#RIPGordDownie: #TragicallyHip Frontman Was Canada's Heartbeat
Canada's Poet, In So Many Ways
I Wasn't A Tragically Hip Or Tom Petty Fan, But...
I've never been a big fan of the Tragically Hip, one of Canada's biggest, and probably best-loved, bands, but I appreciated the passion with which Gord Downie, the group's lead singer, attacked every performance.
There was no question that the stage was his, or that he knew music in the same way that he knew his own heartbeat, and with his passing comes the knowledge that we will not see his like at any point in the near future.
News that Downie was facing a terminal diagnosis of brain cancer last summer and that the Tragically Hip was proceeding with plans for a final tour both stunned and supercharged the nation, and people could not get tickets fast enough to capture their final moments with the group that has come to be known as Canada's band. Everyone, including me, had hoped for a ticket or two in order to engage in what was sure to be the experience of a lifetime. And it was; the band's final stop, in their home town of Kingston, Ontario, was a sold out love fest which led the CBC to televise the affair. Towns across Canada set up screens for viewing parties so they could be a part of the incredible experience that was the Hip's "Man Machine Poem" tour.
While I wasn't a fan (and will probably get lambasted for actually admitting that), I knew the place that Downie held in Canadian culture. He was the Tom Petty of Canada, with a passion for moving lyrics and for music that was neither auto-tuned nor synthesized. Both men were purists, happily experimenting with various sounds while never forgetting the heart of all good music - the story.
And now, both are gone.
When Downie finished the "Man Machine Poem" tour, many anticipated that it was the tour itself that had kept Downie going, but as was his way, Downie had other surprises in store.
Supporting Indigenous Cultures
The Message Mattered
Gord Downie knew he had a voice, and certainly a powerful one in Canadian culture. Pairing with Jeff Lemire following the end of the "Man Machine Poem" tour, not only did Downie release a solo album - he had 5 throughout his career - he helped put together Secret Path, a graphic book that talked about Canada's painful history with residential schools. In particular, the book dealt with the story of Chanie Wenjack, a young boy who was living at a residential school in 1966 when he ran away and froze to death.
Downie said that the album was “an attempt to capture the feeling, somehow, of trying to get home.” The reviews were essentially rapturous, with many reviewers praising Downie's sense of "space" in the lyrics; the singer had been known for his "density" of lyrics, and with the Chanie Wenjack story, Downie bravely captured Wenjack's torturous final days without projecting onto the young man.
Downie also created the Downie-Wenjack Fund alongside Mike Downie and the Wenjack family as a way to "end the pattern of misunderstanding, betrayal and ignorance shown to First Peoples."
Downie's "Secret Path" concert, filmed at Roy Thomson Hall last year in Toronto, is to air on October 22 on CBC to mark the 51st anniversary of Wenjack's passing. Downie's death Oct. 17, surrounded by his family and his kids, will undoubtedly make the event all the more poignant.
Poet. Singer. Writer. Order of Canada recipient. Activist for First Nations cultures. It would seem that the frontman for Canada's most beloved band has secured a legacy that will hopefully be continued beyond the work he started while he was still with us.
While undoubtedly his family, friends and bandmates will mourn him, Canada, and anyone who was even a little bit familiar with The Tragically Hip, will wonder if they will ever see a man like Gord Downie cross their way again. He was someone who, even when no one would have faulted him for spending his days enjoying time with his family and children, wanted to continue to give, right til the very end. He should be honored for that alone, if for no other reason.
Rest easy, Gord. We'll do you proud.