Jeremy Elwood & Michele A'Court: Going out on your own terms

"I cannot think of any other occasion when I have seen an artist call time on their career in such a public fashion."
iStockphoto/ Robert Kohlhuber

"I cannot think of any other occasion when I have seen an artist call time on their career in such a public fashion."

OPINION: Husband-and-wife comedians and commentators Jeremy Elwood and Michele A'Court give their views.

Last Sunday, I watched The Tragically Hip play their last ever concert - online, live from Kingston, Ontario, Canada. If you haven't heard of "The Hip", I'm not surprised. They are a quintessentially Canadian rock band, huge in that country but hardly known outside of it. They have written songs about ice hockey, rural Canada, local heroes and villains, the long Northern winter. Canadians have been loving them for it for nearly 30 years. On Sunday, it all came to a glorious, triumphant end.

Lead singer Gord Downie, who sounds and performs like Michael Stipe on Ritalin, has been diagnosed with an inoperable, terminal brain tumour, and the band announced early this year that they would be undertaking one final farewell tour. Tickets sold out in minutes, with scalpers allegedly asking up to $25,000 for access to the final gig of the tour, so in response Canada's public broadcaster, the CBC, decided to film the show and broadcast it free, globally, on their YouTube channel. 

Which is how I came to be watching a little piece of Canadian history be made from my living room in New Zealand. It was remarkable for several reasons, including the fact that technology made this possible at all – it wasn't too long ago that even connecting a phone call to the other side of the world was a hit and miss affair.

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Jeremy Elwood.
Kate Little

Jeremy Elwood.

However, what made it truly special was that I cannot think of any other occasion when I have seen an artist call time on their career in such a public fashion. Bands either tend to disintegrate outside of the public eye - by breaking up, falling out of fashion or due to the death of a core member - or they embark on "farewell" tours that go on for decades, wringing every last dollar out of their aging fans. I'm looking at you, Eagles. 

We tend to take our favourite musicians for granted. When Prince came to New Zealand earlier this year, I missed out on tickets but thought, oh well, he'll be back again. Sadly, that won't happen. 

In the case of Gord Downie, he made the decision to end his career on his own terms, in his hometown, in front of a packed stadium including Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and hundreds of thousands watching online, including two teary eyed viewers at my house. It was almost like a living funeral, a celebration of everything he has accomplished, but it never felt like a tribute show, rather a joyous curtain call on a proud career. Most of us don't get to choose how and when we exit this world, but if we could, I couldn't think of a better way to say goodbye. 

Michele A'Court.

Michele A'Court.

"Most of us don't get to choose how and when we exit this world". Let me pick that idea up and take it for a stroll.

Because as I sat on the couch next to Jeremy last Sunday and watched him celebrate and grieve for his favourite home-country band – along with 11.7 million other people tuned in to the live stream – that's the thought that sang in my head.

Here was a man saying, "I am dying. Here is the last thing I am going to give you, and then I'm going to go." And there was a room full of people saying, "Thank you for this, and the things before this, and goodbye."

Not ghoulish, not maudlin. "A masterclass in life and how to live it," according to one live-streaming Twitter follower. And "Uniting a whole country with the fragile exuberance of the human condition," said another. And this one: "Teaching us about life and death… A crash course in everything we push away. My heart is full."

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Canadian Prime Minister, Justine Trudeau – who was actually in the room – tweeted: "…The whole country is here… to say thanks, to say goodbye, to celebrate."

It was the artistic equivalent of – and I'm writing this very softly – assisted dying. Choosing how to go, and when to do it. Gord Downie, surrounded by his band-family, sharing the last moment with his fan-friends. Maybe not at the peak of his powers, but at his last best. With dignity and joy.

Of course, there is a risk in choosing a date to end it all. It occurred to me while watching the show – what if he woke up the next morning, or the next week, and decided he'd called time too soon? That he might have one more gig left in him? Hard choice to make. 

Timing, then, but also velocity. The hardest deaths I've witnessed - both for the dying and the people left behind - have been the ones that happen too fast, and the ones that happen too slowly. 

If we are able to choose how and when to end our creative lives – and can do that, clearly, in a glorious way – perhaps we are also capable of ending our physical lives the same way. When our instincts tell us we are at our last best, surrounded by the people we love, while we can all say and hear the goodbyes. It's what Lecretia Seales asked for, but wasn't given, and what so many other people staring death in the face also want.

Life is full of hard choices. I'd like it if making a good death was one of the ones we were allowed to make.

 - Stuff


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