Heaven is a better place today.
But the world just wont be the same.
How would you live your life if you knew your life was ending soon?
We all knew today was coming. We all knew it was going to come sooner than later. But nobody wanted to believe it. Just like we knew that night in Kingston was the swan song, nobody wanted to believe it. But here we are today and Gord Downie has passed away at 53.
Anyone who was a fan of the Tragically Hip never wanted this band to end. The word “beloved” barely scratches the surface, especially in Canada.
With the Tragically Hip, Gord Downie was the true poet of the true north Canada. Lyrics with images of the prairies, small towns in cottage country like Bobcaygeon. Stories about hockey, the 72 summit series, where “we all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger” but the girl next to him wasn’t impressed:
“You said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey
and I never saw someone say that before
you held my hand and we walked home the long way
you were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr”
Gord knew that love has a way of changing a young man’s priorities.
So does impending demise.
But you didn’t have to be Canadian to love Gord Downie, he spoke to the human condition, he spoke to what makes us tick, or to celebrate.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw the Tragically Hip live, admittedly I came to the party late, it was 2000. By then the Hip had already cemented their legend in Canada, and their almost cult like following down here in the States. It was one of their “Evening with The Tragically Hip” tours. No opening act. Just two sets of our beloved Hip. The show was transcendent and watching Gord with his gyrations and pantomime, yelling at the microphone stand, (ya had to be there) was literally joyous. Every song was delivered with 100% passion and effort every single time, every single show.
I remember a radio guy asking Gord how handles coming off stage after a bad show. Gord’s response was “we don’t do bad shows.” Now I suspect Gord was being cute, but it was also true. In the dozens of Hip shows I’ve seen, not a single one was bad. They never mailed it in. Even on that first night for me, the first of many over the years, there was a small group of disruptive, fairly drunk folks in the first row. In the middle of a song Gord said, as the band was playing the riff to “Poets” behind him:
“Is there some kind of unrest in the pit? Please, I want to know what’s wrong. Please tell me. Because I can’t go on with the show when you keep giving me the finger. It has an effect, how could it not? I could try to ignore you, but that’s not the ticket you bought..”
That’s not the ticket you bought.
I have always said that performed live rock ‘n’ roll is not a lecture, it’s a dialog and nowhere else was that truer than a Hip show. I have been to hundreds of shows in my life, nowhere have a heard such an ovation, nowhere did I see such communication as I would see at Hip shows.
The message that the Tragically Hip sent out that morning, now over a year gone by, hit some of us, myself included like a ton of bricks, like a punch in the gut. Gord Downie had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I had to read those words over and over. How could this possibly be true? His aura was one of so much life, so much positivity even in the face of injustice and disappointment that he worked to improve, to bring attention to, even to his dying day.. So stunned was I that I missed the rest of the email. The part that said, the Hip were going to tour. They never said it, but everyone knew this tour would be their last. The victory lap around Canada to be concluded with a show in their hometown of Kingston. A show that was broadcast on the CBC to the world. A show were hundreds of people gathered in the city square of Kingston to watch the show on screens and to be with other fans. Community.
Not many guys get to dance at their own wake. Not many guys get to say thank you in person, to take that last bow.
You owe it to yourself to check that show out. It’s got to be online someplace. I have never seen anything like it before or since in terms of emotional expression both by the artists and by the people who love them A recap of that show has been done multiple times before and by better writers than me, but I will tell you this, he took some time in the show to speak directly to Prime Minister Trudeau who was in attendance in his denim jacket and Tragically Hip tee shirt to tell him that he knew he could count on him to address the issues affecting Canada’s First Peoples in the far flung territories in the north of Canada. A region so impoverished, so plagued with drug abuse and lack of hope that youth suicide runs rampant up there. Gord Downie’s book A Secret Path tells the story of a young boy who died trying to escape a residential school up there. Gord made their plight, his final cause. Don’t tell me what the poets are doing indeed.
In the year or so since his diagnosis, Gord Downie:
- Toured with his band.
- Recorded a solo album.
- Received the Order of Canada.
- Spent time with his family where he passed away quietly last night.
How would you live your life if you knew your life was ending soon?
Gord actually changed how I look at music that maybe doesn’t quite resonate with me when he was asked on an interview something like:
“Do you feel you have to compete with the Britneys of the world?”
Gord smiled that smile of his and said, “What’s wrong with Britney? She’s singing a song and doing a dance, and that’s all we’re doing.”
I took those words to heart when it came to music. I don’t think you have heard me say one bad word about any artist from that day forward. Nobody sucks. Not everything is for me, but it can be for someone else and that, is beautiful.
I was going to add a line or two here complaining about how the Hip, and Gord Downie never got the attention from us here in America like they did in Canada but I think maybe, in retrospect, it’s better this way. We, as American fans in a city close to the Canadian border got to borrow Gord Downie once in a while. He told us about Canada, he told the stories only he could tell and his band delivered them with stunning rock ‘n’ roll. But he belonged to his home country, he belonged to Canada and now he belongs to the Universe, and his message will belong to us all.
Today while fans like me and those who loved him will mourn his passing, let’s do it the way I think Gord would have wanted us to, by celebrating a life.
The life of a poet.
We can even do it with Fireworks.
Godspeed Gord, and thank you.
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