Remembering the life and legacy of Gord Downie

By Michael Barclay, Macleans

Gord Downie has lost his battle with cancer. The legendary frontman of The Tragically Hip passed away on Oct 17 surrounded by his loved ones.

The Downie family announced the devastating news in a statement on the band's website: "Gord knew this day was coming – 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."

In celebration of his life, Michael Barclay co-author of Have Not Been the Same, and the author ofThe Never-Ending Present: The Story of Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip, penned the following tribute to the Canadian music icon.

For his full essay, visit Macleans.com.

Gordon Edgar Downie was one of the most riveting and mystifying performers in rock’n’roll history. Anyone who managed to catch him fronting the Tragically Hip in 1985, playing covers at a roadhouse in Renfrew, Ont., could tell you that. As could anyone who watched him command 40,000 people at any given outdoor appearance during the 1990s, singing songs that were summer soundtracks for an entire generation. Video clips don’t do justice to the energy in the room generated by a performer who communicated more with a flick of the finger than anyone else’s high kicks. That’s what even newcomers discovered during the CBC broadcast of the Tragically Hip’s final show on Aug. 20, 2016, six months after Downie was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. It was a Terry Fox story with a twist: a story where the protagonist completes his goal before the disease gets the better of him.

Downie was born on Feb. 6, 1964, in Amherstview, Ont., just slightly west of Kingston, to Lorna and Edgar, a travelling salesman turned real estate developer. Downie was the fourth of five children: older siblings Mike, Charlyn and Paula, and younger brother Patrick.

Downie joined a punk band called the Slinks; their friendly competitors at the school were a Grade 13 group called the Rodents, featuring bassist Gord Sinclair and guitarist Robbie Baker. A young drummer in Grade 9, Johnny Fay, watched with interest. Four of those five young men played their first gig as the Tragically Hip in November 1984, in a small white room at the Kingston Artists Association. Paul Langlois, the son of the school's gym teacher and football coach who Downie befriended in Grade 11, wouldn’t join until a year later; by that time, Downie was studying film at Queen’s (“mostly, I learned how to drink,” he said of his time there).

In the band’s first three years, they played ’60s cover songs by the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison’s Them, Otis Redding, Marvin Gaye and the Monkees. Downie’s on-stage improvisations were a principal part of the band’s appeal from day one, though he was not yet a lyricist. As original material slowly seeped its way into the set, it was the other Gord, Sinclair, who wrote most of the lyrics. It wasn’t until the 1991 release of the band’s second album, Road Apples, that Downie seized the lyrical reins entirely.

Last night Gord quietly passed away with his beloved children and family close by. Gord knew this day was coming - 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. We would like to thank all the kind folks at KGH and Sunnybrook, Gord’s bandmates, management team, friends and fans. Thank you for all the help and support over the past two years. Thank you everyone for all the respect, admiration and love you have given Gord throughout the years – those tender offerings touched his heart and he takes them with him now as he walks among the stars. Love you forever Gord. The Downie Family

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The Tragically Hip released their first EP in December 1987; a year after that, they headed down to Memphis to record 1989’s Up to Here—which would become one of two Hip albums to eventually sell more than a million copies in Canada. They tapped into rock’n’roll’s primal energy in ways that had been largely forgotten by the late ’80s: they were a dressed-down, no-frills roadhouse bar band whose videos were rejected by MTV, a band whose sound was far removed from the era’s pop stars, stadium rock, hair metal, aging Boomers, newer bluesy bands—even from alternative icons like R.E.M. or somewhat similarly minded mainstream artists like John Mellencamp. They were too traditional and aspirational to be punk or “alternative,” and yet they were raw enough that they immediately stood out on any mainstream radio playlist. But neither video nor radio was responsible for the band’s rapid ascent: it was their live performances, where Downie’s unusual charisma electrified everyone who piled into either biker bars or student pubs to see them.

Everyone whose family has ever been cursed with cancer projected stories onto the tale of a man who chose to stare down a terminal diagnosis and take the show on the road. It was a move unprecedented in music history: this was not a suicide, like with Kurt Cobain; this was not an addict flaming out in public, as Amy Winehouse did; this was not an artist whose later work showed clear signs of physical decline, like Johnny Cash; this was not someone who was going to disappear quietly, like David Bowie, who left us to wrestle with his final artistic statements posthumously. This was a man inviting us to his own wake. Everyone was prepared for the funeral at any moment. Some Canadians, being a cautious bunch, flew from Ontario to B.C. to catch the first shows of the tour, just in case he didn’t make it home.

But he did, at the final Tragically Hip show at the K-Rock Centre in Kingston on Aug. 20—broadcast live on the CBC to an estimated 11.7 million viewers, with 20,000 people from across the continent assembled in Kingston’s Springer Market Square to celebrate.

On that summer night in Kingston, the set list dipped back to the Hip’s first hit single, “Blow at High Dough,” the one that opens with the line: “They shot a movie once, in my hometown.” His movie, our hometowns: Downie’s lyrics imbued Canada’s music scene with mystery and magic and presented it, poetically, to a wide mainstream audience. That song also features a line that sums up the way Gord Downie and his teenage friends built their career from the outset of its ascendancy: “Sometimes the faster it gets, the less you need to know / but you gotta remember, the smarter it gets, the further it’s going to go.”

Do the work. Create the spark. When he finished, Gord Downie left an eternal flame.

“Those who mourn are blessed

Those who mourn can love

And make music of their language

Just to hear the sound again.”

– Gord Downie, “Pinned,” 2010

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