Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie dead at 53
The Canadian singer, who had been diagnosed with brain cancer before final concert tour in 2016, died with his children and family close by.
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Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie has died, the band said on its website Wednesday. He was 53.
“Last night Gord quietly passed away with his beloved children and family close by,” said the statement posted on thehip.com.
“Gord knew this day was coming – his response was to spend this precious time as he always had – making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss… on the lips.”
Downie was born in Amherstview, Ont., a suburb of Kingston, on Feb. 6, 1964. He attended the Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute, where he and four friends formed the Tragically Hip in 1983.
In May 2016, the band revealed that Downie had been diagnosed with brain cancer, and announced what was assumed to be a farewell concert tour that coincided with the release for the Hip’s 14th studio album, Man Machine Poem.
The 10-city, 15-show blitz across the country started in Victoria and ended in the Hip’s hometown of Kingston.
The final show, on Aug. 20, 2016, was held at Kingston’s K-Rock Centre on 1 Tragically Hip Way and counted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau among the attendees.
“Gord said he had lived many lives. As a musician, he lived “the life” for over 30 years, lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies. At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one,” the band’s statement said Wednesday.
On stage, Downie built a reputation for himself as not only a singer, but a performer – a wild, involved frontman who twisted and spun and pirouetted and undulated as he sang, his face contorting with emotion.
“I throw myself on the altar of song and I see my own personal musical life in fast flashes of faces and names and colours and sounds and I get lost in the euphoria of standing up there,” he told Maclean’s in a 2009 interview. “I’m a dancer. It’s what I love to do more than anything.”
Besides music, Downie was also a passionate advocate. He served as a board member for charity Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, which focuses on cleaning up and preventing water pollution, and was also dedicated to raising awareness about indigenous issues; among other things, the Hip played a show in 2012 at Fort Albany First Nation, near the embattled community of Attawapiskat.
Last month, the label Arts & Crafts announced that Downie had recorded what would be his final solo album. Introduce Yerself, a 23-song double album produced by Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew, is slated for release on Oct. 27. Arts & Crafts said the music “was recorded swiftly over two four-day sessions in January 2016 and February 2017, with the final album often reflecting first takes” and Drew co-writing a number of songs.
In the aftermath of the band’s farewell tour, Downie released his fifth solo album, The Secret Path, in September 2016. It told the story of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died of exposure after escaping a residential school. The album was paired with a graphic novel and the creation of the Gord Downie & Chanie Wenjack Fund, which aims to foster reconciliation.
Downie’s work on indigenous issues led him to be honoured at an emotional Assembly of First Nations ceremonyin December 2016, where he was given the Lakota spirit name, “He who walks with the stars.”
But even as he continued to perform – he played shows for The Secret Path and made a surprise appearance at Blue Rodeo’s Toronto concert on Feb. 3 – Downie couldn’t outrun the effects of his disease; in an October 2016 interview on CBC’s The National, Downie said he’d been having memory problems.
“I have ‘Peter’ written on my hand,” he told host Peter Mansbridge, whom he’d known at that point for 25 years. “And I say that just to be up front, because I might call you Doug… I can’t remember hardly anything.”
During that interview, he also admitted he sometimes had difficulty remembering his children’s names, and that he was scared to leave his family behind.
“I don’t want to die ‘cause my youngest son is 10,” he said. “I want my kids to be good. I want them to be safe and have a great long life.”