After losing Trailer Park Boys’ & Canadian theatre actor John Dunsworth this week, Canadians didn’t think they could take much more loss. Much to our collective chagrin, The Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie succumbed to brain cancer on the eve of October 17th. Gord was diagnosed with terminal glioblastoma, a rare and aggressive form of brain cancer in December of 2016, but kept fans in the dark until the end of May of this year.
Following the release of their 13th studio album, Man Machine Poem, The Hip pulled together for one final tour. “This feels like the right thing to do now, for Gord, and for all of us,” Downie’s bandmates said. With a waning ability to remember the words to his own songs, and no fewer than 6 teleprompters at each show, The Hip hit the road from Victoria, British Columbia to Kingston, Ontario; the place where it all began. The shows sold out within days, as scalpers across the country took advantage of The Tragically Hip’s ultimately farewell tour. Ticket prices soared, but this didn’t deter fans from seeing their favourite band play one last time.
I still remember the first time I read the name, The Tragically Hip. I laughed. “Who the hell would name their band that?” said eighth grade Aaron. I only cared for Metallica, Nirvana, and The Who at the time, and wasn’t really inclined to branch my musical tastes out. I started hanging out with the new kid in class, Evan, who was quite adamant about having me listen to a song about eating chicken slow, and a paying a buck-and-a-half for a beer. I hadn’t the slightest indication of what I was listening to. I didn’t know what it meant, but once I heard more, I became enthralled with the smokey poetic words of one Gordon E. Downie.
With a rag-tag group of mostly his high school friends, Gord and company told the poetic story of Canada without undertones of nationalism and blatant disregard for truth. They wrote songs of love and life, and even a couple about getting “All Tore Up”. Their music told the story of the Canada we never knew; the one we ignored because it was too dark.
A friend to the First Nations people, Gord started a charity fund in the honor and memory of Chanie Wenjack, a boy who fled his austere residential school in 1966. He also, along with other artists, began a project entitled Secret Path. The project included the release of a film, a graphic novel, and a 10-track album by Downie, which won 2 Juno Awards. Gord was honoured by the Assembly of First Nations last December for his work in exposing and reconciling the past injustices done to the First Nations people.
I had the distinct pleasure of seeing The Hip play twice; once in Ottawa in 2010, and Toronto in 2015. Never, in all of the concerts that I’ve attended, have I seen one human being with such a commanding stage presence. With the rest of the band around him, bolstering the energy he exuded, they had no trouble bringing every single person in the audience to their feet to sing along to every word.
So how do I put into words what their music has done for me? What hearing “The Last of the Unplucked Gems” does for me on a lousy day? How happy I was to see Gord fight the microphone stand 100 feet away from me? How do I say goodbye to the most incredible human being that I never met?