[image from https://www.vice.com/en_ca/article/vdqndd/on-gord-downie-my-dad-and-taking-people-for-granted]
Gord Downie passed away yesterday, October 17, 2017. He succumbed to his battle with brain cancer. While we all knew it was coming, death is always a shock with the finality of it. Gord will be greatly missed by a nation that he and his bandmates nearly perfectly encapsulated in their music as the Tragically Hip.
As a teenager growing up and living on the Canadian Prairies, right next to the 100th meridian, Gord's lyrics about butterscotch rivers and fields of wheat, vaccination scars, open skies, water meeting the shore, strangely coloured highschool walls, the group of seven, pine trees, and canoes painted vivid images of all the parts of my life and that of many of my friends.
Gord's lyrics were always underscored by the bands rhythm and guitars that often started like a slow canadian season, then quickly jumped right to mid-summer, and faded out like the last leaves giving up their grip in a late fall wind.
My first connection and understanding of how important the Hip would become came at Sunfest, in Gimli Manitoba in the summer of '91. This was the year we had graduated from highschool. Most of us figured it was the last time the high school gang would be together before we all went off into the world to try out being adults. It was also the summer weekend I met up with my future wife.
Their show at Sunfest was something else. The crowd at the previous year's festival was a few thousand people. However, this year the festival had the Hip and Saturday's crowd grew steadily over the course of the day reaching a peak nearing 15,000 people around 8pm in preparation. The Tragically Hip hit the stage around 9pm and they blew the sunset out of the western sky as they seared their way through tracks from Up to Here and Road Apples.
Shortly into the show, someone needed medical attention near the stage. The band stopped playing and helped organize the crowd so that an ambulance could be driven through the field. The band remained calm and Gord spoke directly to the audience, telling them what was happening. Everyone at the festival helped as they could, being Canadians and all, and the band didn't get back to the set until the ambulance was out of the crowd and headed for the hospital. Then they proceeded to rip raw energy out of the cosmos and played for another 2 hours, in perfect summer weather, to a very appreciative crowd. Not a person I knew there wasn't converted into life long fans of Gord and the Hip.
Later on, in 1999 I caught the Hip again at Woodstock in NY. They played an early Saturday show to a sea of Canadian flags, which where rapidly hidden away when their set finished. While the crowd was largely Canadians that had come down for the festival, the Americans in attendance that I spoke to couldn't believe they had never heard or seen these guys. It was then, at the peak of their success in Canada, that we all knew their brand of wisely crafted lyrics and carefully consutructed music was our secret. A tiny Canadian voice reaching around the world and being picked up by only a few who cared to listen.
As life moved along from the 90s to now, through weddings, funerals, births and a global world that seems increasingly in need of intelligent observers, the Tragically Hip and Gord's poetry have always been a constant. They encapsulated what it means and feels like to be Canadian better than most Canadians can describe for themselves. From long drives across the country, down gravel roads to the cottage, at parties, on decks, working, relaxing, paddling, sitting on the dock in the summer or getting ready in the dressing room before hockey, the Hip have always been there.
I'm going to miss knowing that there is nothing new on the horizon from Gord, but I'm also so grateful for all that he gave. Having taken the last exit, may you rest in peace Gord.
The statement from his family does a far better job than I can of bringing some closure to Gord's life.