I remember the day in 1987 when my then-boyfriend popped their first EP, “The Tragically Hip” into the cassette player of his dad’s Chrysler Cordoba. When “Last American Exit” came on, I loved it instantly. It’s been on my playlists for 30 years. I’ve seen the Hip at community colleges, hockey rinks, bars, summer festivals, and arenas. I’m part of a swath of Canadians for which the Hip’s music meant good times and Canadian pride; our stories, truths, and landscape writ large in songs with incisive lyrics and driving beats.
Among my favorite Hip songs, “50 Mission Cap” honors Bill Barilko, whose last goal won the 1951 Stanley Cup for the Toronto Maple Leafs. That spring, Barilko went missing on a fishing trip and the Leafs failed to win a cup until 1962, the year Barilko’s remains were discovered. Then of course, there’s “Ahead By A Century,” in which Gord asks us to embrace the moment, reminding us that “there’s no dress rehearsal, this is our life.” Part poet, part visionary, part activist, Gord Downie was a dervish on stage, growling those lyrics into the minds of audiences for three decades.
On October 17th, Downie passed away after battling glioblastoma for two years. In his moving tribute, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said, “We are less as a country without Gord Downie in it.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Downie is that he chose to spend the last two years of his life accelerating his contribution to social justice, working toward a better life for others, toward a better Canada. He used his profile and his songwriting to foster reconciliation between Canada and First Nations people by raising awareness of the atrocities and generational effects of residential schools. For his work, the Assembly of First Nations honored Downie with an eagle feather and a Lakota spirit name — Wicapi Omani — which means, “Man who walks among the stars.”
Here are five pieces about a man who used story and song to share his Canada and, through personal example, inspired and challenged us to be better as a nation.
1. “For Gord: 27 Short Essays About The Tragically Hip, Plus One Poem” (TheBelleJar, BuzzFeed, June 2016)
In this round-up, 28 fans share their earliest memories of The Tragically Hip and how Gord Downie and his lyrics became the soundtrack to important moments in their lives.
After initial die-hard fandom, Eric Koreen gets turned off the Hip for a decade after getting fed up with a small, boorish, white male contingent of the group’s fan base, interested only in hearing the hits in concert — certainly not opening bands with thoughtful, though lesser-known songs. Koreen eventually reconciles the Hip’s dichotomous hold on Canada, in that they “combine the intellectual side of Canadians — that we’re thoughtful, smart people — with that humble, meat-and-potatoes side, too.” Koreen suggests his change of heart came as a direct result of Gord Downie, who he characterizes as someone who could “be frustrated by your country but not disown it; that you can be an intellectual and an everyman at the same time.”
Damian Abraham, vocalist for Canadian hardcore punk band Fucked Up, recounts how he turned from lifelong Hip hater to friend of Gord Downie.
I met Gord properly for the first time in the summer of 2010 backstage at a Tegan and Sara/City and Colour concert. Gord was to join Dallas Green onstage to perform the song they did together on the latter’s Bring Me Your Love record, and I had brought my family with me to watch the show. My son was toddling his way around the backstage with us in tow when tumbled out in front of Gord. After helping him up and making sure he was OK, he picked up Holden’s flung and filthy soother and rushed over the sink to wash it. As he handed back the washed pacifier, I told him that he didn’t need to worry about doing that.
“Of course I did,” he responded.
Youthful exuberance can lead to rashness. In my rush to embrace punk and reject all that didn’t fit with my new world view, I ended up throwing out a lot of culture that I was thankfully able to rediscover later. Of all these bands, there are none I am more grateful to have awoken to the greatness of than the Tragically Hip.
Jim Cuddy, of the legendary Canadian band Blue Rodeo, shares stories of times his band and the Hip crossed paths in their early years touring Canada.
We were supposed to be on right before the Hip, but the Eagles inserted some guy whose father owns the Knicks. It was a blues band, and he was terrible. But he had to go on then because it was his plane that the Eagles were flying on.
Then the Hip came on and they were on fire. Gord was in a big white outfit, totally drenched. At the side of the stage is Irving Azoff [longtime Eagles manager and former CEO of Ticketmaster and Live Nation] standing there with the Eagles, and he’s looking at Gord telling him to shorten the set, making gestures. It’s making me furious, because I know the Eagles only want to shorten the set so they can get on a plane and fly out, which they can’t do after midnight or something. So Gord’s doing his thing and continues on. Then the Eagles come on and do a miserable set, just sucking the joy out of the whole island. Afterwards I was sitting with Gord backstage and asked, “Didn’t that bug you?” He said, “Pfft, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d be playing and have Irving Azoff telling me to shorten my set.”
5. “Gord Downie opens up about battling cancer, says it’s ‘creating something'” (Peter Mansbridge, CBC News, October 2016)
In his first interview after his cancer diagnosis, Gord Downie talks with Peter Mansbridge about living with cancer.
When you see people now, you want to hug and a kiss. Why is that important to you now?
I do. Yeah. That was happening before, though, all this, strangely. My life was changing and I felt that everyone that hung in there with me, all these years, were still there — they didn’t write me off or anything like that. And they could have. So yes, hug and kiss. And my dad, Edgar, definitely kissed on the lips. And me and my brothers taught a lot of men how to do it.