Entertainment

Gord Downie fought for Canadians— even those of us who were never really fans: Keenan

Name a Hip song, there’s probably a memory to go with it. This is our life, and Downie was there for it, helping define it.

Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie raises his arm in response to a speaker as he sits with Sylvia Maracle, right, and Jacqueline Guest during an investiture ceremony, in Ottawa on Monday, June 19, 2017. As Gord Downie fans reflect on his music and advocacy for the plight of Canada's Indigenous people, the medical community is also remembering his great contributions in that world that they say will be felt for decades to come.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie raises his arm in response to a speaker as he sits with Sylvia Maracle, right, and Jacqueline Guest during an investiture ceremony, in Ottawa on Monday, June 19, 2017. As Gord Downie fans reflect on his music and advocacy for the plight of Canada's Indigenous people, the medical community is also remembering his great contributions in that world that they say will be felt for decades to come.

It’s natural to look at the last act of Gord Downie’s life and bow your head in admiration. Given a terminal brain cancer diagnosis in 2016, the great Canadian rock star spent his remaining time putting a crown on his life’s work, doing the things he loved doing, and that he was beloved for: touring one last time, writing and recording more new music, publishing a book that told an important and overlooked Canadian Indigenous story, nudging us and our prime minister to start righting our collective wrongs. We could all only wish that when our time comes, we’d be armed with the will and determination to go out like that. And grace, too.

Forgive me. The song references come too easy, and maybe seem too pat in the raw days of grief after his death. But these are the words he gave us — the perfect words, so often — a gift that is always there, on the radio or our iPods or just bubbling up in our memories to the tips of our tongues, seemingly unprompted. A soundtrack to so many Canadian lives. A part of who we are.

A lot of other people have already written about what he meant to Canada, trying to get a finger on it, or on a part of it. I recommend pieces by the Star’s Vinay Menon and Ben Rayner published immediately after we learned he’d died, and what is likely the authoritative obituary from Michael Barclay of Maclean’s. I don’t know that I have anything big to add to the collective understanding except personal impressions, because his death seems oddly like a personal loss.

Odder still because there was never a point in my life when I would have described myself as a Tragically Hip fan. I liked them, owned a few albums, but I was never into them, in the way I got into bands and compulsively listened to them and read up on them over the years.

And yet there was never a time since the early 1990s when I went a week — or even a few days — without a Hip lyric popping into my mind, a melody getting caught in my head. There is probably no other band — except maybe the Beatles — who have so many songs I can sing from memory. There was no need to be a fan. Since I was a teenager, the Hip were just there. Like a member of the family. Or a childhood friend.

In 1993, when Doug Gilmour and Wendel Clark’s Leafs went deep in the playoffs — as close as they’ve come to winning the Cup in my lifetime — some longtime close friends and I went to a cottage in Wasaga Beach to watch the last two make-or-break games of the drive.

It was a stage of our lives, poised on the edge of adulthood and all of its responsibilities, when everything was going to change but when the games we were watching could still seem to mean everything in the world. We listened to “Fifty Mission Cap,” Downie’s tale of the disappearance of Leafs hero Bill Barilko, on repeat, over and over again, for hours and hours — firing up the CD player even during intermissions, as if that story, told in Downie’s voice, might act as a prayer.

Maybe it is some kind of mediocre whitebread Canadian cliché that the memory of that series — ultimately it ended in a betrayal by Wayne Gretzky, and with the kind of heartbreak Leafs fans know too well — should seem formative to me, but it is no less true that I recall it as sacred. And the words to the hymn are Downie’s, from that song, inseparable from the rest of it in my mind.

There are memories like that for so many Hip songs and albums: A dancefloor full of people singing along in full voice to “New Orleans is Sinking.” A friend suddenly brought to tears by “Fiddlers Green.” A summer where everyone seemed to suddenly be memorizing and reciting the Ry Cooder monologue part of “Hundredth Meridian.” Cruising a highway at night across the American rockies listening to “Day for Night” over and over in the dark.

Name a Hip song, there’s probably a memory to go with it. This is our life, and Downie was there for it, helping define it.

As a writer, I always admired Downie’s ability to sketch a sense of place, to set a scene, in a few words or lines. The pattern on the table, clock on the wall. The checkerboard floor. The high school walls “yellow, grey, and sinister / hung with pictures of our parent’s prime ministers.”

Famously, he took us across the country with these lyrics, to Bobcaygeon “where I saw the constellations / reveal themselves one star at a time,” to the “smudge of moon over Glenora / Ferry’s spotlight on the ice ahead,” to the “coffee coloured ice and peeling birch bark” of Springside Park.

They are there, like memories, places vivid in my mind. With characters equally well and quickly drawn. Summoned by enigmatic phrases that resonate even if their straightforward meaning is often a puzzle.

Downie was memorable for more than just the lyrics, of course. The rockstar frontman charisma and the endearing, unmistakable hint of hoser in his accent. The principles he wore on his sleeve and wove into his work, without seeming sanctimonious, instead coming across as the voice of obvious common conscience. The impulse to reach down the ladder to elevate his Canadian musical peers. The manic dancing.

American obituaries struggled to find analogies to summarize the place Downie and the Hip occupied in mainstream Canadian culture. Even for a Canadian, it can be hard to put it into words. The relationship many of us felt with him through his music and performances transcends fandom — even for those of us who were never really fans. He was one of us, part of us, with us: rocking out at parties, telling stories in moments of quiet reflection, or just on the sound system at the mall. Just there. Until he wasn’t.

What an ending to a life. What a life. What a friend we’ve lost. What a body of work he left woven into our culture. All that music. “Oh isn’t it amazing what you can accomplish, eh,” he sang. “Oh this one thing doesn’t have to go away.” Amen.

Edward Keenan writes on city issues ekeenan@thestar.ca. Follow: @thekeenanwire

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