When we left the Silicon Valley for Sacramento on Friday night, I felt a cold sore forming on my bottom lip. I’ve been getting them my whole life, and I know what happens when I don’t pay attention and put some ointment on it: my lip erupts into a painful, grotesque mockery of healthy skin. I’ve been tending to it all weekend, and it seems to have subsided now, but it cracked a little on Saturday night and I tasted blood.
Across the continent, The Tragically Hip played their final concert. Lead singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. He announced this fact to the country, then went on a nationwide tour to say goodbye. The Hip returned to their hometown, Kingston, Ontario, and blew the roof off an arena on a street named The Tragically Hip Way. The street had another name once, and the arena wasn’t there when they were high school students at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute in the 1980s. On Saturday night, all of Canada welcomed The Hip back home.
I am Canadian, so I watched as I could. I was in a car on Saturday when they took the stage, so I streamed a bit on my cell phone, and caught some of the CBC feed later in a hotel room. My high school self probably wouldn’t believe me if I told him I’d do that someday. My high school self was pretty skeptical. And he didn’t really like The Hip.
By the early 90s, The Hip were on the national stage, college radio darlings with real hits and fans who were certain they’d break into the U.S. market any day now. They were hometown heroes in Kingston, Ontario, and at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute we were reminded by our teachers that they also used to teach The Hip. My high school self, attending Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute a few years after the last Hip left, resisted declaring his allegiance.
I didn’t know who The Hip were until I was at KCVI. A combination of youth and reservation living perhaps accounts for this blind spot. Or maybe Kingston-born kids my age didn’t know who they were either, not until they got to high school and the KCVI teachers let it be known who taught The Hip. Road Apples came out just as I started high school, and high school me never really noticed. He liked doo-wop, Led Zeppelin, and Green Day. Sometimes he liked Blue Rodeo. He watched the video for The Hip’s “Courage” and just got annoyed that it was on all the time. “Wheat Kings” didn’t even enter his consciousness. “Little Bones” was okay.
The Hip were KCVI kids, and that was too close. My high school self and his friends had a terrible basement band, but they weren’t trying to be The Hip. They were trying to be the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or maybe Moxy Fruvous.
My dad, a local lawyer, appeared before Hip guitarist Rob Baker’s dad, a judge, pretty often, and teased that Judge Baker would fall asleep in court, while claiming to only rest his eyes a little. The Hip were too familiar. Our fathers knew each other. You couldn’t aspire to the familiar, could you? I think similar reasoning kept me from going to Queen’s after graduation: it was across the street from KCVI, so it was too familiar. I’m the only one interested in something I didn’t do.
In 1996, after living in Toronto for a year, an American girl asked me to move in with her in California. She could see the future. She had a hundred-year plan, way ahead of me. The Hip had just released Trouble At The Henhouse, but I never heard it. At the same time they were turning directly toward Canada, winning a Juno for Album of the Year and becoming unofficial poet-laureates of the country they were singing about, I was facing the other way, breaking into the U.S. market.
I’ve been an ex-pat Canadian for twenty years. In the early ex-pat years, I began to care fiercely for Canadian things I had barely noticed while I lived there. I started going to minor league hockey games in San Diego California, though I hadn’t really followed hockey at all for most of my life. Knowing which actors were Canadian became a big deal. I formed very strong opinions about good poutine. And I clung to the Canadian music I brought with me.
I had some old tapes, The Arrogant Worms and Moxy Fruvous and Barenaked Ladies and Stan Rogers. The tapes were eventually replaced by CDs, in some cases, and later by MP3s. Blue Rodeo appeared in my collection, and so too did “Little Bones” and “Courage”, by the Tragically Hip. Just those two songs, though. I didn’t know their later stuff, and I didn’t remember their earlier stuff. “Little Bones” and “Courage” were my high school self’s Hip, and The Hip had become just another ornament for displaying my Canadian-ness here. For many years, I have been certain those were the only songs by The Tragically Hip I would recognize at all.
Leaving Canada shortly after high school means in my memory it is a fountain of youth. I was young in Canada, and remembering it makes me feel young. It heals. Being an ex-pat means always having Canadian-ness somewhere below the surface, ready to erupt. If it goes untreated it could explode into a painful, grotesque mockery of healthy cultural pride. Down through the years, music has been a salve. I can hear about Saskatchewan pirates and fields behind plows and things that haven’t yet hit me and things that didn’t come but didn’t matter, and reconnect a little bit not only to my homeland, but also to my youth. It is healing. But now that youth has brain cancer, and he is saying goodbye and on Saturday the salve wasn’t working anymore because it was the hurt.
I didn’t stay in Canada long enough to earn the grief I felt I ought to share in, as a patriotic Canadian, watching The Hip. I missed out on two decades (about five bucks’ worth) of growing together. My own emotional response was more about what I had traded, all those years ago.
You can’t go home again, right? My high school friends scattered all over the world when they graduated. My father is still in Kingston, and I go back to visit, but when I do it is not a trip back to my old house. It’s a new place, in a new community. You can’t go home again. Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute will close for good soon, after 225 years. It no longer exists, except in the memories of those who attended. Sir John A. Macdonald and The Tragically Hip don’t have a high school anymore. Neither do I.
Why did I leave? The girl. The American girl who asked me to join her, and I did. My high school self would not have minded, had I told him that someday he’d be missing that concert. He didn’t really like The Hip, and Canada was losing its grip on him anyway. He chose the girl.
Twenty years later, almost to the day, she was sleeping next to me in a Sacramento hotel room on Saturday night as I watched old videos of The Hip performing song after song. It turns out I did recognize a lot of them; more than just the two I’d always believed were the only ones I knew. Somehow, The Hip had been a sort of background soundtrack even for me before I left to move in with the girl I’d marry. I guess I could join in a little bit with the rest of Canada. But just a little. The Hip aren’t mine to welcome home or bid farewell.
Our kids were asleep in the other room. We had spent the day visiting apple orchards and watching a cousin perform in a play at the community theater. I was a long way from my house, but an arm’s reach from home. Sometimes you can’t go home again because you never leave it.
All of Canada welcomed The Tragically Hip home on Saturday night, and I watched it too. My lip cracked a little, and I tasted blood.