Almost 20 years ago, when I was a student at McGill University in Montreal, one of my sociology professors gave us an assignment to compare a cultural phenomenon from the United States with one from Canada. I chose to compare and contrast The Tragically Hip with – lol, wait for it – Rage Against the Machine.
Forget the sheer absurdity of that for a moment.
This was before the Internet so finding Gord Downie’s lyrics was one thing, but trying to make sense of them was another. The man was a true poet. My naïve 18-year-old brain tried to dissect the meaning behind his words and his verses. Tried to understand the impetus behind his messages and what they said about Canada and its culture. Tried to simplify his words and fit them into the narrative I already had outlined in my mind for the assignment.
But there was no way.
I didn’t get it at all.
I didn’t understand the depth and the true meaning of his words in any way, shape or form. I knew the tunes and I knew the hits but the real impact of his work was far beyond me. I failed that essay on various levels.
Fast-forward 20 years and that assignment would be a breeze today. Partially because of Google and partially because there are so many things you can easily compare and contrast between my home country and the one I now call home. But I still don’t think I would have really understood Gord’s work. I still don’t think I could ever really get how brilliant he was. How he captured an entire country’s aura with song after song. How he told stories and weaved narratives that defined a nation, whether you were a fan or not.
Last summer, we were back in Montreal visiting family and friends and The Tragically Hip’s final concert was being broadcast across the nation in honor of Gord. I stood by watching, hearing the songs that were the soundtrack to so many truly Canadian moments in my life. I saw the tears in my friends’ eyes as they watched Gord put on one final performance for his country. I felt the energy in the room and knew it was igniting all over Canada in similar gatherings that night. And I was so happy to be there to witness it.
When Tom Petty died a few weeks ago, I felt an immense sadness. I couldn’t quite explain it. Yes, I was a fan. Yes, I had just seen him in concert. But it was more than that. His death felt surreal and like a true loss in my heart. I drove by the beach yesterday and one of Tom’s songs came on the radio. The windows were down and the sun was shining and the air was hot and a girl walked by with a hula-hoop slung around her arm and a warm smile on her face and nowhere to be. And I laughed a little, for Tom. Thinking this moment was made for that song. For his memory.
You can compare a lot of things between the United States and Canada. Between here and there. I do it often in my mind and in my everyday consciousness. I tried to do it 20 years ago and failed. But today, I get it. I get it, Gord. I get it, Tom. Beyond the lyrics and their meaning, there is a girl with a hula-hoop and a smile on her face walking by the beach while Free Fallin’ is playing in the background. There is a man in Canada crying this morning while Wheat Kings serenades his lukewarm cup of coffee. And that’s just as meaningful. You can compare us all you want. All you need to. But we’re not all that different in the end, after all. I get it now.