Thirty-six years ago I watched Terry Fox run by me near Hamilton, Ontario. I was nine-years old. Both that moment and Terry’s tenacity–a man running across Canada with an amputated leg to raise money for cancer research–had a profound impact on my life. Rarely does a week go by when I don’t think about Terry. Indeed his gift is forever green.
I flew from Victoria to Edmonton the other day–with my 13 year-old daughter–to catch another live show of The Tragically Hip’s Man Machine Poem tour. Four concerts in, I’m noticing a pattern.
Canada has itself another “Marathon of Hope.”
The “Marathon of Hope” was the title given to Terry Fox’s quest back in 1980. He did so not for himself, but for others. Of course, running on one leg across Canada is no easy feat. Were it not for a recurrence of cancer, our national hero would have dipped his prosthetic leg into the Pacific Ocean at some point later that year and reached his goal.
But he didn’t. Terry passed away on June 28th, 1981, one month shy of his twenty-third birthday due to cancer. His selflessness was incredible. His determination unbridled.
Gord Downie isn’t quite running marathon a day, but I feel like I’m that 9 year-old boy again watching another hero traverse across Canada. I’m in awe. I’m flabbergasted that he’s doing it in the first place. Performing a concert, to thousands, every other night across Canada for a month, cannot be easy. Downie has terminal brain cancer. Let that sink in for a second.
Courage? Of course. But the fact he has gone public about the disease and decided to travel across Canada to sing and dance on stage with his four band mates is incomprehensible. He could have turtled. Cocooned. But he came out swinging.
I’m four shows into this tour. I am noticing something rather unique with Downie’s stage presence.
Acceptance, transparency and love.
These are the traits I have picked up on with Downie’s new “marathon of hope.”
The tour started in Victoria. Nervous tension was evident early on during the show. It was throughout the audience as well. Perhaps due to the shiny metallic suits he adorned, Downie loosened up and began to reflect. When introducing “At The Lonely End Of The Rink,” a song about being a hockey goalie as a youngster and how his father would sit near him during games, Downie said, “This one’s for my dad. He’s gone. Shit happens.” It might have been his first step during this tour of publicly accepting his own eventual fate.
By the Vancouver shows, during certain songs and specific lyrics, Downie began physically pointing to himself as if to say, “I know, I know, I’m the guy holding the elephant in the room. But let’s just get on with things and have a good time tonight.” The song, “Tired as Fuck,” was a classic demonstration of Downie literally pointing out his current state, in a self-deprecating manner.
But if acceptance is one characteristic Downie is demonstrating in his “marathon of hope,” so too is transparency.
If you have ever been to a Tragically Hip concert you will know Downie slips into an alter ego on stage. Through 30+ years of performing, his stage presence is not only legendary, it’s downright mythical. Rants, poetry and lyrical quips were always the norm. If there was one thing he seemed to hate, it was a straight answer to a song’s origination or intent. That is, no song was introduced in simple terms. He’d either make something up or introduce the song in a way that required a doctorate in philosophy to understand.
On this what may be the last tour of the band, Downie has become far more transparent. During the second Vancouver show, he introduced the song “Toronto #4” with, “Here’s one for my grandmother. She ain’t around no more.” The song was a musical eulogy of sorts released back in 2000.
“This is for my sister, Charlotte,” was how the 1991 song “Fiddler’s Green” got introduced, a tune written by Downie for his sister’s son (and his nephew) who died suddenly at the age of five.
I’ve been to well over 100 concerts since 1991, and never have I seen Downie so transparent. It truly is touching.
The final trend I am noticing during the first four shows is love. It began on the first night in Victoria. Toward the end of the show, at the conclusion of an encore, Downie went to each of his four friends in The Hip and kissed them. It was beautiful. It was a truly loving gesture. Sitting in the audience with my wife, I lost it. Tears streaming down my face.
The same happened in both Vancouver shows. Heart wrenching.
During “Grace, Too,” on the first Vancouver night, there were a few seconds during the song when Downie’s own heart melted. It was a moment with the audience when he looked at the crowd as if to say, “I hear you, I get it, I’m sorry, and I love you.” He bathed in that moment, then quickly dried off and returned to pantomiming a golf swing.
In Edmonton, his love for the audience continued. Tears now streaming down his own face, at the end of the night he said: “Thanks for coming to our first show, all of you. This has been our first show. We arrive alive. You take care of each other. Right? Right?”
I was on the floor with my daughter, 5th row in seats 1 and 2. I looked to my left and there were two medical attendants, male and female, standing against a wall. Both of them, uncontrollably teary-eyed.
Naturally, so was I.
Downie didn’t have to tour across Canada. He didn’t have to raise awareness for glioblastoma, the rare form of brain cancer he has been saddled with. But like Terry Fox, he is out there, singing and dancing a new “marathon of hope” across this country he so dearly loves. Not out of selfishness, but selflessness.
Full of acceptance, transparency, love … and grace, too.
PS. Here is Gord at the end of the first Edmonton show.
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