We spent that afternoon walking up and down the area of Haight & Ashbury, going in and out of vintage clothing boutiques and record stores. We loosely kept track of the time, the way you should on your first day of a winter vacation. Back home, our friends were brushing snow off their cars and white knuckling cold steering wheels, but we were 2,000 miles away in San Francisco.
Our tired, pale faces lifted like flowers toward the sun as we walked around the city’s hippie neighbourhood. We sat in a dingy restaurant with limes in our beers and watched the people go by, wondering who they were and why they were here. After sharing a tray of cheap tacos and chips, we continued down the sidewalk looking for ice cream.
The afternoon started to cool off and the sky turned pale, then pink. An Uber whipped us around up and down the steep streets, picking people up, dropping people off. The houses were painted pink, purple, and every pastel. They were tall, narrow, Victorian-style with bay windows and no two were the same. They made it hard to focus on my queasy stomach and the stranger sitting next to me.
We reached our next destination, which was The Castro District. This bright, shiny strip is where you can find the city’s gay neighbourhood in all its glory. We couldn’t waste too much time touring this street since most of the shops were closed already and we had tickets to concert across town. But we did have time for a drink.
The place was called Blush, and they specialized in wine. We sat up at the bar, sipping white wine from spotless glasses, afraid to spill or cause any kind of scene. Everyone around us, including our bartender was either extremely good looking, gay, or both. He got us buzzed off Pinot Blanc and told us where to go for breakfast, then we paid our bill and left.
The concert was at The Great American Music Hall in the Tenderloin neighbourhood, not far from our Cable Car Hotel, but far enough. The venue looked exactly as you’d imagine, with its decorative balconies, engraved ceiling tiles, and historical pillars. Having been built in 1907, it smelled like old museum mixed with whiskey and my perfume.
This was not a show with 16 thousand screaming fans lined up at the door. This was Colter Wall, at The Great American Music Hall in San Francisco, California with a capacity of 470 people – standing room mostly.
Colter is a 25-year-old singer songwriter from Swift Current, Saskatchewan. His music is a mix of blues, country, and folk. The kind of music that magically takes me back in time to when I was a kid at a barn dance or sitting around a bon fire in my hometown of Basswood, Manitoba.
I stood there in my leather jacket and lipstick, swaying back and forth with the crowd just trying to fit in with those people and their exciting city. I wondered if we looked different or came off as tourists, but didn’t wonder for too long because of all the wine.
Colter’s deep voice was thick and slow like old motor oil, and I think if you could see it, it would be the same dark colour too. I felt something in my chest tighten as he sang songs like Plain to See Plainsmen, Caroline, and Saskatchewan in 1881. The lyrics lingered in the air above a layer of smoke and told stories of the prairies and farming people we left back home, 2000 miles away.
The songs might’ve meant more to me, but they somehow spoke to every single person in that California concert hall. People sang from the balconies and shouted the Sleeping on the Blacktop chorus. A hush fell over the room when Colter sat on the stool and told stories, his Stetson casting a shadow over his eyes. It was the second time I’d seen him life, and it wouldn’t be the last.
When the show was over, we took a quick cab to another part of town where a man in a grease-stained white apron fried up our double cheese burgers and told us about his family, his business, and his love for San Francisco.
We sat at the counter until 2am, eating a plate of onion rings and watching him fill takeout orders.
Dad’s love to wake up on Sundays and go for drives. I wonder when that gene kicks in. It’s the age the stagnant wonder of young men evolves them, bringing them that much closer to reaching peak-dadness.
We start kicking tires to see if they’re full enough. We randomly pop into Home Depot to check out the sales, and then every weekend, we pile our families into our vessels and show them the most uneventful landscape on possibly the face of the Earth: Manitoba. For hours.
As dad cruised west on highway 1, mom riding shotgun, the two began aggressively head-nodding to a sound that was blasted into my ear drums every weekend since I was born. The sound was the Tragically Hip. The album was anything. Phantom Power, Road Apples, Trouble at the Hen House. Dad popped a CD into the realms of our silver Dodge Mini-van, trimmed in rust. Then, we drove.
I hated it.
The Tragically Hip was my parent’s music. Therefore, by law, I was not allowed to enjoy it. Mom, please put the air guitar down. Every weekend, I’d stair at the same single row of poplars on a canvas of planted gold, and I’d wish I was home with my headphones blasting Good Charlotte or Blink 182.
But as I got older, I evolved.
I became more in-tune with right and wrong. I started to understand what I was really looking at on those prairie drives. And I started to fall in love with The Tragically Hip.
I just had to listen.
Gord Downie changed everything for me. I hadn’t heard anyone tell stories of history, or hockey, or murder, or love like him before. He taught me to be a proud Canadian, better than any dipstick Politician ever could. He became my favourite writer.
I remember the moment I found out he was dying. I was on a construction site with a group of old and young men. Some weren’t even Canadian. I read the CBC report out loud in our lunch trailer, nearly bringing the entire crew of 12 muck-covered, foul-mouthed concrete pushers to tears.
When the Hip announced their final tour, I typed out a text to my brother saying we had to get tickets. Before I could hit send, he had interrupted me with news he was, as always, way ahead of me. We had sat in the backseat together for every one of dad’s random van drives complaining about the music. And now, my brother and I were going to get to say goodbye to our friend Gord.
What makes the show the best show I’ve ever seen isn’t even the music. I’d seen the hip before. I knew what to expect and what the set list was going to be. But the energy in the arena was something completely new. It wasn’t a concert; it was a funeral before-the-fact. It was a celebration of one man’s life before it ended. And it was a thank you on behalf of an entire city.
We screamed the lyrics from the highest section of seats. And every time Gord looked up to our area, it felt like he was looking right in our eyes, and singing to us one last time. The night exploded with emotions. And the rush of grief and love I felt for a man who wasn’t even dead yet, was a sensation that will never be felt again.
I bet everyone in the building would tell you it was the best concert they’ve ever seen too. It’s because that band was a part of all our stories, whether we grew up with them, or forced to listen to them in mini-vans.
We evolved with the Hip. And the soundtrack was written by Gord Downie.