together in Edmonton twenty years ago. I thought about Michael Healey, whose Hip obsession fuelled my own, years ago. And I thought about how grateful I was to share this moment with my “brother” Ron.

Gord said to Strombo that each night is special. Each show is special because never again will these exact people be gathered in this room. His solo curtain call was for us. Not for him. This was our chance. It wasn’t about Gord basking alone in the spotlight. It was for us. To say goodbye? Perhaps. I was grateful to be dancing to the groove of my favourite band perhaps for the last time, to be “screaming from the rooftop” along with Gord to those lyrics that have meant so much to me for so long. Those lyrics that made movies in my head. I was grateful to chant “Gordie, Gordie, Gordie” along with the rest of those twenty thousand. All of us linked together.

So… Thank you Gord. Thank you for your poetry. For giving all of yourself every night for us. For your giant heart. Your Courage.

Grace, Too, indeed.

Ari Cohen

Ari Cohen

Ari is an actor. He’s from Winnipeg. He can spend vast amounts of time in a rocking chair staring out the window. He likes lobster. He has the shortest attention span of anyone he..... Hey! Cows!



Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

iPhoto caption: Rose Napoli appears as Margaret in her play Mad Madge. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

What is a feminist rom-com?

Rose Napoli reflects on Mad Madge, rom-coms, and the undeniable power of Patrick Swayze.

By Rose Napoli
iPhoto caption: Image by Haley Sarfeld.

Every play is fantastic: A small-city theatre critic’s manifesto

My top priority as a critic will be to furnish every marketing team with as many easily quotable compliments as possible. I'll do this dutifully and without ambivalence.

By Haley Sarfeld

Invisibility cloaks, cardboard rockets, and flying orbs of light: Here’s how Canadian theatre uses the art of magic

In many ways, theatre artists and magicians have the same job. We push the bounds of a live experience to startle audiences into confronting their realities. We aim to tell stories that linger. For a magician, there’s no such thing as “it can’t be done.” It can always be done, one way or another.

By Michael Kras
iPhoto caption: Urjo Kareda was an Estonian-born Canadian theatre and music critic, dramaturg, and stage director. He died in 2001.

Urjo Kareda was metal as hell 

A sign outside Urjo Kareda's office read, "no whining." A framed letter inside said "Fuck you, Mr. Kareda."

By Ivana Shein

The good and the bad (and everything in between)

If we’re not building a theatre that can hold the contradictions of our time, let alone the contradictions that make humans human, we probably shouldn’t be making theatre.

By Cole Lewis, , Patrick Blenkarn

An open letter to lighting designers

At a time when theatres are struggling to get their pre-pandemic audiences back, it’s shocking that strobe lights are still featured in many productions. They might seem like a splashy yet innocuous design choice, but they are at best a barrier for potential audience members — and, at worst, they have painful consequences.

By Hannah Foulger