Home > Current Affairs, Music, Navel-Gazing > Endure the Wonder of Survival: A Legacy of Gord Downie

Endure the Wonder of Survival: A Legacy of Gord Downie

It feels wrong, ghoulish even, to eulogize a man while he is still alive. Still, the painful news that Gord Downie, the singer and lyricist of venerable Canadian rock veterans the Tragically Hip, has been diagnosed with terminal, incurable brain cancer is already being greeted in the Canadian media and across the country’s internet social platforms in much the same way as the recent deaths of much more famous and internationally successful musical figures such as David Bowie and Prince. Although the band announced a final tour this summer and has a new (perhaps final?) album, the rhythmic, ruminative Kevin Drew-produced Man Machine Poem, due out on June 17, the announcement of Downie’s cancer has struck a defined segment of a generation of Canadians with the heavy blow of a final passing.

For these Canadians, and most definitely for me, Gordon Edgar Downie was our Bowie, our Prince. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to speak to what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to its fans, devoted and casual alike, although swellings of emotion at expressions of national sentiment and the poetic language of his lyrics certainly recur (check out The Tragically Hip in Bobcaygeon for the best official documenting of fan sentiment). It’s less difficult, though still far from simple, to summarize what Downie’s words and the Hip’s music means to me. But, to quote Downie, there’s no simple explanation for anything important any of us do.

Like a lot of Canadians coming of age in smaller communities in the 1990s, the Tragically Hip were a notable cultural force where I grew up, an inescapable part of the musical landscape whether or not you liked them. I did like them, though, their muscular but melodically surprising bluesy rock melding with Downie’s enigmatic, sophisticated lyrical imagery woven around national touchstones. The Hip were an important shared interest in my group of friends, and a common reference point for most young people that I grew up with. Albums new and old (the brilliant Phantom Power was and remains a particular favourite), videos and appearances on MuchMusic, and gorddownieconcerts built up a collective mythos around the band, and Downie, as singer, primary songwriter, unpredictable onstage live-wire, and utterer of gnomic observations, was the focal point of that mythos.

The meaning of the art that Downie produced shifted for me over time, taking on different associations at different points in my life. But on balance, Downie’s songs with the Tragically Hip (and to a lesser extent his solo records) are, alongside the golden years of The Simpsons, the single most important artistic influence on my perspective, my writing, and the way I understand the world around me. This is what I mean by saying that he was my David Bowie: just as Bowie represented a unique, offbeat, edgy, or ambiguous ideal for many shaggy outcasts from square society, Downie arose out of and commanded the admiration and fondness of Canada’s earthbound, essentially conservative rural and suburban middle class but also transcends it and sees the best in it, injecting erudition, empathy, and inclusive fellow-feeling into a subculture that could bend towards illiberal tendencies. But he also respects the salt-of-the-earth commitment and care of this class, and does not sneer or talk down to it, even while rubbing elbows with the urban indie elite of the Canadian music scene.

Beyond matters of class and subculture, that interminable shell game of identity formation and position-taking known as “being cool”, Downie was a preternaturally skilled and frequently astounding user of words. It was in this way that he was most inspiring, in his poetic turns of phrase, his indelible imagery, and in the resonant stories he told. The incredible breadth and scope that he could evoke in the space of a 4 or 5-minute rock song could be breathtaking, but he could also move you with intimate snapshots (“You can leave your jewellery in a bowl beside the bed”) and deploy a killer joke with expert timing. He could not only write remarkable words, but sing them, give them to us, with just the right inflection, the tenderly balanced delivery. When his wordcraft combined with his passion for performance, the result could be very special indeed.

Eulogizing Gord Downie now, when he may have years left to leave a mark on the world outside of the rock n’ roll stage, might not feel so incongruous considering how often and how curiously he probed the frightening, tantalizing mysteries of death. Not just in, say, “The Inevitability of Death” (a title chosen, by Downie’s half-ironic admission, to confound the forced cheer of radio DJs) or “Nautical Disaster” (which is more about the haunting spectres of past trauma), but personally, painfully, honestly in ballads like “Fiddler’s Green” (about the death of Downie’s young nephew from a heart ailment) and, a vastly underappreciated favourite of mine, “Toronto #4”. An aching poem written as a tribute to Downie’s dying grandmother set to a drum machine beat, elegiac guitar, and tinkling piano, it’s a song about the sensations and rituals of death, the quiet enormity of our finite lives, and the comfort that the mortal end robs of those left behind. Gord Downie will be with us for some time yet, but he has left us with many stirring epitaphs, none so perfectly poised as this.

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