Last week, I returned from a short trip out of the country to the sad, but inevitable news that Gord Downie has lost his very public struggle with brain cancer.
I am not writing this from a trendy point of view. I have been a Tragically Hip fan since their first album in 1987. By that time, It was well past the time in my life that music really mattered like it does in your formative years, but there was something urgent, something raw and something “Canadian” about the straight ahead rock n roll that the Hip delivered.
From that first album, the songs “Last American Exit” and “Small Town Bring down” seemed to speak to rural Canada, wearing jean jackets and telling tales that could, and most likely did happen in places like Terrace and in rural towns across the Country. As the band developed its repertoire, the songs became more popular and more mainstream, but never lost that sense of who we were. “Up to Here”, brought us “New Orleans is Sinking” and “Blow at High Dough” and Road Apples gave us the very Canadian themed “38 Years Old” and monster radio success with the infectious “Little Bones”. These were followed by the back to back to back masterpieces of Fully Completely, Day For Night, Trouble at the Henhouse and Phantom Power which solidified the Hip’s position as “Canada’s House Band”.
The Tragically Hip was not Gord Downie, nor was Gord the whole band. The Hip was, as one critic put it, four very good musicians fronted by a mad poet. That poet wrote songs that we as Canadians could identify with, that were about us and about the things we knew about. A generation learned the tale of Bill Barilko through Fifty Mission Cap and about the 72 Summit Series from “Fireworks”. Gord’s lyrics reminded and spoke to us of the FLQ crisis, David Milgaard’s conviction, Hugh McClennan and the wonders of lying on your back at the cabin or cottage and staring at the universe unfolding.
Part of the magic of The Hip was that they could have been something more and could have been much more celebrated outside Canada. When first appearing on Saturday Night Live in 1995, they were strongly encouraged to play their safe and commercially successful hits from previous album that would have brought them to massive US market. To a man, they refused and instead played the much darker and more technically challenging “Grace, Too” and “Nautical Disaster” from their latest album. It’s said that this cost them their big shot at US stardom. If they regretted that choice, the band has never said, but it became part of the Canadian appeal and lore surrounding “our band”. Once again, they had proved it was okay to be “small town” and “small country” and to stay true to your own identity.
Gord Downie’s lyrical weaving was famously vague and meant different things to different people. There’s an old saying that the best teachers tell you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see. His best poetry, in my opinion, was up there with the works of Cohen, Joni Mitchell and Neil Young. Like Downie, those writers told human stories and set them to music we could enjoy.
On May 24th of last year, Canada was told that Gord had incurable brain cancer. We were all shocked and saddened by the news. Rather than hide away, the Hip planned one more massive and exhausting Canada wide tour. Anyone who has seen the “Long Time Running” documentary knows that Gord had a significant portion of his brain removed and had to relearn almost everything over again. Not only that, he focussed his, and our attention to the Residential School story through his personal “Secret Path” recording and graphic novel. He was, and remained until his death, a passionate voice for all of us to learn more about this dark chapter in our nation’s history.
The Hip’s final concert was watched in whole or In part by an estimated one-third of all Canadians. It was both the capstone of a magnificent career and a loving tribute to “our band” and to our buddy Gord.
After his death last week, re-watching the concert is an emotional experience for not only Tragically Hip fans, but for anyone who loves music and loves being Canadian.
After closing with the song “Ahead by a Century” (no dress rehearsal, this is our life) Gord’s last words to the crowd, indeed to the whole country on that night ring true and strong; “Thank you and have a nice life.” “Look after each other” he admonished us.
Thanks Gord, how very Canadian and how very appropriate.