News, Opinion

513 Ways to Say Goodbye

Gord Downie announced that he had terminal brain cancer on May 24th 2016, and passed away on October 18th 2017, 513 days later.

He knew from the start that he wasn’t going to make it; he had glioblastoma, the most aggressive kind of cancer originating in the brain. Fewer than 3% of people with glioblastoma survive more than five years, with the average life expectancy being about 14 months. Gord passed away in his home surrounded by those he loved, which is all that a person can really hope for in the end. Gord also knew that he had millions of people across the country thinking of him.

Downie grew up in and around Kingston, Ontario, playing hockey with his brothers and meeting the friends who would go on to become his Tragically Hip band mates. Downie was an avid hockey fan and player his whole life. During his first year of minor hockey he played defense, and his team had a great year but lost in their championship game. Gord thought that the goalie had let them down and told his brothers that next year he’d be tending net, which they thought was all talk. Gord finished the next season with 17 shutouts and a championship trophy. Although he was a Canadian, Downie had a strong connection to the Boston Bruins; his godfather Harry Sinden was a long time member of the organization.

The same mentality that Gord brought to his minor hockey career was evident everywhere throughout his career. He recorded 14 studio albums with the Tragically Hip, 5 solo albums, and an album in collaboration with The Sadies. Along the way Gord’s name became synonymous with Canadiana.

The Hip formed in 1984 and became a force to be reckoned with in the Canadian music scene. In 1989 The Hip release Up To Here, their first full length record, and the single “New Orleans is Sinking” won them their first of 16 Juno Awards. The following year they won the Juno Award for Best New Group.

Up To Here features one of my favourite Tragically Hip songs, “Blow at High Dough”. I think that my first real exposure to this song, and The Hip in general, came from the CBC sitcom Made In Canada, which used “Blow at High Dough” as its theme song.

Despite the success The Hip found in Canada they never really made it big outside of our borders, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. They were a little late to the classic rock scene, and not quite alternative enough to fit into the grunge mentality of the American 90’s. After that the timing still didn’t really work out. Right now, straight-down-the-middle rock and roll isn’t a hit with American audiences; they prefer more indie style rock. Rick Mercer once stated that he thought this might be because whenever The Hip did tour outside of Canada, that only Canadians could get tickets. Canadians living elsewhere would drive hundreds of miles to see The Hip in Texas or California.

One of the Hip’s highest profile appearances in the US was on Saturday Night Live in 1995. This appearance was made possible by Kingston-area native Dan Aykroyd, who was part of the original Saturday Night Live cast.

The Hip are hard to really pair down stylistically. Up To Here and their sophomore follow up Road Apples both have a very blues rock feel to them, which transitions to a more straight forward alt rock feel in 1992’s Fully Completely. This album both feels larger and smaller at the same time, which is likely a combination of the band having more time to rehearse the songs beforehand, a different recording technique, and a new producer. Fully Completely is my favourite Hip album, featuring classics like “Fully Completely”, “Fifty-Mission Cap”, and “Locked In The Truck of A Car”. Their next album, Day for Night, balances alt rock and pop rock nicely and features a lot of Downie’s best lyrics.

The Tragically Hip also slowly ingrained themselves in Canadian pop culture over their whole career. I mentioned before that “Blow at High Dough” was featured in one CBC sitcom, but the band made a cameo in another. One episode of Corner Gas features the band practicing in the main character’s garage. Other CBC shows, like Anne and This Hour Has 22 Minutes, make use of the Tragically Hip’s music. In 1999 the Hip played the first concert at the Air Canada Centre, only two days after the first NHL game was played there.

Downie is one of the few singers who can sing about Canada without sounding cliché. He references hockey players, politicians, towns, cities, and even lakes without sounding absurd. This is probably because he’s simply seen it all. The Hip have played every major city in Canada many times. Downie even played a show at the Attawapiskat First Nation, an isolated community in Northern Ontario.

Downie also invested a lot of time and effort trying to make Canada a better place. He worked for many years with an environmental group out of Toronto trying to keep Lake Ontario clean, helping with fundraisers and raising awareness.

Downie’s work with indigenous affairs is also apparent in his music. His 2016 solo album The Secret Path is a concept album based on the story of Chanie Wenjack. Wenjack, a young aboriginal boy, died in 1966 while trying to escape from a residential school. This album has been acclaimed for both its music and its message. Downie won two Juno Awards, and was honoured with an eagle feather, a symbol of the creator above, by the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Perry Bellegarde. A live concert of this album was released earlier this month by the CBC and is available on their YouTube channel. This was also the last album featuring Downie to be released during his lifetime.

Looking back to last year, the day after Downie announced his illness The Hip announced a cross-Canada tour in support of Man Machine Poem, their most recent album. This tour sold out in minutes, which has actually prompted members of provincial parliament to bring motions about scalper bots to the table. While no one actually said that this would be the last tour by The Tragically Hip, everyone knew it. A few weeks later the CBC announced that it would be broadcasting and streaming for free the final concert of the tour live from Kingston. Officially the statistics state that one third of Canadians watched this, but that doesn’t account for those watching at parties, in bars and pubs, or in town square style events. Unofficially around half of Canadians watched the broadcast. This is almost comparable to the 2010 Olympic Gold Medal Hockey Game, which is the most watched television broadcast in Canadian history.

Early in 2017 Gord went through his final recording sessions for the solo album that would become Introduce Yerself. This album was release just a few days after Downie’s death, and features 23 songs, each about a different person in Gord’s life. The recording sessions for this album were very short, with most of the tracks being laid down in a single take. I really like the first track off the album, “First Person”.

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