On August 18, 2016 I cried my eyes out with 20,000 other fans of the Tragically Hip in Ottawa. We thought it would be Gord’s and the boys last kick at the can. He had told us his time was limited, but somehow, we all denied it to ourselves.
Signing along was a cathartic release of grief that this was the last time we could do this.
Gordon Edgar Downie was on born on February 6, 1964 in Amherstview, Ontario. He grew up in Kingston, where he met his fellow bandmates, Rob Baker, Johnny Fay, Davis Manning, and Gord Sinclair, with Manning leaving in 1986 and Paul Langlois joining.
Through almost four-decades, the Tragically Hip created music that formed a Canadian identity.
Their discographies tell a story of what it means it grow up in a country where it seems like everyone comes from a small town no matter where you grew up. Their lyrics speak to the geography of our nation, the idioms of our people, but what touched so many I believe is the vulnerability in Gord’s lyrics.
The Hip were a rock band. They had heavy bass rifts, and guitar solos. But their lyrics showed that we don’t always know what we’re doing. We can be hurting, we can be lost, we can be struggling to come to terms with who we are, and who our friends ended up being.
Gord Downie was a rockstar who would cry on stage, kiss his friends on the lips, and rhapsodize about love and peace. Downie saw society’s toxic masculinity and took a peaceful stance against it.
Their songs became coming-of-age anthems for the country.
The last album the Hip released was Man Machine Poem on June 17, 2016. Ballads like In a World Possessed by the Human Mind became hits, and had a feel to them that the band was expanding their sound. Building on what fans had always loved, but adding in new techniques.
That album was released almost a month after Downie announced his cancer diagnosis. By that fall, he wasn’t letting his diagnosis stop him from advocating for fair treatment of Indigenous peoples in Canada, and calling on our Prime Minister to do so.
Downie worked with the family of Charlie Wenjack to make the tragedy and injustices of the residential schooling system become a focus in popular media. He wrote an entire studio album titled Secret Path, and then went on to perform the album accompanied with an animated film of the same name.
We grew too comfortable with Gord being around after his diagnosis, always talking about his next project. We forgot his illness.
I have no doubt in mind that songs like Ahead by a Century, Bobycageon, and Wheat Kings will live on for decades through radio-play and cover bands at your local pub. For me, the Hip will always be Canada’s official rock band.
We’ll miss you, Gord.