I'm 17 years old
I've graduated from high school and I'm getting ready to start college. Music holds a spot in my life that's second only to sports. I spend hours listening to WEDG in Buffalo and CFNY in Toronto. So much angsty guitar. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was searching for a band that I could call my own, one that I didn't listen to because my friends did.
One song kept creeping onto the radio that summer, one that sounded like nothing I'd heard before but felt instantly familiar and right.
The Tragically Hip.
Before I left for college, the liner notes of my copy of Day For Night were already well worn. I had found my band.
"I drove saw you grieve and grow and care a lot about one another ..."
I'm 20 years old.
I'm about to enter my senior year in college. It's a time of life when you define yourself by the music you love, and I am defined by being a Hip fan. I'm all in. I take an impromptu overnight bus trip to New York City to see them play in a club. I start trading bootlegs through the mail, because that's what we did in the late 1990s.
The band's album Phantom Power is out, and it's my everything. It's my constant. And the song "Emperor Penguin" becomes the soundtrack for that summer. One of my lasting memories of that summer is sitting on my parents' pool deck after dark, a can of Guinness next to me, that song quietly playing on a portable CD player, the soaring outro filling me with excitement and enthusiasm and hope and optimism for everything that lay ahead.
"Don't sound so detached, this is you and me, just give me your opinion, before you turn to leave..."
I'm 23 years old.
To the day, in fact.
I'm sitting by myself in the Auditorium Theater in Rochester, celebrating my birthday by seeing my favorite band. It was the culmination of a time in my life when I saw them three times in four months, nine times in four years.
Obsession is the right word.
I was the cliche single white dude who was way too into music and mix tapes, the guy who identified way too closely with Rob Gordon. And The Hip were the constant in that. I was the person who received daily emails from a listserve of fans (this was the pre-Facebook era). I was the person who both couldn't understand why their favorite band wasn't more popular, and yet didn't want them to become too big. I told friends, co-workers, strangers, that they NEEDED to listen to this band. No really. These songs. This album, in this order. Then you'll get it, man. You'll get it.
I was obnoxious.
But the music mattered. It mattered intensely to me. When work was uncertain, when that endlessly optimistic future began to turn into a grinding day-to-day reality, when the nights were long and lonely, filled with too many agate pages and too many solo after-work beers, the music was always there. It was a constant. It was a friend. It was a catharsis.
It was home.
"Everything is bleak, it's the middle of the night, you're all alone and the dummies might be right ..."
I'm 37 years old
I'm walking the streets of downtown Buffalo with my sister, after we had just seen our fifth Hip show together. She was with me when I saw them the first time, in Rochester in 1996. We saw them in the same building 16 years later, the night Barack Obama was re-elected. That was an electric show.
But this show, my 12th, left me feeling ... conflicted.
There was nothing wrong with the show. The band played the album Fully Completely in its entirety front-to-back, as well as many other hits. The band played well. It was good. It was fine.
But it felt ... off. It just didn't feel magical. There was a distance between me and the band that night - not the awe-filled distance between fan and rock stars, but the awkward distance of someone trying hard to connect with the past.
Part of it was the set. Playing a classic album in its entirety front-to-back sounds great in theory, but in practice, it's weird. Half the fun of seeing a concert - especially a band with a 30-year catalog - is wondering what's next. When you know what song is coming, it sucks a lot of the fun out of it.
But it's not the band that had changed.
I've grown distant to The Hip since that show on my 23rd birthday. Money got tight for a bit, so concerts became a luxury. I moved to Binghamton, making shows a little harder to get to. I met a girl who loves music and loves me but couldn't get into the Hip, no matter how hard I tried (and, I tried). The band's newer material just didn't stick with me. A new musical obsession entered our lives, and swept away me, my wife and our daughter.
I had changed.
And that's good. Change is good. Without it, there's no growth. Without it, I'm not getting excited about new music like that 17-year-old kid was. Without it, I'm just like every sportswriter I mock for loving Springsteen so much.
The Hip is still my forever favorite band. They're not the center of my musical world any more. That's fine. I can listen to Day For Night, and it's still a perfect album to me. I can listen to Emperor Penguin and feel that soaring optimism.
The only way to describe it is this: The Tragically Hip is my musical home.
"Let's raise a glass of milk to the end of another day ..."
I'm 38 years old
(An important number in this world)
My daughter wakes me up a little after 6 a.m. It's her first day back to school after a vacation.
I stumble downstairs, put on Odd Squad for her, and fumble through my phone as the coffee brews.
A message from The Tragically Hip pops into my email as I'm opening it.
"A few months ago, in December, Gord Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer ..."
There are tweets. Articles. Plans for a final tour. Plans being made with my sister for one last show, one chance to say goodbye to the lead singer to the soundtrack of my life.
"We know that life is short
Nobody can afford it
To sing a song that they don't love"