Rock poet who wrote Canadiana-laced lyrics had a commanding stage presence
Gord Downie speaks during a ceremony honouring him at the AFN Special Chiefs assembly in December. Downie died Tuesday after a battle with brain cancer. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Gord Downie, the Tragically Hip frontman who united a diverse array of music lovers with his commanding stage presence and Canadiana-laced lyrics, has died.
He was 53. ***
Downie had an aggressive and incurable form of brain cancer called glioblastoma, which he discovered after a seizure in December 2015.
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He died Tuesday night surrounded by his children and family, according to a statement on the band's website.
"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," the statement said.
As the Tragically Hip's lead singer and lyricist, Downie was the face and voice of a band whose discography sold more than eight million copies. (Mike Homer/Live Nation)
Canadians learned of Downie's illness on May 24 last year — the same day the rest of the rock group, Paul Langlois, Rob Baker, Gord Sinclair and Johnny Fay, announced that the Kingston, Ont.-based band would head out on a final summer tour "for Gord, and for all of us."
The final concert, in Kingston on Aug. 20, 2016 was broadcast by CBC.
The 15-show Man Machine Poem tour, especially its final concert, became a cultural event, as Downie's dire prognosis prompted an outpouring of support from people across the country who had the rare opportunity to celebrate a much-loved Canadian before he was gone.
Fans gathered in Kingston, Ont., on Wednesday to leave flowers and sign a book of condolence near city hall. (Patrick Morrell/CBC )
As the Tragically Hip's lead singer and lyricist, Downie was the face and voice of a band whose discography sold more than eight million copies. The band's propulsive, muscular rock, coupled with intense live performances and Downie's cryptic, literary lyrics, allowed the band to attract a diverse fan base that included party animals and armchair philosophers alike.
Downie contained similar complexities: He was an everyman poet, seeming both aloof and down to earth, writing lyrics that rhymed "catharsis" with "my arse is." He sang about Canada, but disavowed nationalism, his songs exploring heavy topics like David Milgaard's wrongful conviction (Wheat Kings) or Canada's treatment of First Nations (Now the Struggle Has a Name).
Downie spent his final months speaking out in support of Indigenous people, declaring: "Canada is not Canada. We are not the country we think we are."
After his final appearances with the Tragically Hip, Downie released Secret Path, a multimedia project that tells the tragic tale of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died of exposure and hunger in 1966 after running away from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School in Kenora, Ont. Meanwhile, the Gord Downie and Chanie Wenjack Fund was started to "start a new relationship with Indigenous Peoples."
Downie, who won two Junos for the 10-song solo album, thought of the Secret Path music, concerts and film created with artist Jeff Lemire as his legacy project. Lemire created a graphic novel inspired by Downie's songs, and its images were used to create the film.
Over the course of his career, Downie released three other musically adventurous solo albums, a collaboration with Toronto roots-rock band the Sadies, and a book of poetry. Earlier this fall, Downie announced he had been working on another solo album, Introduce Yerself. The 23-song double album is due out Oct. 27, 2017, and is expected to be released posthumously by the Canadian label Arts & Crafts.
Though he wasn't afraid to go it alone as a solo artist, Downie's legacy will always be tied most closely with the Tragically Hip.
The Hip, as they're often called, won 16 Juno awards (the most of any band) and received a raft of other honours, including the Order of Canada. The group also has a Canadian Music Hall of Fame induction, a Governor General's Performing Arts Award, an honorary fellowship with the Royal Conservatory of Music and a star on Canada's Walk of Fame. The band even has its own postage stamp and a street named after it, Tragically Hip Way, in Kingston, Ont.
Hockey fan and nature lover
Gordon Edgar Downie was born in Kingston on Feb. 6, 1964, and spent his formative years in nearby Amherstview.
His godfather was future Boston Bruins coach and general manager Harry Sinden, and Downie enjoyed the national pastime as both a die-hard Bruins fan and a goalie who took his B-level team to a provincial championship.
Downie said growing up on the shores of Lake Ontario had an impact on the way he viewed the environment, which led him to support the Lake Ontario Waterkeeper as a board member and to pay for renewable energy at his Toronto home.
But music was his first love. He listened to everything he could in his older sister's 45 collection, and used his allowance to buy records. He eventually joined a band that did punk covers, and was in a group called the Filters.
The Tragically Hip formed in 1983 at Queen's University, named after a sketch in former Monkees member Michael Nesmith's long-form music video "Elephant Parts," and were soon playing the Kingston bar scene.
Word of mouth about the band spread throughout Kingston and eventually to Toronto.
Over the course of his career, Downie released several musically adventurous solo albums, a collaboration with Toronto roots-rock band the Sadies, and a book of poetry. (Kevin Frayer/Canadian Press)
'A great communicator'
Musician manager Jake Gold, who along with Allan Gregg gave the Hip members their first shot, told the authors of the book Have Not Been The Same: The CanRock Renaissance 1985-95, about the Toronto show that won them and an ambivalent crowd over.
Downie "was a great communicator," Gold said. "The first time we heard him open his mouth, we just went, holy shit. At the end of their set that night, the whole place stood up and clapped and it was undeniable if you were in the room that night that this was something special."
Throughout his career, Downie seemed unfiltered on stage. He usually started with a "Hello," and often ended with a variation on "Good night, music lovers," but what would happen in between was anyone's guess. He delivered frenetic dance moves or stream-of-consciousness rants in ways that suggested he was channelling the music.
"I think my body's giving subtext and with my voice I'll give you the confines of my heart, which is illegible," he told CBC in 1999.
e Tragically Hip, shown here circa 1992, never found the same success south of the border as it did in Canada. (CBC/Revolver Films)
Most promising group
Working with Gold and Gregg, the Hip signed a record deal with MCA that led to an eponymous 1987 EP, but the band didn't start to become a household name until 1989's Up to Here, which included the hits Blow at High Dough and New Orleans is Sinking, both of which still get heavy play on Canadian radio.
The band won its first Juno (Most Promising Group) on the strength of that album and solidified its hold on the Canadian music scene with the next three albums: 1991's Road Apples, 1992's Fully Completely and 1994's Day for Night, all of which went multi-platinum or diamond.
The band was big enough in the mid-'90s to organize Another Roadside Attraction, a travelling music and arts festival that included a mix of Canadian acts (Rheostatics, Eric's Trip) and international stars (Midnight Oil, Wilco) all hand-picked by the band.
In 1995, a particularly successful year for the Hip, the band opened for both Page and Plant and the Rolling Stones, and performed on Saturday Night Live.
Yet, with the exception of certain, mostly border cities in the U.S. and pockets of support in western Europe, the Hip rarely made an impact outside Canada, continuing to play smaller venues like the House of Blues stateside while they sold out hockey arenas north of the border.
Downie dismissed questions about why the band didn't break big in the U.S., telling CBC that he felt successful after the band's first practice. By 2004, he'd clearly grown tired of the question. "Who are you comparing us to?" he asked an interviewer from the Toronto Sun. "The Barenaked Ladies? Our music is entirely different. Nickelback? Avril?"
'Canada's local band'
The band never reached the same sales figures it did with its first four full-length albums, but continued to make music that was generally well-received by critics and selling at platinum or multi-platinum levels.
Then came Downie's diagnosis, which created a wave of nostalgia and celebration even as people prepared for his passing.
The Hip's final tour launched in Victoria in late July 2016, stopping in eight other Canadian cities, before wrapping up in front of an emotionally charged crowd in the band's hometown of Kingston about a month later.
Each night, Downie took to the stage dressed in metallic leather suits and feather-adorned hats, performing hits from the Tragically Hip's entire discography. Aided by teleprompters showing the lyrics, Downie pranced about the stage with his signature theatrical dance moves, though less kinetically than in the past. Fans would often tear up at newly poignant lyrics written decades ago: "No dress rehearsal / This is our life" in Ahead by a Century and "I've got to go / It's been a pleasure doing business with you" in Scared.
He saved a special energy for Kingston, playing a near three-hour set that was at once jubilant, raucous and heart-wrenching. In front of an intimate crowd of 6,700 inside Kingston's K-Rock Centre, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Downie thanked the audience "for keeping me pushing" and used the opportunity to call for action on Indigenous issues.
Another 11.7 million watched a CBC broadcast of the concert, with hundreds of viewing parties held in public parks, squares, movie theatres, bars and restaurants across Canada.
After the final cross-country tour, all 17 Hip recordings (including box sets and live concerts) were back on the Billboard Canadian Albums chart as sales and downloads skyrocketed. Their most recent album, Man Machine Poem, hit No. 1.
If anything, the Hip's lack of success in the U.S. has only made Canadians more protective of them. CBC broadcaster and musician Tom Power called them "Canada's local band." He also called Downie "the greatest frontman this country has ever produced."
Downie never sought to be iconic. He called concert touring "grunt work," and talked about building the fan base one person at a time. He said he told Canadian stories because they were there to be told, and said he performed music because it was the ultimate medium for expressions of love.
"Rock 'n' roll is not unlike love," he told music writer Michael Barclay in 2000. "You find it oddly strangely comforting that no matter how old you get, when it comes to matters of the heart, you're always 15 inside. I know an 85-year-old with boy trouble. That's a strange and comforting thing to me. As we move towards resolution and understanding and greater serenity in all aspects of our life, love's pretty elemental and that's nice to know. I think rock 'n' roll is the same. I don't pretend to understand it; it feels confusing and frightening and wonderful."
*** When I first went into legal consulting, I had a partner who was a physician. Shortly after we got started, George developed the same condition as Gord Downie. He died at the same age. It is a remorseless killer and George reacted much as Downie did - he made the most of the time he had left.
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