Last Wednesday morning, just as Advertiser staff was putting the finishing touches on our Oct. 20 edition, a fellow employee relayed some horrible News.
Though not entirely unexpected, it hit me hard, instantly altering the tone for the entire day and forever impacting my life, and in many ways, our entire nation.
The News, of course, was that Gord Downie, 53, frontman for The Tragically Hip, had died the previous evening after a battle with brain cancer. The Hip announced last May that Downie had terminal cancer and also that the band would embark on one last Canadian tour. Millions of Canadians watched on CBC the final concert in Kingston on Aug. 20, 2016.
Witnessing that finale was a once-in-a-lifetime experience many of us will never forget. But honestly, that’s not how I want to remember Downie’s music.
For me, it’s the first time I ever listened to a Tragically Hip album, start to finish, early in my high school days. It’s endless road trips, hockey warm-ups, house parties, university cram sessions and family reunions, all enriched by an eclectic Hip playlist.
It’s a dozen unforgettable live Hip performances I was fortunate to attend, notably “Roadside Attractions,” the inaugural concert at Kingston’s Rogers K-Rock Centre in 2008 and, most recently, a 2012 concert in Guelph.
It’s singing along to Ahead by a Century on an eerily calm country drive during a severe thunderstorm in 1996 with my high school sweetheart (now my wife).
And it’s dancing unabashedly with my young daughters to Little Bones in one of their first introductions to daddy’s favourite band.
The Tragically Hip has supplied a large portion of the soundtrack to the last 25 years of my life – and for good reason.
Very few musical acts are able to successfully fuse eloquent poetry and powerful music into such a meaningful yet entertaining package. Downie and the Hip did it with invariable aplomb.
Downie’s poetry taught Canadians about this country and ourselves. Personally, it nurtured my adolescent desire to study Canadian history, however uncomfortable that exercise can be at times.
But what made Downie so unforgettable was more than just the lyrics and the music.
I once strongly believed that entertainers should remain apolitical; that artists should simply do their job and leave politics to the politicians. But over the years, Downie taught us all that some do care enough to offer more than just empty platitudes and a couple of meaningless cheques.
He dedicated his last months on this Earth to highlighting the plight of Indigenous peoples and to advocating for reconciliation.
As a teary-eyed Justin Trudeau noted, Downie knew that “as great as we were, we needed to be better than we are.” The Prime Minister aptly concluded that Canada is “less as a country without Gord Downie in it.”
In poring over endless tributes to Downie last week, I was therefore struck by the irony that it was an American who perhaps best summarized, for the unenlightened among us, the magnitude of his loss.
“The place of honour that Mr. Downie occupies in Canada’s national imagination has no parallel in the United States,” wrote Simon Vozick-Levinson in the New York Times.
“Imagine Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Michael Stipe combined into one sensitive, oblique poet-philosopher, and you’re getting close.”
But close only.
There never was, and never will be, anyone quite like Gord Downie.
Canadians should be forever grateful for all he’s done.