The frontman of The Tragically Hip was an indelible presence on the Canadian cultural landscape
Gord Downie, singer in beloved Canadian rock band the Tragically Hip, has died at age 53 from glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He was diagnosed in December 2015; only two per cent of glioblastoma victims live as long as three years after diagnosis. In the summer of 2016, Downie said goodbye to a nation of fans by doing a final arena tour with his brothers in song—the same four men he met at a Kingston Vocational Collegiate Institute in the early 1980s, the same four men heard on the very first Tragically Hip EP. No major performer in the history of Western pop music had ever staged a tour of that scale while living with a terminal diagnosis. And yet, it was not the only unprecedented achievement in Downie’s career.
Downie was one of the most riveting and mystifying performers in rock’n’roll history. Anyone who managed to catch him fronting the Tragically Hip in 1985, playing covers at a roadhouse in Renfrew, Ont., could tell you that. As could anyone who watched him command 40,000 people at any given outdoor appearance during the 1990s, singing songs that were summer soundtracks for an entire generation. And of course, as could many of the 11 million people who watched the CBC broadcast of the Hip’s final show on Aug. 20, 2016, which reached the second-largest number of viewers in Canadian broadcast history.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in tears he did not wipe away, remembered Gord Wednesday morning.
“We lost one of the very best of us this morning. Gord was my friend, but Gord was everyone’s friend, it’s who we were, our buddy Gord, who loved this country with everything he had.”
“He loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life.”
“We are less as a country without Gord Downie in it.”
Gordon Edgar Downie was born on Feb. 6, 1964, in Amherstview, Ont., just slightly west of Kingston, to Lorna and Edgar, a travelling salesman turned real estate developer. Gord was the fourth of five children: older siblings Mike, Charlyn and Paula, and younger brother Patrick. Gord played goalie for Amherstview’s hockey team, which won a provincial B-level championship. His godfather was Harry Sinden, who would go on to coach Team Canada to victory in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union.
The Tragically Hip played their first show in November 1984 on the campus of Queen’s University. For the next three years they played in every corner of Kingston they could, mixing obscure ’60s covers with original material. Their first EP came out in December 1987; the debut album, Up to Here, in 1989. The second album, in 1991, went platinum in just 10 days. The third, in 1992, became one of the few Canadian albums to sell more than one million copies domestically. The ascent was dramatic, but the band’s very first hit single had this prescient line, written by Downie, in its chorus: “Sometimes the faster it gets, the less you need to know / But you gotta remember: the smarter it gets, the further it’s going to go.” The Tragically Hip were smart. Right to the end. And they took it as far as they could.
No other act of the day was embraced with the fervour and frenzy that Hip fans displayed toward Downie as a performer, but it was his lyrics that set him apart. Most poetic lyricists are drawn to folk or art music; Downie was a rock’n’roller, one who dared dip in the same well as Al Purdy, Raymond Carver, Northrop Frye, John Ashberry, Hugh MacLennan and others. Most artists will hear crowds singing the first verse and choruses of their most popular songs; Downie routinely had audiences singing every single line in his discography back to him, no matter how arcane or untethered the lyric was to rhyme or meter.
Downie released five solo albums during his lifetime; he was furiously working on more in his last two years. After the Hip’s final show, he announced Secret Path: an album, animated film and graphic novel inspired by the story of Chanie Wenjack, a 12-year-old Indigenous boy who froze to death running away from a residential school in 1966. In the space of a month, Downie transformed the half-century-old tale into a current conversation about collective reckoning and the until-then largely ignored Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “Let’s not celebrate the last 150 years,” Downie told a moneyed Toronto audience at a Secret Path performance in October 2016, one of his final public appearances. “Let’s celebrate our next 150 years.” He considered Secret Path the most important work he’d ever done in his life.
He leaves behind four children, three siblings, his mother, Lorna, the mother of his children, Laura Leigh Usher, his bandmates—Robert Baker, Johnny Fay, Paul Langlois, Gord Sinclair—and millions of fans whose lives would not have sounded the same without him.
Michael Barclay is the author of The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip.
Timeline: Ahead by a Century, the story of Gord Downie