It’s not often that one walks into a room fully knowing that they are about to witness history, but when I finally walked through the door of the K-Rock Centre on August 20th, 2016 there was no question that the evening would become etched in stone. It was the last stop of The Tragically Hip’s final run, a hometown farewell that capped a front-page headline tour that the whole country would be watching.
(Almost quite literally; about twelve million Canadians tuned in to watch this show live on television, putting this concert in front of more than a third of my countrymen. There were viewing parties across the country. The show was broadcast in bars and pubs and on screens set up in parks from coast-to-coast. This concert unified Canadians like a musical Gold Medal hockey game.)
When the news first broke that Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer my heart sank along with every other heart in the nation, and though I secured tickets to two stops on the tour (Ottawa and night one of a three-night stand in Toronto) I was absolutely determined to be at the final show. Of course the tickets sold out instantly and scalpers were having an absolute field day, so much so that MPP’s started introducing anti-scalping legislation just a few months after this historic evening.
As the date approached I started grovelling – both online and in person – but to no avail. There was no way I was going to support the scalper industry but there was also no way I was missing this show. M’lady and I discussed camping out overnight at the venue’s box office the night before the concert in hopes that there would be a ticket rerelease but we decided that would be very unlikely and we bailed.
And wouldn’t you know it, there actually was a rerelease at 10am on show day, tickets behind the stage had been released en masse and anyone lucky enough to have been walking by could have strolled up to the ticket booth and bought tickets for a mere $70 each. Oops.
It was a mistake not befitting of a self-proclaimed concert guru such as myself and I wasn’t going to take it sitting down. M’lady and I got ourselves to Kingston nice and early, parked at our good friend’s house and hopped the free bus downtown.
Yes, the bus was free. All busses going to and from the downtown core were free all day. The city that had named a downtown street after their local heroes was not taking the final Tragically Hip concert lightly. The square in the middle of the city was party central, with proud fans packed in shoulder-to-shoulder priming to watch the concert live on a jumbo-tron the city had set up for the occasion.
I started my ticket search halfway between the square and the arena, holding my finger in the air and calling out to the constant throng of people that thrust down the cordoned-off street. So many people yelled out ridiculous prices as they walked by, “You can have my ticket for $2,000!” And as ridiculous as it was, that was close to the actual price being asked by the small circle of scalpers that were huddled together kitty-corner across from the venue.
“Have a great time at the show,” was my answer every time. “Have a great time at the show.”
The only other response I would get would be people asking me how much I’d give them for their ticket. “Not enough to make you sell it,” was my answer to that, and I’m sure I was right.
(At one point Prime Minister Trudeau walked by, casually strolling up the middle of the street surrounded by a small pocket of admirers [and bodyguards I suppose]. This was my chance! I thought but alas, young Justin had no extras.)
Though I despise scalpers I also try to come to terms with reality when I can, and while I am loath to overpay for a ticket I have on occasion swallowed my pride and spat up the extra dinero when the circumstances dictated. My one and only Tom Waits show comes to mind, and I have never begrudged the $60 profit the scalper made in that deal. So I had decided I would pay up to $300 for a ticket if I had to, but I wasn’t about to go advertising the fact, not yet anyway.
Soon m’lady and I took our quest to the front of the K-Rock Centre; hopefully someone picking up tickets at will-call would have an extra or two. She sat mutely on the sidelines with her finger in the air while I jumped up and down in the middle of the sidewalk shamelessly begging someone – anyone – to sell me a ticket. I was generating a lot of attention but no offers whatsoever, but I was buoyed by the fact that nobody else was doing what I was doing. Sure, there was a pocket of twenty or so people standing along the sidewalk hoping to get a ticket to the show but you’d never know it if you didn’t ask them. They were literally just standing there hoping someone would walk up and ask if they were interested in buying a ticket.
Sure I was looking for a miracle, but at least I was willing to work hard to make that miracle happen.
Then suddenly m’lady was beside me. “This guy has offered me a ticket,” she said, pointing to a long-haired fellow standing behind her. The ticket was free (speaking of miracles), unfortunately he only had the one extra and she’d have to go in with him now, even though the concert was still almost an hour away.
“Okay,” I said, giving her a big hug. “Have a great time.”
To help cut down on scalping the promotors had sold lots of tickets that were credit card-entry only, meaning the purchaser would have to swipe his credit card to get in to the show, and of course his guest(s) would have to enter with him. We both assumed that was the case with this guy and that was why he insisted they go in together but we later found out that no, the guy had actual physical tickets (from that morning’s rerelease) and not only did he unnecessarily insist they go into the show together, he never did give m’lady her ticket. He simply took her to their seats and left her there without a ticket stub, which basically meant she was trapped and couldn’t leave their section.
Of course I knew nothing of this, outside on the street as I was, and now even more desperate to get into the show.
When suddenly I turned around and spied a young couple standing nearby, looking at me and obviously deep in discussion. “Do you have an extra ticket?!?!” I asked excitedly…this was my first nibble.
“Yes, we do,” the lady said. “How much would you like to pay for it?”
“As little as possible,” I said in complete honesty. They hummed, they hawed, I decided to seize the moment.
“How about this,” I offered. “The ticket cost you $70. I’ll give you $100 and I promise I’ll also make a donation to the Gord Downie Fund.”
It was a deal. They’ll never know it, but I did keep my end of the deal and made a donation the following week. M’lady did the same, donating the value of her ticket, which I thought was pretty cool of her.
And just like that I was inside! The show was only about ten minutes away but I decided on a walkabout anyway, hoping against hope that I would spot m’lady. I walked all the way to the end of the concession area, even ducking down a narrow hallway that I found dead-ended at a small group of seats in section 101.
As I stood there figuring out that I was at the end of the road and would have to turn around to find my own section a guy standing next to me (in fact the only other person in the small hallway) said, “Hey, wasn’t that your wife I brought in?”
I couldn’t believe it. Here was the dude, leaning up against the wall by himself in basically a hidden corner of the arena. “Oh, hey!” I said, astonished. “What are you doing here?”
He cast a long look at a closed door at the end of the hallway, “I’m waiting for somebody.” Okay, that seemed a bit weird.
“Where’s m’lady?” I asked.
“Oh, she’s back in our seats,” he answered. “Let’s go there now and you can sit with her. I’ll take your ticket.”
And we did just that. He took me to her – she was so, so surprised to see me – and it turned out we were just a few dozen feet from where my ticket would have had me sit. The dude did indeed take my ticket, and when I asked for his ticket in return he suddenly got weird(er), and nasty. “Look man, I got your wife in for free, I don’t want to hear nothing about no tickets!” and off he went with all three of our ticket stubs. We never saw him again.
She related her tales: the guy had been following The Hip across the whole country but hadn’t actually gone in for any of the shows until now; he was on some sort of religious quest that involved the band and was, in fact, a pretty freaky dude.
Did I mention that m’lady was really glad to see me?
In no time the lights went down. The crowd in the room screamed a deep scream while the whole country tuned in live on the CBC. Do I even have to mention the rest? We all saw it, we all experienced it in one way or another, the courage of Canada’s latest and possibly greatest hero was on full display even (especially?) as he tried to deflect the spotlight onto both the Prime Minister waving from the rafters and (more significantly) the historical and continued plight of Canada’s First Nations people. Cancer had had little effect on Gord Downie’s fortitude and could eat up neither his strength nor his conviction.
I rocked and raged with reverence, honour, appreciation, and respect. I was constantly mindful of the importance of where I was and the significance of what I was experiencing, and so thankful to be in the room. I was especially thankful that I could reach out and hold m’lady’s hand for songs like Scared, Fiddler’s Green, Wheat Kings, The Last Of The Unplucked Gems, and Bobcaygeon and let go for cathartic rockers like Little Bones, Nautical Disaster, Three Pistols, and Fifty-Mission Cap.
And then after three encores, with kisses, waves, and tears, he was gone. They were all gone, the band lingering just a bit before walking off the stage and into an uncertain future, a future whose only certainty was…well…unspeakable.
When I was home for Thanksgiving later that year my cousin asked me about the show. Like many others who tuned in for the last Hip concert, he wasn’t at all familiar with the band’s music but was curious to see what the hubbub was about. “What’s the deal with that Gord Downie guy?” he asked me. “Can he actually sing? Because all I heard was screaming.”
I explained that The Tragically Hip’s final concert wasn’t a show intended to introduce the band to new listeners. It was an evening specifically for the fans – a gift really – for people that already knew the music and were aware of the significance and relevance of the lyrics and the night as a whole, even (again, especially?) if it was delivered as an angsty scream-therapy session.
And that’s exactly what it was. Scream therapy. Gord was screaming, we were all screaming, and tears flowed from both sides like poetry. It’s not fair that we had to say goodbye to each other, not this early in the game. God, what a shame to have that kind of career and not be given a minute of laurel-resting. To live a life so revered, and with so much work still to come being truncated so suddenly, so unjustly.
It can only be described as tragic.
Rest in blessed peace Wicapi Omani (“Man who walks among the stars”), Gordon Edgar Downie (February 6, 1964 – October 17, 2017). You will forever be cherished and remembered by a country you both loved and elevated.
Postscript: The evening has indeed been etched in stone. A memorial to the concert has been installed in Kingston’s downtown square.
Another postscript: As the weird dude had absconded with both of our tickets, after the show I stood outside loudly asking if anyone would be willing to give me their stub. In no time at all a nice older fellow happily gave me his spent ticket, and by coincidence it was from the same section as my original ticket.