In losing Gord Downie, we lose the Tragically Hip, and so the tragedy is doubled: Rayner
Canada has lost a beloved singer, an outspoken social critic on Indigenous issues and the most widely beloved Canadian-band-in-Canada ever, in one moment.
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Gord Downie was given sufficient time to pen his own obituary, and that is exactly how it should be.
If the Tragically Hip frontman had to check out early — as he did on Tuesday at 53 years of age after an inspiringly defiant yearlong struggle against inoperable brain cancer — the very least the universe could do in return was grant this most writerly of writerly rock-’n’-roll songwriters some measure of control over his own departure narrative.
That won’t make this loss any easier on the four children, his brothers Mike and Pat Downie, former partner Laura Leigh Usher and the four friends — Paul Langlois, Robbie Baker, Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay — with whom he formed the Tragically Hip while attending high school at the Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute in 1983, not to mention everyone else whose lives Downie touched personally, professionally and in that distant-but-no-less-profound manner peculiar to the pop stars we, as fans, adopt as de facto friends and spokespeople over the years. But it does make it a little easier for those tasked with eulogizing the man and his achievements that the last year of Downie’s life, which saw him channelling the national obsession with the Tragically Hip’s 2016 “farewell” tour into a high-profile crusade for Aboriginal rights in this country, proved such a memorable monument to his gifts and the high esteem by which they were held by the Canadian public.
Downie was never one to embrace the strain of popular Cancon mythology that has for years portrayed the Tragically Hip as the reigning rock-’n’-roll model of consummate “Canadian-ness,” nor — if you were listening closely to his enigmatic lyrics — many of the reigning mythological models of Canadian-ness in general.
Indeed, the work that would end up becoming his swan song, 2016’s shattering Secret Path, arrived last October accompanied by a declaration from the author himself that he had “never thought of Canada as a country,” and could not consider Canada a complete nation as long as it failed to address the systemic mistreatment of its aboriginal peoples, which found a poignant symbol in Secret Path’s unflinching depiction of young Chanie Wenjack’s doomed attempt to walk the 600-km home to Ogoki Post along a railway line from a residential school in Kenora in 1966. “Canada is not Canada,” he wrote. “We are not the country we think we are.”
Amidst all the talk of the Tragically Hip as Canada’s “house band” that went around after Downie’s cancer diagnosis was made public with a quiet post to the Hip’s website last May 24 (“Hello friends. We have some very tough news to share with you today, and we wish it wasn’t so . . . ”) — and particularly during the 10-city, 15-show cross-Canada blitz in support of the group’s 13th and likely final album, Man Machine Poem, that followed — Downie made sure to inject a note of uneasiness into a moment of national bonding. Onstage in Kingston for what would be the Hip’s final performance at the K-Rock Centre on Aug. 20, 2016, before an audience of nearly 12 million Canadians watching on the CBC and online his one real speech was a request directed squarely at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, watching from the crowd, to do better by Canada’s Aboriginal people “that we were trained our entire lives to ignore.”
“What’s going on up there ain’t good. It’s maybe worse than it’s ever been, so it’s not on the improve. (But) we’re going to get it fixed and we got the guy to do it, to start, to help,” he said. “Thank you, everybody. Thanks for listening to that. Thanks for listening, period. Have a nice life.”
He would reiterate the same message — that only when Canada treats all Canadians equally can it truly consider itself a country — from the stage at Roy Thomson Hall on Oct. 21 during one of just three performances in support of Secret Path, his fifth and final solo album released in September accompanied by a moving graphic novel and animated CBC film by illustrator Jeff Lemire.
“Let’s not celebrate the last 150 years,” he said towards the end, with members of Chanie Wenjack’s family looking on from the front rows. “Let’s just start celebrating the next 150 years. Just leave it alone.”
More than just talk from a white artist with noble thoughts about Native people, Secret Path was paired with the creation of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, established by Downie and his brother Mike, to "jumpstart reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples and end the pattern of misunderstanding, betrayal and ignorance shown to First Peoples.”
Downie’s work on Indigenous issues led him to be honoured at the Assembley of First Nations special assembly in December 2016. The album was paired with a graphic novel of the same name that also outlined Wenjack’s story and the creation of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, which aims to foster reconciliation.html) where, frail-looking and weeping, he was given the Lakota spirit name “He who walks with the stars.”
“To become a country, and truly call ourselves Canada, it means we must become one,” he said at the time. “We must walk down a path of reconciliation from now on. Together, and forever. This is the first day of forever: the greatest day of my life, the greatest day of all of our lives. Thank you.”
After all that, then, forgive me for sharing a memory of Downie that illustrates, for me, the humble and, yes, quintessentially Canadian nature of his rock stardom.
It was March of 2007 at the South by Southwest festival in Austin. The Tragically Hip was in Texas, downsizing from the hockey rinks which it was accustomed to playing north of the 49th parallel — where its first three full-length album, 1989’s Up to Here, 1991’s Road Apples and 1992’s Fully Completely, have sold a whopping million copies apiece in a country with a population of slightly more than 30 million and the 10 increasingly challenging and uncompromising records that followed a further two million combined — to give its then newest album, World Container, a Stateside push at North America’s most important international music gathering with a gig at a 1,200-capacity club called Antone’s.
I’d begged and begged the Hip’s Canadian label for a sit-down with Downie in Austin and, despite the label’s misgivings that the resulting piece would be yet another tired retelling of how the Tragically Hip could never duplicate its Canadian success in the U.S., managed to secure one just a couple of hours before the band’s SXSW showcase.
Downie and I had met only once before at the Hip’s Bathhouse studio outside Kingston during the run-up to In Between Evolution’s release in 2004 but, apparently, the press-shy frontman agreed to the Austin chat because he considered me somewhat trustworthy. “Oh, he reads,” a friend at Universal had intoned to me, ominously. I, a non-whiskey drinker, was intimidated enough to knock back a couple of whiskys en route to the interview.
As it turned out, this wasn’t an intimidating audience in the traditional music-journalism sense. There was no entourage or ego or puffy air of self-importance to struggle against in the lobby bar of the Radisson — where I decided to down an extra drink for good measure — even though this chap was, for all intents and purposes, the Canadian equivalent to a Liam Gallagher or a Chris Martin or, hell, even a Bruce Springsteen. No, it was an intimidating audience because Downie was clearly suspicious of believing, there at the epicentre of all that was and/or would be ordained cool in popular music in 2007, that a Canadian journalist would seek him out at South by Southwest because he thought Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip were … cool. Not because he was trying to knock probably the most widely beloved Canadian-band-in-Canada ever down a peg by pointing out that it was playing a club in Texas, but because it was cool that the most widely beloved Canadian-band-in-Canada ever was playing a club in Texas. I got a dismissive roll of the eyes when I said I’d be at the Antone’s gig later on.
“What? You’re not going to the Stooges like everybody else?”
“No, I haven’t seen you guys in a club in a long time. I actually really wanna come tonight.”
“Well, even if you don’t, Ben, thanks for doing this.”
The gig was bonkers, for the record, all the power of the Hip’s well-travelled big-room prowess channelled into an unknowing Austin blues club that could barely contain it. I’ll take that gig to the grave. But I’ll also take that interview to the grave because it illustrated for me how seriously Downie — born Gordon Edgar Downie on Feb. 6, 1964 in the Kingston satellite community of Amherstview, Ont. — took his art, and how seriously he wanted people to take his art.
We were never close, but I did get to know Gord, who wound up making some of his wholly underrated solo records with a few shared friends and acquaintances over the years, a bit after those first two interviews. He was an authentic, wonderful weirdo and a vivid abstract poet, and it clearly irked him from time to time that a large segment of the Tragically Hip’s fan base kinda wished all the strangeness that came after 1992’s commercial high-water mark, Fully Completely, never happened. And yet clearly he was cognizant of the magic that happened whenever he got onstage with the rest of the Tragically Hip because he never walked away from that band. A true band of brothers. In losing Downie, we also lose the Hip. And both are irreplaceable.