Along with millions of other Canadians, last night I watched the last concert of The Tragically Hip, broadcast on CBC-TV in its 30-song setlist entirety. I’ve never been a fan of the group, but there I was anyway, because lead singer Gord Downie has terminal brain cancer. That was our last chance to see and hear him.
Final tours have a dubious history. Sir Harry Lauder, the Scottish music hall singer, said in 1926: “I have come to that time of life when home is good enough for me, and I will not tour again.” Of course, he did. His final North American tour was in 1932, and his final, final retirement in 1935, yet he carried on, entertaining the troops during the Second World War.
Glen Campbell, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, also did a final tour that can be seen in the compelling 2014 documentary “I’ll Be Me.” As with Downie, Campbell used a TelePrompTer so he could sing the lyrics that he’d written himself. The film spares nothing, including Campbell’s angry outbursts at his own family during those farewell days.
There was none of that with Downie, the concert was full of frolic and music, if not glad tidings. But why do we as a people love to gather round someone else’s last flickering embers? I’d like to think it’s a celebration of that individual’s life and contribution. But I fear it’s more about each of us as individuals, terrified of our own mortality. He’s dying and we’re not.