Right until the end, Gord Downie never looked back.
We already knew how this song was going to end. Still, when the news broke on Wednesday morning and the country gasped, the heartache we felt last year after learning about his terminal brain cancer came rushing back.
And this time it won’t go away.
Stolen from us at the age of 53, Downie is leaving when we need him most. Who will write the songs that cross generations and slice across geography? Who will be our poet laureate and history professor, our spirited raconteur and unflinching critic, our tour guide to the past and cultural voyager of the future?
Even after the diagnosis of glioblastoma, an aggressive cancer that often leaves no margin of hope, Downie did not retreat to the shadows. There was no hint of self-pity. If anything, the frontman for the Tragically Hip shifted into overdrive as he led his beloved band on a final tour in 2016, filling stadiums and moistening eyes as the country started the grim ritual of mourning what we had not yet lost.
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Downie was dealt the cruellest of hands. And he doubled down on living.
“Gord knew this day was coming,” his family said in a statement on Wednesday. “His response was to spend this precious time as he always had — making music, making memories and expressing deep gratitude to his family and friends for a life well lived, often sealing it with a kiss . . . on the lips.
“Gord said he had lived many lives. As a musician, he lived ‘the life’ for over 30 years, lucky to do most of it with his high school buddies. At home, he worked just as tirelessly at being a good father, son, brother, husband and friend. No one worked harder on every part of their life than Gord. No one.”
What’s amazing about these many lives, and the hard work he devoted to each, is the lack of compromise that defined them all. He was told the end is near and he somehow found new beginnings. In the darkness, he found ways to keep creating in the light, to keep on loving and, ultimately, keep on giving.
We should all be blessed with such grace, drive and selfless resolve.
It was like Downie had discovered a kink in the space-time continuum and was operating at full speed for 60 hours per day. It was like he was determined to keep serving as a unifying force while nudging Canada in the right direction.
His new solo album, Introduce Yerself, comes out on Oct. 27. On Sunday, at 9 p.m., the CBC will air the broadcast premiere of Gord Downie’s Secret Path in Concert, which was filmed last fall at Roy Thomson Hall and is a project that “acknowledges a dark part of Canada’s history — the long-suppressed mistreatment of Indigenous children and families by the residential school system — with the hope of starting a national conversation and furthering reconciliation.”
On the most primal level, the loss of Downie the Musician hurts because of what the Hip represented for more than three decades. This was a band that scored the sound track to thousands of lives as a generation came of age.
Regardless of who you were and where you were growing up, the Hip was there when called upon. Their music filled our days and nights. And as if by sonic osmosis, all these years later, even non-fans can hum more Hip songs than they might suspect.
This is why their best-known tracks — including “New Orleans is Sinking,” “Bobcaygeon,” “Blow at High Dough,” “Courage,” “Ahead by a Century,” “Fifty-Mission Cap,” “At the Hundredth Meridian” — can now feel more like nostalgia than music. That inimitable voice will forever be a gateway to the past.
Downie’s songs are, in the end, our memories.
But on an intellectual level, the loss of Downie the Conscience may prove to be the bigger forfeiture. Secret Path started as a collection of 10 poems inspired by the 1966 death of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, an Indigenous boy who succumbed to exposure after trying to escape on foot from the Cecilia Jeffrey Indian Residential School to find his family.
Downie has crusaded for reconciliation and, along the way, challenged Canada to do more. In the pantheon of popular music today, there is no natural heir apparent, at least not anyone who had the influence and power of Downie.
His convictions flowed from ideas, and not the other way around.
His sense of nationalism, often misunderstood, was rooted in equality.
But at this time of mourning, when our grief feels like looping power-chords, let us just do what Downie never did, which is look back.
Thank you, Gord, for the songs, the albums and the memories. Thank you for the cryptic lyrics and the madcap performances. Thank you for the crazy dancing and the vivid poetry. Thank you for always wanting to live in a better country and for always wanting that country to be Canada.