Remembering Gord Downie and his legacy
I’ve listened plenty to The Tragically Hip over the years – but only once did I see the band perform live.
It was at Maple Leaf Gardens in December, 1996 and – by a twist of fate – I landed a pair of floor seats just five or six rows from the stage.
All these years later, Gord Downie’s performance remains seared in my memory. Stalking the stage like a twitchy madman - muttering, bellowing, dancing, shrugging - Downie led a packed-to-the rafters Gardens crowd through a two-hour plus concert that felt like a celebration. It was the final concert of a tour that had seen the band tour across the U.S. and Canada, and the band played with a vengeance.
In the BNN newsroom, there was a collective gasp when we heard the news that Downie had died. This became a day when corporate earnings, takeovers and imperiled trade talks were a little less important.
I now regret – like many people must – that I didn’t get out to see The Hip more often. He was the country’s greatest rock and roll showman.
But The Hip’s music – and more recently, Downie’s solo music – has always been part of my life.
There are few phrases more overused than “rock and roll poet.” Most rock lyrics are nothing more than punchy rhymes. But Downie’s work merits the term.
Downie’s lyrics are enigmatic, rarely making themselves plainly understood. Their meaning is personal, and can shift over time. Like a jagged rock whose appearance changes as you roll it around in your hands, a Downie lyric never sounds the same twice. It deepens and shifts over time.
In Wheat Kings, he sang: “And all you hear are rusty breezes pushing / around the weather vane Jesus.”
From last year’s In A World Possessed By The Human Mind: “We’re in awe of no one / We’ve none of their fear / Fighting’s going nowhere and we stay right here.”
From “Bobcaygon”, a wistful look at love: “Yeah, the sky was dull and hypothetical / And fallin’ one cloud at a time.”
He was a rock and roll poet who could rock out like a Canadian hoser. What hockey fan doesn’t love the percussive thump of “The last goal he ever scored / Won the Leafs the Cup.”?
After being diagnosed with an incurable brain tumor, Downie turned his energy to Canada’s First Nations peoples. He released Secret Path, the story of the tragic death of a neglected aboriginal child – and a demand for governments to do more to make things right with our First Nations people. If you haven’t listened to it, you should.
At The Hip’s final concert , he called out Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and implored him to do more.
He was honoured by the Assembly of First Nations, and given the name “He Who Walks With The Stars.” He sobbed at the ceremony, and we wept with him.
He kept on writing. Later this month, his final solo album, Introduce Yerself, will be released. Some of its songs were recorded in a single take. Downie knew time was running out.
And now it has. We knew this day was coming, but that doesn’t ease the sense of loss.
Let’s put on some Hip music today, and be grateful he left us with so much.