Canada has lost one of its greatest artists — a person who consolidated us, who pushed us, who excited us, who taught us and who inspired us.
We have known for more than a year that Gord Downie was going to leave us soon. But the news of his death today doesn’t soften the blow.
Downie and the Tragically Hip played their last gig in the summer of 2016. The band’s farewell tour came shortly after Downie announced he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. Shows from those exhilarating and emotional performances on the farewell tour were turned into a documentary, Long Time Running, and the last show was televised live across the country.
Downie’s death is a chance to re-examine the lyrics of the Hip’s songs. Good poetry is explosive. It makes us reconsider what we thought we knew, and in some instances it urges us to start again with a different, usually broader, viewpoint. Good songs — as Bob Dylan’s Nobel Laureate reminds us — have a similar impact.
I watched the final show on the big screen in Kingston’s Market Square. I wanted the Hip to play several songs, but none more so than “Ahead by a Century.” It is, I think, their greatest hit, and it was wonderful to hear them perform it as the last song of the show.
Why was it such a fitting way to finish? What about it is explosive? What does it mean to be “ahead by a century?” The song is so rich that there are a variety of good interpretations, but here is one way of thinking about it.
At its most basic level, “Ahead by a Century” is a song with a broad sweep, as it weaves together past, present and future. It is about time, memory, loss, disappointment and desire. But it is also about Canada’s identity and the politics of hope. It is a song in which the Hip asks us to shed what holds us back, and to imagine a future that sets us free.
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