The news hit us like a bomb. On May 24, 2016, we learned that Gord Downie, lead singer and lyricist for the Tragically Hip, had incurable brain cancer. When he passed away on October 17, 2017 at the age of 53, a nation came together to mourn our loss. Enough tears fell to create a sixth Great Lake, immense and deep.
The impact of the Tragically Hip’s music on Canadians is also, like that Great Lake of Tears, immense and deep: Nine No. 1 albums, seven No. 1 singles, 13 Top 10 singles and 16 JUNO Awards. The CBC broadcast of the band’s final hometown Kingston concert on their Man Machine Poem tour, on August 20, 2016, what many felt certain to be their farewell tour, was viewed by more than 11 million Canadians – about one-third of the population.
On that night, I was among the capacity crowd at the Legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto, watching the swan song concert on the bar’s TV screens. After the band played their last note and the members took their bows, Gord Downie remained alone on stage, saying goodbye. A few feet to my right there was a woman with her hands to her mouth, her eyes brimming. She was not alone. All across the country, we were all floating in that Great Lake of Tears.
The Tragically Hip, with Downie as their poet, wrote songs that tapped into the soul of a nation. How? By following the old adage: write what you know, write who you are. By doing that, many of the Hip’s songs achieved cultural iconic status in Canada; the campfire song seal of approval. “Bobcaygeon,” “Wheat Kings,” “38 Years Old,” “At the Hundredth Meridian,” “Ahead by a Century,” “Fifty-Mission Cap,” “New Orleans is Sinking,” to name a few.
The best songwriting connects us to something. It lets us know we’re not alone in experiencing life’s ups and downs. The music of Gord Downie and the Hip connects us to ourselves, not only as human beings, but also more specifically to ourselves as Canadians. While eschewing easy jingoism or flag-draped nationalism, they told stories about us and the places we live – joyous and painful, epic and esoteric, mountainous-magnificent and small-town weird.
Though Downie’s lyrics were often oblique and cryptic, there’s something to be said about the places he took us. We’re locked in the trunk of a car. We’re plunging over the falls in a barrel. We’re in a club watching a stripper collapse in a coughing fit. We’re privy to a confession from the survivor of a nautical disaster. Tragically Hip songs introduce us to some fascinating and extraordinary viewpoints.
Downie’s lyrics often plumbed certain kinds of experiences – visceral and furtive – and re-cast them with poetic aplomb. Spitting from a bridge just to see how far down it really is (“Cordelia”) or the “dangerous tug” we feel when looking over the edge from on high (“Gift Shop”). But they could also be shrewdly poignant (“Well, she was nineteen seventy / Burning like a cigarette long season”). And consider one of the band’s most beloved songs, “Ahead by a Century,” where Downie’s lyrics play with time and tense in an almost cubist way; past, present and future overlapping like images emerging through thin veils of wax paper.
Poetry is a way of seeing. It’s clear from his writing, and even from the way he spoke, that Downie saw the world through a poet’s eyes. (In addition to penning literate song lyrics, Downie was, of course, a published poet – having released a best-selling collection of verse, Coke Machine Glow, in 2001).
He said in a 2012 appearance on CBC’s Q, “I’m interested in how the words make me feel, and trying to capture them in a certain way, and not screw with them too much; not let my intellect diminish the creative power.” So even if his lyrics could be enigmatic, there was a feeling that came through. The language, the imagery – whatever it means – speaks to us.
“Music brings people together. So my function in anything I do is to help bring people closer in.”– Gord Downie, to The Winnipeg Free Press, May 31, 2016
In the final year of his life, when he knew his time in this world was coming to a close, Gord Downie chose to keep making music. It’s the kind of music projects he chose that speaks to the measure of the man.
When the sun rose on the day after that final Hip concert in Kingston, he began working on Secret Path, a project that encompassed an album, a graphic novel (with Jeff Lemire) and a film, all about the true story of a 12-year old Ojibwe boy named Chanie Wenjack, who died of exposure while trying to walk back to his home after fleeing his mistreatment at a residential school in northern Ontario in 1966. Downie created music that told a story of the pain our Indigenous brothers and sisters suffered in the residential school system; the work, the music, in the service of reconciliation.
His final project, completed before his passing and released posthumously this past October, was a solo album called Introduce Yerself, a collection of songs, each addressing a specific person that has meant something to him. Here was Downie once again honouring the connections and the love in his life.
“Music is…a popular rallying point – at its central core, it’s a way for people to get in touch with the best parts of themselves and to voice the love in their hearts.” – Gord Downie, to Bullfrog Power
At its best, this is what music does – it connects, re-calibrates and reconciles. It moves us – quite literally. It shifts us from one place, one thought, one feeling, one perspective – to another. It moves us closer to our better selves, towards our most human and feeling selves, even if just for the duration of the song. The work then becomes ours, to take in that feeling and hold it, to carry it forward. It’s another kind of reconciliation: to reconcile our everyday selves with that better self we find in song and art – to cultivate the best parts of ourselves and incorporate them more and more into our daily living.
Gord, your music is part of us. You are part of us. Your songs help us celebrate our best times and face our hardest paths. We will continue to sing your words and dance that crazy dance with you, through the mysteries of what we mean to each other – and we’ll do it together, because your music brings us closer in, helping us to reconcile who we want to be and who we are.