Gord Downie became somewhat of a legend as a rock artist in Canada. Incorporating lyrics into his songwriting that either related, or alluded to tragic and meaningful stories soon became his signature style. His was a poetry that touched Canadians as well as fans all over the world.
Gord Downie Saved the Best for Last
The final stop of Downie’s recent cross-Canada tour ended on a warm night in August, in the Springer Market Square in Kingston, Ontario, and was filled to overflowing. Gord Downie looked as though he didn’t want to ever stop, and at the same time, the crowd didn’t want him to either. Both knew this was the last show of the tour but, quite possibly, it could also be his last show, because Gord Downie had recently announced he had incurable brain cancer.
Was his immense popularity because he was especially remarkable in his career? Yes, that was part of it. But mostly it was because Gord Downie, along with his band “The Tragically Hip” had some real Canadian stories to tell.
Born in Amherstview, near Kingston, Ontario, in 1964, Gordon Edgar Downie followed a path that would eventually lead him to rock stardom. His early life at Kingston Collegiate and Vocational Institute became the source of some of the friendships he would cultivate that would bring about the forging of his famous, Canadian rock band, “The Tragically Hip” in 1983. Most of those friends are still his band members and are with Downie today.
The first members of ‘The Hip’ included Rob Baker, Johnny Faye, Davis Manning and Gord Sinclair but Manning left the group a few years later,replaced by guitarist- Paul Langlois in 1986. Their early music was performed as a cover band in bars and taverns, but soon they were noticed by Bruce Dickinson, MCA Records president, playing at the Horeshoe Tavern in downtown Toronto. Their path soon changed when Dickinson offered them a record deal.
Downie drew attention for his poetry-like, story-telling lyrics as well as his antics and posturing on stage. It wasn’t long before “The Tragically Hip” began to develop a huge following. Downie had Canadian tales to tell and a powerful message in his lyrics. The sound was as unique as Downie was. And so, the band rocked-on for several years, collecting Juno Awards (14 in all) and a few Grammies along the way but always it was Downie’s words and wild, sincere vibes that was most memorable.
In 2002 ‘The Hip’ was given their “sidewalk star” on the walk of fame located in downtown Toronto, alongside the likes of Neil Young, Rush and Joni Mitchell.
In 2002, even though ‘The Hip’ were doing famously, Downie decided to do something completely different and went about putting a collection of some of his poetry and lyrics into a solo album,‘Coke Machine Glow’. The title was taken from a book of poetry by the same name that includes family, personal and road poems he wrote over time. Then, in 2003, his solo album “Battle of the Nudes”, followed and was a success.
In her article on Downie, Vanessa Metcalfe relates that through his works of poetry, Downie has been called by critics, “urban, political, universal, nostalgic, and romantic”. In 2005, The Tragically Hip were inducted into the Hall of Fame.
‘The Hip’ kept on rocking and over the years, they have produced over 14 Studio Albums, 2 Live Albums and 54 Singles. They developed a large, devoted Canadian following, filling entire hockey rinks- even though their sound was not what anyone would call -mainstream. But they could never break into the US the same way. Were their songs, perhaps, just too Canadian? As was mentioned in “the Georgia Straight”, by Mike Usinger in July 2016, “What a long strange journey it’s been for Canada’s greatest-ever band, the Tragically Hip’s one-time biggest failing now being the thing that makes it so great.” He explained that “To be a hard-core fan is to understand that, for a long time, the Hip was judged on what it was never able to do: crack America.”
Hip devotees all had their favourite songs. Some of the most well-loved hits are “Bobcaygeon,” “Losing My Religion,” “New Orleans is Sinking,” “Wheat Kings,” “Highway Girls,” “Locked in the Trunk of a Car,” “Fiddler’s Green,” “38 Years Old,” “Courage,” “Fifty Mission Cap,” “It’s a Good Life, if You Don’t Weaken,” “Nautical Disaster” and more.
Most of these favorites had a poignant story to tell. There was always a message in the words that wasn’t always immediately apparent.
Hidden in the nostalgic song “Bobcaygeon”- a cottage-access, picturesque little town in Ontario’s northern Kawartha Lakes area- are words that obliquely refer to a 1933 riot that occurred between Toronto’s Jewish communities and the so-called Swastika clubs. Unexpected lyrics, actually: “That night in Toronto with its checkerboard floors/Riding on horseback and keeping order restored/Till the men they couldn’t hang/Stepped to the mic and sang/And their voices rang with that Aryan twang.”
“Wheat Kings” from their popular 1992 album “Fully Completely,” which sold over a million copies in Canada, retells the real-life story of Saskatchewan’s David Milgaard, who was finally exonerated of the crime of raping and killing a nurse, Gail Miller. This, after serving 23 years in prison.
Downie’s lyrics in “Wheat Kings” hit hard: “In his Zippo lighter, he sees the killer’s face/ Maybe it’s someone standing in a killer’s place/ Twenty years for nothing, well that’s nothing new/ Besides, no one’s interested in something you didn’t do/ Wheat kings and pretty things, let’s just see what the morning brings”.
“Fifty Mission Cap,” from the same album, tells the story of Toronto Maple Leaf Bill Barilko, the player who scored the Stanley Cup–winning goal in 1951. A few months after the victory, the 24-year-old’s plane disappeared on a fishing trip into the Northern Ontario wilderness. Searchers couldn’t find his body or the wreckage for 11 years after the crash. Eerily, however, it took the Leafs the same 11-year span to win the Stanley Cup again, winning the Cup only after Barilko’s body was discovered.
However, “tragically”, in May 2016, Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer and as fans reeled at that shocking news, they also heard that their well-loved ‘Hip’ band would be going on a cross-country tour that same summer. And so, grief for their front man, Gord, combined with an urgency to see ‘The Hip’- quite possibly- for the last time- spurred the tour into a raucous, emotional success. The ‘Hip’s’ 2016, Man Machine Poem Tour filled all tour stops to overflowing. The tour began in Victoria B.C. on July 22 and ended where it all began for the band — in Kingston, Ontario.
CBC aired the live show on August 20, and over 11 million tuned it to watch the sea of love directed toward Downie and the band, but it was never more than the love that was sent back. Springer Market Square was alive with love and tears that night.
However, it wasn’t over yet. Another Canadian story was destined to come to light not long afterward. Downie brought to life in word and music the heartbreaking recount of a little Objiway boy in his next album, “Secret Path”. The album and an 88-page graphic novel illustrated by Jeff Lemire, is dedicated to Chanie Wenjack, an indigenous boy who died of hunger and exposure after running away from a residential school, near Kenora, Ontario. Chanie was trying to get home to his family but never made it. Gord Downie highlighted the story with a “Secret Path” show in October 2016, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the boy’s lonely ordeal.
“Chanie Wenjack’s story haunts me,” Downie says “His story is Canada’s story. We are not the country we thought we were. History will be re-written. We are all accountable.” Proceeds from the Secret Path project will be donated to The Gord Downie Secret Path Fund for Truth and Reconciliation via the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation at the University of Manitoba.
Then, on December 6, 2016, the Assembly of First Nations honored Downie for his work in the Secret Path Album and the love he showed highlighting the tragic story of the inequality experienced by the indigenous peoples in residential schools.
The Assembly gave a very emotional Gord Downie a star blanket and during a special naming ceremony named him Wicapi Omani “walks with the stars.” He also was presented with a specially-commissioned painting while the Chiefs of Assembly and Prime Minister Trudeau looked on.
Downie was married to Laura Leigh Usher and they have four children, but his private life was carefully kept away from the press. He and Usher separated sometime before Downie’s cancer diagnosis.
Perhaps, in retrospect, a little un-realized foreshadowing came into play when they named their band “The Tragically Hip,” all those years ago. Downie’s stories spoke of noteworthy, Canadian ‘tragic’ events, and the words made us remember.
Perhaps their own story would have been one of ‘The Hip’s’ hit songs, woven by Downie’s poetry and applied to not just his own life, but the five talented men who made up the band. The Tragically Hip have been together for a long time now and when their session ends something vital will be lost. But, Gordon Downie and ‘The Hip’s’ story will also live long in hearts and minds. So in the end, they have saved the best story for last.
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