Gord Downie: 1964–2017

Remembering the life and legacy of The Tragically Hip frontman

He was on a fishing trip. In the remote north, in a land where the many not born there dare not go. Where some get lost. Where some go to get lost.

Days earlier, this quiet man had held much of the entire nation rapt, millions watching as he summoned all his strength to tackle his terminal condition, to fend back—however briefly—the inevitability of death. To testify one more time. It would turn out to be the last show of his band’s 30-year, multi-million-selling, award-winning career, a fate many suspected at the time.

But things were much quieter now. Just a few close friends on a starry night in front of a campfire.

There were a few others there, though, most of whom knew enough to respect the privacy of the cancer-stricken man who had travelled hundreds of kilometres to disappear. Nonetheless, someone piped up.

“Gord, I always wanted to ask you: how do you get the energy to make it so real every day? I think if I put myself out there like that, on the line, and make people emotionally connect with me, I feel like I couldn’t ever do it again, because I’d get bored or I just couldn’t summon the same amount of emotion. And it seems like you get up there every single time and give it!”

The man slumped a bit. Paused. Then he got up, silently, walked over to a pile of wood, picked up two logs, and returned to put them on the fire. Not a word. He stoked the fire until sparks came out. The poet whose metaphors had inspired generations of rock’n’roll fans had nothing more to say—with words, anyway.

Do the work. Create the spark. Then sit back and see what happens, because it’s not like you can control it. Sit down. Shut up until it’s time to do it again. See where those sparks land.

Gordon Edgar 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. Video clips don’t do justice to the energy in the room generated by a performer who communicated more with a flick of the finger than anyone else’s high kicks. That’s what even newcomers discovered during the CBC broadcast of the Tragically Hip’s final show on Aug. 20, 2016, six months after Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It was a Terry Fox story with a twist: a story where the protagonist completes his goal before the disease gets the better of him.

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 was then a real-estate developer with Edgar, and who would go on to become the Stanley Cup-winning coach of the Boston Bruins and lead Team Canada to victory in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union.

Downie attended Kingston Collegiate Vocational Institute, a school that has also graduated the likes of John A. Macdonald, Robertson Davies, and Don Cherry. “I came from a rural area,” he once recalled. “I wouldn’t say it’s given me a stigma, but it’s something that’s always stayed with me, not actually being from Kingston.” His outsider status became part of his public identity: the poet in the bar band; the rock star slumming it with indie kids while cozying up to intelligentsia; the artist with a commercially successful cushion who thrived on continuing to challenge himself with new collaborators and varied disciplines like dance, painting, and acting. The rest of the Tragically Hip were scions of the Kingston elite—sons of doctors, deans, judges and popular teachers. Downie could at least boast that he had a family connection to hockey royalty, in Sinden.

Downie joined a punk band called the Slinks; their friendly competitors at the school were a Grade 13 group called the Rodents, featuring bassist Gord Sinclair and guitarist Robbie Baker. A young drummer in Grade 9, Johnny Fay, watched with interest. Four of those five young men played their first gig as the Tragically Hip in November 1984, in a small white room at the Kingston Artists Association. Paul Langlois, the son of the school's gym teacher and football coach who Downie befriended in Grade 11, wouldn’t join until a year later; by that time, Downie was studying film at Queen’s (“mostly, I learned how to drink,” he said of his time there).

In the band’s first three years, they played ’60s cover songs by the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison’s Them, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and the Monkees. Downie’s on-stage improvisations were a principal part of the band’s appeal from day one, though he was not yet a lyricist. As original material slowly seeped its way into the set, it was the other Gord, Sinclair, who wrote most of the lyrics. It wasn’t until the 1991 release of the band’s second album, Road Apples, that Downie seized the lyrical reins entirely.

The Tragically Hip released their first EP in December 1987; a year after that, they headed down to Memphis to record 1989’s Up to Here—which would become one of two Hip albums to eventually sell more than a million copies in Canada. They tapped into rock’n’roll’s primal energy in ways that had been largely forgotten by the late ’80s: they were a dressed-down, no-frills roadhouse bar band whose videos were rejected by MTV, a band whose sound was far removed from the era’s pop stars, stadium rock, hair metal, aging Boomers, newer bluesy bands—even from alternative icons like R.E.M. or somewhat similarly minded mainstream artists like John Mellencamp. They were too traditional and aspirational to be punk or “alternative,” and yet they were raw enough that they immediately stood out on any mainstream radio playlist. But neither video nor radio was responsible for the band’s rapid ascent: it was their live performances, where Downie’s unusual charisma electrified everyone who piled into either biker bars or student pubs to see them.

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 inflamed his fans. Poetry and pop music are not strangers, of course: just ask the committee who granted Bob Dylan the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature. Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell deserve to be read on the page just as often as you play their records—but they don’t play rock music. In a genre prone to cliché, outright nonsense and occasional misogyny, Gord Downie wrote lyrics that dipped in the same well as Al Purdy, Raymond Carver, Northrop Frye, Timothy Findley, Hugh MacLennan and others; he would even quote those writers directly in his lyrics. 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, songs full of what songwriter John K. Samson calls “beautifully meaningful non-sequiturs.”

The Tragically Hip, 1992

The Tragically Hip, photographed in New York in February 1992. Clockwise from left: Gord Downie, guitarist Gord Sinclair, guitarist Rob Baker, bassist Paul Langlois and drummer Johnny Fay. Bob Berg/Getty

That includes Downie’s specifically Canadian references, which were all but alien on radio playlists then (or now). He cherished the anomaly; he’d arrive on stage and say, for no discernible reason, things like “Hello and welcome. My name is Maurice Duplessis,” as he did on the stage of Vancouver’s Thunderbird Stadium on Canada Day, 1992. This was all a red (and white) herring: There are likely as many American references as Canadian ones in Tragically Hip songs, and Downie never threw darts at a map of Canada for song ideas, nor did he seek to set Heritage Minutes to music. It’s telling, though, that the album on which he makes the most Canadian references—the album on which one song starts with an actual loon call—is also their most commercially successful: 1992’s Fully Completely. His subject matter was always broader than he was given credit for, but it’s easier for armchair academics to latch onto songs about hockey and a “late-breaking story on the CBC”; those topics were low-hanging fruit in the dense forest of Downie’s imagination.

No matter how opaque or directly critical of Canadian history he may have been, Downie faced a sea of literal flag-waving at almost every single show—especially at shows not on Canadian soil. He took it in stride: if part of his poetry’s appeal was that he rarely telegraphed direct meaning, he had to accept the fact that fans were going to read whatever they wanted into what he said.

There was no left turn in Downie’s career greater than his first solo album, 2001’s Coke Machine Glow, compiled of songs his Hip bandmates had rejected and works culled from an accompanying book of poetry by the same name—which set sales records in a corner of the publishing industry where 10,000 copies might as well be 100,000. (He wasn’t nominated at that year’s inaugural Griffin Prize for Poetry, but he did perform at the gala.) The album was raw, experimental and far removed from the rock radio world the Hip inhabited: droning organs, atonal guitar screeches and accordions competed for sonic space with Downie’s vocals atop opiated folk-country songs. It had more in common with Neil Young’s 1975 ramshackle fan favourite album Tonight’s the Night than, say, anything that would have a life on classic-rock-radio playlists. The press and the music industry were largely baffled; among his peers, and especially among non-Hip fans, it remains a beloved and influential record. To play live, he formed a band featuring members of the Odds, the Rheostatics, Eric’s Trip, Dinner is Ruined, and the Skydiggers.

Solo albums were a pressure-release valve for Downie during the early 2000s, as the Hip became elder statesmen in danger of being taken for granted. Record sales and radio play declined, though never precipitously enough to render the band irrelevant. In the latter part of the decade, he pushed the band to record two albums with Bob Rock—who produced albums by the likes of Metallica and Michael Buble—and he helped broaden the band’s sonic palette. His later solo records, including a rollicking, punkish 2014 album recorded with the Sadies, were remarkably conventional compared to Coke Machine Glow. Even when he stepped outside the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie loved to make rock records, first and foremost.

When he wasn’t doing that, he directed his attention to environmental issues, specifically those endorsed by Lake Ontario Waterkeeper, a Canadian water charity run by an old Queen’s University classmate, Mark Mattson. Downie’s political awareness had been tweaked in 1993, when the Hip invited Midnight Oil on a summer Canadian tour; that band’s singer, Peter Garrett, was an outspoken activist who would later serve as Australia’s environment minister. Garrett and his bandmates became invested in the fight against clearcutting in B.C.’s Clayoquot Sound, and convinced the Hip to join them. Downie was reluctant at first; he told the Toronto Star he felt like a dilettante. Years later, when he decided to be more vocal, he made sure he did his homework, studying casework, speaking at hearings, relying on research and science rather than his celebrity—much like his old friend Sarah Harmer, another Waterkeeper supporter.

By 2016, when he released his Secret Path project to address the legacy of residential schools, he decided that his celebrity was now his best asset: he knew he had the country’s attention after the Hip’s farewell tour, and the reluctant nationalist used it to focus specifically on an issue he felt was a glaring stain that could not be washed out of Canada’s history. In the space of a month, he transformed the half-century-old tale of Chanie Wenjack—a 12-year-old boy who froze to death running away from residential school in 1966—into a current concern. Wenjack was to 2016 what Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi was to 2015: a tragic symbol who launched a Canadian conversation about compassion and collective reckoning. “Let’s not celebrate the last 150 years,” Downie told a Toronto audience last October. “Let’s celebrate our next 150 years.”

Though he clearly relished his role on stage, Downie’s approach to celebrity was always tenuous. He rarely granted interviews, and generally eschewed red-carpet jaunts for events like the Juno Awards. The entire band valued their privacy, but Downie even more so: perhaps because of the adulation directed his way, but also because of the way he was raised. “I think I take my nana’s approach," he once admitted. "She said, ‘I wouldn’t go to the lobby of my building to see Frank Sinatra.’ ” In a 1991 profile of the Hip, a reporter from the Kingston Whig-Standard visited all the band members’ families. The Downie residence was the only one where the Hip’s gold record was nowhere to be seen; the elder Downies couldn’t remember the name of his high-school punk band. “When you have five children, it’s hard to remember all the details,” said Edgar. “Gordie doesn’t like to be the centre of attention,” added Lorna. It was, in a way, a very Canadian approach to celebrity.

Downie’s privacy was put to the test in 2015, when the Huffington Post ran a story about how his Toronto home had recently sold for under the asking price—unheard of in the city’s real estate market. It was a rare piece of celebrity news about Downie, who had steadfastly shielded his four children and Laura Usher, his wife of 23 years, from the public eye; the lone exception was in 2012, when Downie talked openly about Usher’s bout with breast cancer. What few knew in 2015, however, was that Downie and Usher had separated, prompting the sale of the house.

On top of that, his beloved father, Edgar, was ailing; Downie spent a lot of time with him that year in Kingston while recording the Hip’s Man Machine Poem at their nearby studio. Edgar died in November 2015.

Three days after the funeral, Downie had a seizure. A Kingston hospital diagnosed the 52-year-old singer with primary glioblastoma, an aggressive and terminal brain cancer. Months of craniotomies, chemo and radiation therapy followed. The band’s management broke the news just after the May long weekend in 2016, while simultaneously announcing a tour to promote the new album.

The working men were going to work. It would be the last time.

The Tragically Hip performing in 2016

Tragically Hip lead singer Gord Downie performs with band members Paul Langlois, Gord Sinclair, Johnny Fay and Rob Baker at the Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre to kick off the band’s latest “Man Machine Poem” tour in light of Downie’s brain cancer diagnosis, in Victoria, B.C., Canada July 22, 2016. Kevin Light/Reuters

“I would get very jumbled emails when he was in treatment, or texts at odd hours of the night,” says one former musical colleague. “When he first said they were going on tour, I said, ‘Are you okay? Are you sure?’ Then I understood his reasoning, not the least of which was doing it for the guys, which was really lovely, and I thought, “Of course. You’re a rock’n’roll band. You’re family.” And [doing it for] his own family as well, to put something in the coffers for his kids.”

Those were the private reasons. What followed once the show hit the road, though, was a public outpouring that few could have predicted: a year of Downie transforming from an aging rock star to tragic hero.

It shouldn’t have surprised us. Even the most cursory walk through his discography showed a man wrestling with notions of mortality in his work for years. He was the poet who once asked, “When are you thinking of disappearing? When are you falling off the map?” He was the singer who once sang, “Do I make you scared? It’s kinda what I do.” He was the man who once wrote a song for his late grandmother—a song he sang several nights on stage in the summer of 2016—that said, “You were far more unifying than you know.”

Everyone whose family has ever been cursed with cancer projected stories onto the tale of a man who chose to stare down a terminal diagnosis and take the show on the road. It was a move unprecedented in music history: this was not a suicide, like with Kurt Cobain; this was not an addict flaming out in public, as Amy Winehouse did; this was not an artist whose later work showed clear signs of physical decline, like Johnny Cash; this was not someone who was going to disappear quietly, like David Bowie, who left us to wrestle with his final artistic statements posthumously. This was a man inviting us to his own wake. Everyone was prepared for the funeral at any moment. Some Canadians, being a cautious bunch, flew from Ontario to B.C. to catch the first shows of the tour, just in case he didn’t make it home.

But he did, at the final Tragically Hip show at the K-Rock Centre in Kingston on Aug. 20—broadcast live on the CBC to an estimated 11.7 million viewers, with 20,000 people from across the continent assembled in Kingston’s Springer Market Square to celebrate. In the middle of the set, Downie made a plea for reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples, calling out the Prime Minister by name. A month later, Downie launched his Secret Path project. That included only three live shows, in Toronto, Ottawa and Halifax, and appearances at the Ottawa WE Day event and Hayden’s Dream Serenade concert in Toronto. In December, the Assembly of First Nations honoured his work on reconciliation by endowing him with a Lakota spirit name: Wicapi Omani, or “man who walks among the stars.” In June, he and the band were named to the Order of Canada; Downie received his early, alongside activist Sylvia Maracle. Though they were lumped together because of their work on Indigenous issues—Maracle’s work on which, of course, far outstretched Downie’s more recent foray—many wondered if the timing had more to do with health concerns.

In his last public appearance, Downie appeared at a WE Day event as part of Canada150 in Ottawa on July 2, once again calling on Canadian youth to reckon with the legacy of residential schools. A children’s choir sang “The Stranger,” the opening track from Secret Path. As with the blanket ceremony, the emotion and pride on his face was palpable. This, it seemed, meant much more to him than the Hip’s final show or the Order of Canada or the millions of records he sold.

Gord Downie was a haunting presence around Toronto in 2017: singing “Lost Together” with Blue Rodeo at Massey Hall, taking in a PJ Harvey show, embracing Drake at a Raptors game, posing with Bobby Orr. All the while, he was writing and recording: with the Hip, keyboardist Kevin Hearn, avant-garde noisemakers Dinner is Ruined, and separate projects with producers Kevin Drew and Bob Rock. He told Globe and Mail writer Ian Brown he planned to build a cabin near Chanie Wenjack’s relatives in northwestern Ontario, where he could spend his final days. “I dream about it, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself,” he said. “Because of the feeling you get when you go up there. The people I’ve met, they’re so beautiful.”

Downie passed away on the night of Tuesday, Oct. 17, with his children and family by his side, according to a statement released by the band.

On that summer night in Kingston, the set list dipped back to the Hip’s first hit single, “Blow at High Dough,” the one that opens with the line: “They shot a movie once, in my hometown.” His movie, our hometowns: Downie’s lyrics imbued Canada’s music scene with mystery and magic and presented it, poetically, to a wide mainstream audience. That song also features a line that sums up the way Gord Downie and his teenage friends built their career from the outset of its ascendancy: “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.”

Do the work. Create the spark. When he finished, Gord Downie left an eternal flame.

“Those who mourn are blessed

Those who mourn can love

And make music of their language

Just to hear the sound again.”

– Gord Downie, “Pinned,” 2010

Michael Barclay is the co-author of Have Not Been the Same, and the author of The Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip.