I just finished reading The Never-Ending Present: the Story of Gold Downie and The Tragically Hip by Michael Barclay. What an excellent book. Not only a chronological look at the career of, arguably, Canada’s top rock band ever, this book also, dedicated several chapters to individual topics such as the kinship and camaraderie that existed between The Hip and many other bands in Canada and the U.S., the way certain Hip songs were crafted and came to be as we know them and, if you know the story of Gold Downie, you will not be surprised that there was a chapter dedicated to death. Not the death of Gold Downie per se but more, an examination of how various creative people handled the news of their own impending death. Reading about the final months of Johnny Cash, Prince, David Bowie, Warren Zevon and many more, offered a fascinating look into how mortality can fuel creativity but, also, how it can strengthen the bonds of Love with those closest to you.
We all have a song. A song that we sing as much with our hearts as we do with our mouths and our lungs. A song that, from its opening notes, instantly transports the whole of our being back in time to a transformational memory such as a first kiss, the achieving of a desired life goal or a shared moment with a loved one. Many people will say that The Tragically Hip songs take them back to that, most Canadian, of memories, which is sitting around camp fires, drinking beer and singing Hip songs by a Lake. Whatever the case, we all have a song.
For Keri and I, our song is not a Tragically Hip song. It is a Spirit of the West song called Home for a Rest. When we were planning our wedding, we were asked to make a myriad of decisions: about the date and location of the ceremony, what food would be served for supper, who would play or DJ our reception and so on. Our decisions were no different that those made by thousands of other newlywed couples. Being relatively well-organized individuals, we were fairly good at staying on top of the process of planning our wedding. There was only one thing that caused us any trepidation and that was what song would we choose for our “first dance” and how would we even do that first dance. You see, neither Keri nor I are, what I would dub, good dancers. Even while we were dating, we never really went out dancing because we are more awkward on the dance floor than graceful or cool. So, the thought of a hundred plus people watching us twirling in a circle for five minutes seemed almost unbearable to us. The whole topic became a source of stress and anxiety, as we auditioned several ballads in our living room, wearing a hole in the floor, clumsy as we were, endlessly circling on the same spot, round and round and round again.
Part of the problem for us was that we never wanted our wedding to be all about us. Instead, right from the very beginning of our planning, we wanted our wedding to be a shared experience between us and the ones we loved. So, for example, our idea for supper was never to have a fancy ball room, with slip covered chairs and ice sculptures and a ten-tier high wedding cake. That may be some couple’s dream but, it wasn’t ours. For us, we wanted to share a tasty meal with our family and friends and, oh yes, while we are at, let’s get married, too. The whole thing was always meant to be homey and low-key. Eventually, we solved our “first dance” anxiety by reminding ourselves that we could make this moment a shared moment, too, by inviting our guests to join us in the dance. Once we thought of that idea, we realized that by having everybody moving and grooving along with us, it would mean that they wouldn’t be staring at our sad selves as we spun slowly like a top. We, instantly, relaxed and tasked ourselves with finding a fun, upbeat song. That’s how we came to have Home for a Rest as our first dance song.
When we first told our DJs that Home for a Rest was our choice, they tried to talk us out of it. But, we reassured them that this is what we wanted and that we trusted our friends enough to know that most would join in and that our reception would get off to a flying start. If you don’t know the song, I will play it for you. As you listen to it and watch the video, pay attention to the lead singer, John Mann. At the time that this song was being released, John Mann was regarded as a wonderfully charismatic front man, second only to Gord Downie when it came to having a powerful stage presence. After watching the video, I think that you will agree with that assessment. What a singer! What a band! What a song!
Songs like this are a funny thing, sometime. Their role in the soundtrack of our lives often causes the song to become, somewhat, frozen in time, along with the band. The musicians remain ever young, ever vibrant, ever strong and forceful personalities, always ready at our beck and call, to play to our hearts when our hearts need our song. But musicians, like us, are mortal, too. They are real people. They experience the good and the bad in life, as we all do. It’s just that sometimes we, the audience, forget that our heroes are real. We expect them to be immortal. Thus, when news broke that someone like Gord Downie had cancer, it shook us to our core as a country. This couldn’t be real. Gord and The Hip were supposed to be around forever. And now, just like that, they weren’t. It is over. Gord is gone to walk among the stars, as it were.
As noted above, Gord Downie was not the only famous musician to be stricken by disease and taken from us too soon. Prince, Bowie, Cash……and, John Mann, too. The singer of “our” song, stricken, as well. For most of his career, John Mann and his band, Spirit of the West, existed in the shadow of The Tragically Hip. The parallels between Mann and Downie, The Hip and Spirit of the West, are numerous. Both Mann and Downie commanded every stage they played upon. Both Mann and Downie wrote songs about Canada and toured extensively from Sea to Sea to Sea, playing venues intimate as well as, cavernous. Both bands kept their lineups intact through their careers and fostered a family-like atmosphere during recording sessions, as well as, during tours. Finally, both Mann and Downie railed against the diseases that wracked their bodies by having one, final tour each. During both tours, both men failed, at times, but, both were surrounded by love in the form of band mates who were like family and who helped support their friend when support was needed most.
John Mann survived colorectal cancer in his forties, only to find his brain attacked by early onset Alzheimers as he turned fifty. Alzheimers is a degenerative disease that attacks the brain and is most famous for robbing its victims of their memories, even the memories of being loved by those closest to them. It is a tragic disease and there is no known cure. But, the human brain is a mysterious thing. As much as neurologists are coming to understand the effects of Alzheimers, it is still not fully understood why music seems to be one of the last aspects of recognition to go. In John Mann’s case, the vibrant, powerful, manic stage presence that you saw in the Home for a Rest video disappeared. He became dis-oriented, confused and helpless on stage. He required assistance to know what song was coming next, when he should start singing and what the lyrics were. But, he never lost his voice. John Mann could still sing, right up until his last performance. The clarity and range of his voice stayed with him, even when all else failed him at the end.
As Spirit of the West set out on their final tour, Mann’s bandmates transformed from being his musical equals to being his caretakers on stage and off-stage, too. Their hearts ached because their friend was suffering so greatly but, also, because he was fighting back with so much energy and vigour. He now read the lyrics to his songs from an iPad tablet secured to his microphone stand. He stayed rooted to his spot of the stage, lest he become lost and dis-oriented on the very stages that he pranced around like a whirling dervish. All that used to be was no more. All that remained was that voice and the love of his musical family.
For their closing number during each of their final shows, Spirit of the West, chose to cover an Australian song by a group called Hunters and Collectors, called Throw Your Arms Around Me. This is a lovely song that has been covered by numerous musicians and bands over the years, Now, it became John Mann’s song to sing. The video you will see is of Mann’s final performance on his final tour. The deterioration in his being is incredible but, instead of this being a sad moment captured, it is, actually, wonderfully-beautiful. Take note of how he relies on his bandmates; especially Geoffrey Kelly on flute, to know when to sing and when to stop. As well, note how Kelly watches over Mann as they assemble to take their bows and then, as they leave the stage. They are more than bandmates, they are family and the affection between them all is very real. I am sure that final performance of Throw Your Arms Around Me will become “that song” for many who were there to watch it or to be part of it on stage.
I can remember watching The Tragically Hip’s final show in Victoria Park, here in my hometown of Cobourg, Ontario. There were several hundred of us gathered in front of the bandshell. We watched the three hour concert on an inflatable screen used to air summertime movies for children and their families. There was beer and warm summer breezes. And, during those times that Gord Downie faltered on stage, we threw our arms around him and sang aloud to fill the void, just as his bandmates did on stage in Kingston. Because, after all, that’s what you do when you are family and the music becomes your song.